How the Corvair’s rise and fall changed America forever

By Paul Ingrassia
May 9, 2012

This is an excerpt from Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, published this month by Simon & Schuster.

However it unfolds, this year’s U.S. presidential election is unlikely to be as close as the one America experienced in 2000. That election was decided, after months of contention and suspense, by disputed ballots and a razor-thin result in Florida.

The historic events, however, were set in motion 40 years earlier by a badly flawed automobile, the Chevrolet Corvair. In the mid-1960s the Corvair made Ralph Nader famous. It also made lawyers ubiquitous, thereby making lawsuits one of the great growth industries of the late 20th Century. And decades after its demise, in the election of 2000, the Corvair’s legacy improbably helped to put George W. Bush in the White House. The car’s story is one of genius, hubris, irony and tragedy, not to mention unforeseen long-term effects on American life and thought.

The Corvair debuted as a 1960 model as one of the first American “compact cars.” (The term was coined by American Motors Chairman George Romney, later Michigan’s governor and father of current presidential candidate Mitt Romney.) The car was “the most profoundly revolutionary car … ever offered by a major manufacturer,” wrote Sports Car Illustrated when the Corvair was launched. It was the brainchild of a brilliant and uber-confident General Motors engineer, Edward N. Cole.

(View a slideshow of the fifteen cars that changed America here or click on the photo above)

Cole grew up in a small Michigan town, where he learned to tune old automobiles fast enough to outrun any other cars in the county. He attended the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., alternating study with internships at GM. After graduation he helped GM’s Cadillac division win a big Army tank contract by boosting the performance and reliability of the tank’s engine.

After the war he developed an experimental rear-engine car aimed at heading off entrepreneur Preston Tucker. Dubbed the “Cadiback,” Cole’s creation could cut through the ice and snow of a Michigan winter while his neighbors – driving conventional front-engine, rear-drive cars – skidded into ditches. But when Tucker’s venture collapsed, Cadillac dropped the project.

In 1953, with Chevrolet’s competitive position falling, Cole was named the division’s chief engineer. He developed a new “small block” V-8 engine, introduced in 1955, that overpowered the competition, sending Chevy surging further ahead of Chrysler and Ford. A year later, at age 46, the hard-charging executive landed the top job at Chevy, becoming the youngest person ever to run the world’s biggest automotive nameplate.

“Cole tears through GM’s corridors like Patton went through southern Germany,” wrote True: the Man’s Magazine. “Stenotypists who must keep track of his off-the-cuff remarks at press conference often run paragraphs behind. He claims to fish for relaxation, but associates say very few fish have been quick enough to nab his hook.” Indeed, Cole ordered the escalators in Chevy’s engineering center speeded up by 30%. The engineers called them “Cole’s turnpikes.”

All throughout, however, Cole never lost his fascination with rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive cars like the Cadiback. That was the same design, on a smaller scale, of the Volkswagen Beetle, which by the mid-1950s was selling well enough to command Detroit’s attention.

Putting the engine over a car’s rear-drive wheels boosted traction in wet weather. It also eliminated the need for a heavy drive shaft to connect the engine in front with the wheels in back. Air-cooling saved added weight by eliminating the radiator, with its liquid coolant.

Cole started exploring the concept at Chevrolet, but secretly. He buried the development work in various budgets for fear that GM’s conservative corporate brass would kill the car. Only in the spring of 1957, with the development work nearly done, did Cole inform GM’s CEO, Harlow “Red” Curtice.

The boss gave Cole a two-hour grilling. Was there really a market for this car? Could GM procure enough aluminum to manufacture the lightweight engine? Yes to both, Cole answered. Another question was whether the new car would cannibalize GM’s highly profitable bigger cars. “If we don’t build this car, Red, someone else will,” Cole replied.

In January 1958, with corporate approval in hand, Cole himself tore around a GM test track in a prototype Corvair with GM board members watching. “Two things were solidly apparent,” reported True. “Chevrolet had one helluva new car in the Corvair, and one helluva leader in Ed Cole.”

Development continued over the next 20 months in a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere. Both Ford and Chrysler, impressed with Romney’s compact Ramblers, were developing their own compact cars, although with conventional front-engine, rear-drive designs.

To dispel rumors of the Corvair’s design, one Chevy executive, with a reporter sitting in his office, placed a fake call to Australia, to discuss supposed plans for a GM rear-engine car there. In October 1959 the Corvair was ready for launch as a 1960 model. It would be, in effect, a Beetle for Americans, offering the same traction and weight advantages of a rear-mounted engine but with room enough for six.

*                        *                       *

“Our cities have been straining at their seams. Traffic is jampacked. People are living farther from their work, driving more miles on crowded streets.” The words could be from a Toyota Prius advertisement in 2012. Instead they appeared in a two-page advertisement that Chevrolet ran in newspapers across America in late 1959. The ad touted a vehicle “unlike any car we or anybody else ever built – the revolutionary Corvair, with the engine in the rear, where it belongs in a compact car.” The Corvair could get 29 miles a gallon, double the mileage of most cars of the day.

The Corvair landed Cole on the cover of Time. “To Chevrolet’s folksy, brilliant General Manager, Edward N. Cole, 50, the new car marks the fulfillment of a 15-year dream,” the magazine wrote. “Says Ed Cole jubilantly: ‘If I felt any better about our Chevy Corvair, I think I’d blow up.’” It would be hard to top those words for irony, as events turned out.

From the beginning, concerns about the Corvair’s stability were being aired. Critics contended the car’s heavy rear weight “exerts a spin-out force similar to that on the end ice skater in a crack-the-whip line,” wrote the Saturday Evening Post within a week of the Corvair’s debut. The vivid imagery didn’t take an engineering degree to understand.

The Corvair originally was intended to have a front-rear weight distribution of 40% to 60%. But the rear suspension came in heavier than planned, and some engine parts intended to be aluminum were made from cast iron. Thus the car’s actual front-rear weight distribution was 38-62.  The difference seemed small, but it wasn’t.

Cole and Chevrolet, however, weren’t letting critics get in their way. In April 1960 Cole sent a Corvair to climb the icy slopes of Pikes Peak without snow tires or chains. After that success, Chevy’s marketers sent three Corvairs on a 6,000 mile run from Chicago to Panama that they dubbed “Operation Americas.” The Corvairs “pounded out the miles over every conceivable kind of road. Rutted. Rocky. Dust-choked. Twisting. Rain-swept,” crowed a Chevy sales brochure. No adjective was left behind. Another brochure called the Corvair “more sure-footed than a polo pony.” In 1961, GM sold nearly 330,000 Corvairs.

But the car wasn’t sure-footed, as some drivers tragically proved. On January 12, 1962, at around 1:30 a.m. in Los Angeles, television comedian Ernie Kovacs was driving his new Corvair station wagon home after a party. Kovacs was following his wife, singer Edie Adams, who was driving home in the couple’s Rolls-Royce. When Kovacs turned left onto Santa Monica Boulevard, the car spun out on the rain-slickened street and slammed sideways into a steel utility pole. His broken ribs ruptured his aorta, killing Kovacs at age forty-two. He became the most famous victim in a list of Corvair accidents that was quietly but steadily growing.

The injuries and fatalities were garnering the attention of a young, unknown Washington lawyer named Ralph Nader. Nader had grown up in Winsted, Conn., where his Lebanese immigrant parents owned a restaurant, the Highland Arms. He was given to reading the dry and windy Congressional Record while the other kids read the Hardy Boys. He showed no interest in high school social life, but his academic record was outstanding.

After graduating from Princeton, Phi Beta Kappa, in 1955, he went on to Harvard Law School. He was mostly a bored, indifferent student, but in his third and final year he wrote a paper titled “Negligent Automobile Design and the Law.” The subject captivated him.

Following a short military stint and four years of law practice in Connecticut and Massachusetts, he moved to Washington in 1965 to work for the Labor Department. He lived an ascetic lifestyle, paying rent of just $80 a month at a rooming house. He didn’t even have a television, the medium that soon would make him famous.

On the side he wrote occasional articles about auto safety for The New Republic, and a letter from a disgruntled GM worker brought the Corvair to his attention. He started doing volunteer work for the Senate’s Executive Reorganization Subcommittee, chaired by Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut. Because auto safety fell under a slew of senatorial jurisdictions, Ribicoff’s subcommittee took the lead on the issue.

In November 1965 his book Unsafe at Any Speed was published by a fledgling New York publishing house, Grossman Publishers. “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people,” the preface began. This might have been news to the many farmers who had been liberated from rural peasantry by the Model T Ford in the early 20th Century. And only the first chapter was about the Corvair. But Nader penned a sweeping indictment of car companies and their neglect, as he saw it, for the safety of the motoring public.

Nader described the plight of Mrs. Rose Pierini of Santa Barbara, California, whose left arm was severed in September 1961 when her Corvair, traveling at only 35 miles an hour, overturned. Three years later, Nader recounted, “General Motors decided to pay Mrs. Pierini $70,000 rather than continue a trial which … threatened to expose … one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in this century.”

His language could be impenetrable in places. He described how the Corvair’s “rear wheel is mounted on a control arm which hinges and pivots on an axis at the inboard end of the arm near the center of the vehicle.” But mostly Nader was clear and compelling. “The Corvair was a tragedy, not a blunder,” he wrote. And he explained how GM had belatedly improved the stability of the 1964 Corvettes by adding a stabilizer bar under the car’s front end to improve the front-rear weight imbalance – an admission, in Nader’s view, of the car’s inherent design flaw.

By time the book was published, GM faced 106 Corvair liability lawsuits around the country, and Nader’s name had surfaced in several as an expert witness. GM’s legal department wanted to know more about him. It hired a Washington law firm which, in turn, retained a New York detective agency run by a former FBI agent named Vincent Gillen.

“Our job is to … determine ‘what makes him tick,’” Gillen wrote in a memo to his operatives, “such as his real interest in safety, his supporters, if any, his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs – in all facets of his life.”

In January 1966, Nader noticed he was being trailed. One evening, at a drugstore near his rooming house, an attractive young woman asked him to come to her apartment to discuss “foreign affairs.” He also started getting late-night phone calls.

Nader recounted these events to The New Republic, which wrote about them. The New York Times followed with an article on March 6, headlined: “Critic of Auto Industry’s Safety Standards Says He Was Trailed and Harassed.”

Ford’s PR department issued a statement denying any involvement. GM President James Roche asked his PR staff to issue a similar statement. Then he learned, to his chagrin, that General Motors indeed was involved. So GM issued a statement acknowledging “a routine investigation by a reputable law firm to determine whether Ralph Nader was acting on behalf of litigants or their attorneys in Corvair design cases … It did not include any of the alleged harassment or intimidation recently reported in the press.”

Hell broke loose. The next day Roche received an “invitation” to testify before a public hearing of the Ribicoff subcommittee. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse. The hearing on March 22 was held before whirring television cameras. When Detective Gillen insisted that the questions about Nader’s personal life were simply “in fairness to Ralph,” Senator Robert Kennedy, a member of the committee, snapped: “What the hell is fairness to Ralph? You have to keep proving he’s not queer and he’s not anti-Semitic?”

Roche denied any attempt by GM to discredit Nader, but told the subcommittee: “I want to apologize here and now.” Nader wasn’t there to hear the apology. The man who didn’t own a car arrived at the hearing late because he had trouble hailing a cab. “I almost felt like going out and buying a Chevrolet,” he cracked when he arrived.

*                        *                       *

The hearing caused a sensation. Unsafe at Any Speed, which had been languishing, surged onto the bestseller list. The 32-year-old lawyer went from nobody to celebrity overnight. He was invited to address the British parliament in London, and after that the Swedish parliament in Stockholm.

That November 1966 Nader sued General Motors for invasion of privacy, seeking $26 million, according to GM, or $12 million, according to Nader. The company and the crusader couldn’t even agree on the amount.

That year also brought the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, with stringent new regulations on automobile design. The government’s new regulatory zeal wasn’t limited to cars. In 1967 Congress followed with laws slapping safety regulations on natural gas pipelines, medical X-rays and poultry processing. The press credited Nader with all of it.

Corvair sales plunged 50% in 1966 and another 75% in 1967, to just 27,000 cars. That same year Ed Cole, who had little use for Nader but was appalled by the company’s spying, was named GM’s president. Jim Roche got the company’s only higher job: chairman and CEO.

On December 12, 1969, ten years after Ed Cole and his Corvair made the cover of Time, Nader made the cover himself. “To many Americans, Nader, at 35, has become something of a folk hero,” Time wrote, “a symbol of constructive protest against the status quo.”

Protest, constructive or otherwise, was becoming common in the late 1960s. A decade earlier Americans had trusted, by and large, government officials, clergy, educators, and corporate executives. But that was before Vietnam, urban riots, campus unrest, and before the Chevy Corvair. Mistrust of authority became the new ambient attitude.

Nader settled his suit against GM for $425,000 in 1970, and used the money to fund his budding network of “Public Interest Research Groups” to fund investigations of companies, governments and other targets. The era of the NGO, powerful and well-funded nongovernmental organizations, was born.

Ironically, in June 1972 a government panel officially exonerated the Corvair. A furious Nader condemned the report as a whitewash. But though he had lost the legal battle, Nader had won the war in every conceivable sense.

Cole, by then, was fighting another battle, championing the use of catalytic converters and lead-free gasoline to reduce harmful exhaust emissions from cars. He successfully bucked opposition from oil companies, automakers (even within GM itself) and the Nixon administration. From the mid-1970s onward, catalytic converters were installed as standard equipment on cars.

But Cole would be remembered as the “father of the Corvair” instead of as the “father of clean air.” In October 1974, after retiring from GM, he debated Nader on television’s Phil Donahue show. When Nader derided factory work as inhuman, an irritated Cole snapped, “IT ISN’T INHUMAN.” But afterwards Nader shook Cole’s hand and said, “You got the lead out of gasoline. Now how about getting the lead out of GM?” In May 1977 Cole died in a crash while piloting his own small plane.

For decades, product-liability lawsuits had been a tangential presence in American law and business. To collect damages, a plaintiff had to prove that a manufacturing defect caused a product flaw that, in turn, caused harm. It was a narrow definition of what was defective. The Corvair changed that.

In the mid-1960s, courts started accepting proof of inherent design defects, like the Corvair’s heavy rear end, as reason enough for plaintiffs to prevail. With damages easier to collect, liability lawsuits soared. America witnessed a “collision of two sets of cultures,” Marshall Shapo, a Northwestern University law professor, would write. “What may be called a justice culture and a market culture.” The pendulum has swung back a bit in recent years, but not to where it was before the Chevy Corvair.

The car remains popular today among enthusiast collectors, many of whom are members of CORSA, the Corvair Society of America. Some members display their view of Ralph Nader on the license plates of their lovingly restored cars, plates that say “RALPH WHO.” Or “F RALPH.” Or simply but cleverly, “NADIR.”

These people likely didn’t vote for Ralph Nader when he ran for president, at age sixty-six, in the year 2000. He got 95,000 votes in the state of Florida, which George W. Bush won by about 1,800 votes, a tissue-thin victory upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court .

Had Nader not been on the ballot, Gore surely would have gotten most of his votes. And had it not been for the Corvair, Nader wouldn’t have been on the ballot. Thirty years after its demise, Ed Cole’s flawed car was still shaping American life. It can safely be said, at any speed, that the Chevy Corvair’s legacy helped make George W. Bush president of the United States.


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