Halting the Corvair made America safer
This is a response to an excerpt from Paul Ingrassia’s Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars, published this month by Simon & Schuster.
The causal stretch by Paul Ingrassia over three decades and millions of intervening human events leads him to conclude that “decades after its demise, in the election of 2000, the Corvair’s legacy improbably helped to put George W. Bush in the White House.”
Egads! – as the British say. His otherworldly trek through American history reminds me of Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect,” in which the trail of a tornado is traced all the way back to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings thousands of miles distant. It is one thing to lament the deadly, dancing design of the Corvair until the 1965 model, when the stabilizing, dual-link suspension system was finally installed; it is quite another to burden this automotive offspring of GM’s Ed Cole with the lawless, corporatist, war-starting, anti-democratic Bush regime selected by five Supreme Court justices-turned-Republican politicians in their 5-4 dictate of Bush v. Gore.
The Corvair was an attractive but lethal car. The government-sponsored taskforce, under President Richard Nixon, shaped by a former GM man, could not whitewash the Corvair’s role in the avoidable deaths and injuries of so many unsuspecting motorists. The novel Corvair, with its air-cooled rear engine was widely disliked by auto dealers, but for the wrong reasons. As the famous John DeLorean (former GM vice-president and author of On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors) related, inside the company it was common knowledge that on certain turns the Corvair became unstable. This loss of control even led to the deaths of some children of GM executives. GM also designed the leading edge of the steering mechanism just two inches from the surface of the front tire, thereby exposing the driver to the rearward displacement of the steering column, especially in a left-front collision. Moreover, as GM admitted in a belated public recall, Corvairs emitted a risky amount of odorless carbon monoxide from their heater exchange system during cold weather.
The tragic saga of the Corvair and its victims did, as Ingrassia points out, produce consequences, but only as part of broader revelations regarding the industry suppression of long-known safety devices now taken for granted by car owners.
Today people expect air bags, seat belts, padded dash panels, head-restraints, better brakes, steady vehicle handling and overall crash protection. Auto companies now boast about their vehicles’ safety in their advertisements. Consumers expect their cars to be recalled and fixed when there is a defect attributed to the manufacturer.
Federal auto and highway safety regulation, still too intermittent in my view, has worked to save over a million American lives while helping to diminish or prevent many more injuries. Hundreds of billions of dollars in medical and disability expenditures have been saved as well. To his credit, after warning that the first federal motor vehicle regulations could shut down the industry in 1966, Henry Ford II recognized a few years later that federal standards made cars safer, more fuel-efficient and cleaner.
Ed Cole deserves credit for his work toward overcoming opposition, from both the oil companies and the not-invented-here crowd in Detroit’s auto establishment, to the installation of the catalytic converters and the reduction of auto pollution. He still insisted to me on the Phil Donahue Show, however, that there was no connection between auto pollution and adverse health effects.
Ingrassia is quite right that the GM settlement for their snooping episode helped expand our citizen group movement, labeled “Nader’s Raiders.” However, the Corvair story had very little to do with the courts’ limited recognition of manufacturing design defects, as compared with manufacturing construction defects, for purposes of product-liability lawsuits. Design cases are very hard to win. The aura of the 1960s and 1970s – its various upheavals signified by the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-war movements – did provide an enabling climate for our work in consumer, environmental and worker rights, including my battles with General Motors.
There is little doubt that the Corvair is now a favorite of car collectors. In 1991, the Corvair Society of America (CORSA), with 6,500 members, gathered together at the group’s annual convention to trade parts, share war stories and socialize. CORSA invited me to address them at their annual meeting in suburban Maryland. I arrived to see some 400 well polished and well maintained Corvairs in the hotel parking lot.
These Corvair veterans, many in their mid-fifties, seemed mellower than their fire-breathing selves in the 1960s and 1970s. However, I did sense a tension in the audience while walking down the aisle to the podium with my toy Corvair visibly in hand. I wondered what I could say at the outset to break the ice. The truth beckoned. “There is one thing we can all agree on in this room and that is that you have to be among the best drivers in the world,” I said. They laughed heartily, and we then had a spirited civil exchange, followed by pictures taken of us sitting in their Corvairs. I remember sitting behind the wheel and realizing how much more comfortable today’s cars are – as well as safer and less polluting but not much more fuel-efficient on the average – than the Corvair was 50 years ago.
As for Ingrassia’s “butterfly stretch,” George W. Bush became president after he lost the popular vote to Al Gore. Bush benefited from the partisan shenanigans that ranged from Tallahassee to Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court, plus the votes of 250,000 Democrats who voted for him in Florida to give him a first-count margin of 537 votes over Gore. That tally was being recounted statewide under orders of the Florida Supreme Court before the override came from Justice Scalia’s Republicans.
Since we all have the equal right to run for public office in America, ascribing Gore’s plight to the Green Party indicates a second-class citizenship for third parties. For after all, didn’t George W. Bush “take” far more votes from Al Gore than I was accused of doing?
The Republican and Democratic parties do not own the voters. Either we candidates are all spoilers trying to take votes from each other or none of us are spoilers. We do not need any more political bigotry against smaller parties that give voters more choices.
To Ingrassia, I say: It was not the Corvair. It was corruption of the electoral process that “helped make George W. Bush president of the United States.” And a billion butterflies at any speed could not have changed that cause and effect.