Halting the Corvair made America safer

May 10, 2012

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.


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With the Florida election so close, there were many, many butterfly wings that flipped the outcome. Had Elian Gonzalez been living in Florida in 2000, Al Gore would have become president. Had the State of Florida not illegally disenfranchized thousands of its citizens, Al Gore would have become president. Had President Clinton been a faithful husband, Al Gore would have become president. Had Lewinsky not told her secret to her girlfriend, Al Gore would have become president. Had Gore run an even halfway competent campaign against such a clearly unqualified opponent, Al Gore would have become president. The link to the Corvair case in the 1960’s is a ridiculously long stretch by someone who seems primarily interested in grabbing headlines.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Nader is right again. After eight years in power, Gore was not able to carry neither his home state of TN nor Clinton’s home State of AR.

As a Republican who supported Goldwater in 64, and came to Washington DC to work on air pollution in 1966, I have watched Nader’s work ever since. In the late 60’s I had a brief conversation with him in which I advocated nuclear power. He simply said that there were many yet to surface problems with nuclear power. Years later came the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters. I realized that he was a truth teller who had access to information that I did not have.

Over the last 45 years I have often wondered how much better off the American people would be today if they had regular access to Nader’s truthful views and wisdom.

Imagine if the media had regularly carried his articles in the Washington Post, NY Times, LA Times, etc. How many more lives would have been saved and made better as citizens, consumers, and taxpayers?

Posted by LVL123 | Report as abusive

My vote is my own, a person’s vote is their own, It doesn’t belong to the Democrats or the Republicans. If I want to vote for Ralph Nader, I’ll vote for him. One thing for sure is, I’ll never vote for another Democrat after what they’ve done and are doing to Ralph Nader. They showed their true colors and they’re not red, white and blue. Sebastian McGarigle

Posted by sebtree | Report as abusive

The only thing lethal was Ralph Nader who was set out to destroy General Motors. The Corvair was proven not to be any more dangerous than any other car. Why writers are still writhing negatives about it today is beyond me.

It would be nice if they started picking on the Teflon coated Toyota.

Posted by cinalray | Report as abusive

I too will never vote for another Republican and Democrat. Ralph Nader shows the way. Makes cars safer. Makes politics safer. Thank you Ralph.

Posted by npb | Report as abusive

Sanity-Monger is right: the Corvair case is a stretch. But it’s not a stretch to say that Nader bears responsibility for Florida 2000. We’re all responsible for what we do, and what we chose not to do. Gore is responsible for his loss, Clinton is, the Supreme Court, obviously, Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris, me for not bothering to work on the campaign, along with all my lazy fellow-citizens, and Ralph Nader, for (a) campaigning on a lie, that there was no difference between the two parties, when the less dramatic truth was that the difference wasn’t as great as he (or I) wished, and (b) not saying, before the election, that the stakes were so high that he hoped his supporters would give their vote to Gore, to prevent the predictable catastrophe of a Bush administration. Had he done that, enough of his voters in Florida would have voted for Gore to make the election unstealable. He could have done that, he did not. So he too bears responsibility for that result. And he’s one of the few people (Gore, Bush, Sandra Day O’Connor, say) who could singlehandedly have spared us Bush.

A million dead Iraqis, if they could speak, would I think agree.

Posted by tribecan | Report as abusive

In the final count Florida was won by Bush by 537 votes (sidestepping the egregious 5-4 Supreme Court decision for the moment). Nader won 97,488 votes. According to a study by UCLA, if Nader had withdrawn, 60% of his voters would have voted for Gore. That’s 58,493 votes. Now subtract the maximum theoretical number of Nader voters who might have voted for Bush, 40% or 38,995, and the difference for Gore equals 19,498 votes. A shift of this magnitude would have changed the recount drama sufficiently to avoid the necessity of an appeal to the Supreme Court. Thus Florida, and the rest of the US, would have elected Gore instead of Bush. While one might well ponder the merits of a Gore Administration, it is hard to argue that he would have been as bad, let alone worse, than Bush. George W. Bush was arguably the worst president in history, with the possible exception of James Buchanan who allowed the country to descend into a civil war.

As tribecan and Sanity-Monger point out, in such a close election there were very many factors which decided the contest. Yet prior to the election there was only one man who could have single handedly made a difference. That man was Ralp Nader, whose bull headed false equivalency between the Democratic and Republican parties betrays an ability to ignore the obvious when the obvious would contradict his rhetoric. This ability to place his own rhetoric above fact is on display again in this article. The simple arithmetic proves that Nader was a spoiler for Bush. Yet he still denies it. What would happen to his self-image if he ever had to accept that he played the most pivotal role in the worst American tragedy in a century? So count on Ralph denying responsibility until the day he dies.

Consider one more thing before following Ralph down the road of good intentions. His stated goal in 2000 was not to win, he admitted that he could not, but to achieve the 5% of the national vote required to qualify the Green Party for federally distributed public funding in the next election. He could have sought these votes anywhere in the country. California, or Texas, or any number of non-battleground states. Yet he chose the most important battleground state of them all to devote the last 3 weeks of his campaign on–Florida.

Sierra Club president Carl Pope sent an open letter to Nader, dated October 27, 2000, defending Al Gore’s environmental record and calling Nader’s strategy “irresponsible.” He wrote:

You have also broken your word to your followers who signed the petitions that got you on the ballot in many states. You pledged you would not campaign as a spoiler and would avoid the swing states. Your recent campaign rhetoric and campaign schedule make it clear that you have broken this pledge… Please accept that I, and the overwhelming majority of the environmental movement in this country, genuinely believe that your strategy is flawed, dangerous and reckless.

Pope also protested Nader’s suggestion that a “bumbling Texas governor would galvanize the environmental community as never before,” and his statement that “The Sierra Club doubled its membership under James G. Watt.” Wrote Pope in a letter to the New York Times dated November 1, 2000:

Our membership did rise, but Mr. Nader ignores the harmful consequences of the Reagan-Watt tenure. Logging in national forests doubled. Acid rain fell unchecked. Cities were choked with smog. Oil drilling, mining and grazing increased on public lands. A Bush administration promises more drilling and logging, and less oversight of polluters. It would be little solace if our membership grew while our health suffered and our natural resources were plundered.

It is clear that Nader not only DID view himself as a spoiler for Bush as proven not only by his campaign strategy of primarily attacking Gore in his speeches and campaigning exclusively in battleground states, but that his reasoning for spoiling for Bush is the most vile, nihilistic garbage that has ever sprung from a hardened purist ideologue. He WANTED Bush to cause so much suffering that it would galvanize environmentalists to rise up and overthrow the sensible system of incremental gains that so many thousands had devoted themselves to for decades.

In his zeal for the polarizing effects of disaster in forcing people to choose his side he is exactly similair to the strategy of Osama bin Laden, who wanted to force moderate Muslims to adopt the views of the extremists.

Do not look to Nader to ever admit any of this. He is a particularly nasty example of the true believer club. Yet, as John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things.” And the facts which reveal Nader for what he truly is are far more stubborn than the selectively myopic Nader ever was, and those facts will exist long after Nader has lost the ability to draw air into his lungs and emit these outrageous denials of responsibility.

Ralph Nader’s legacy is set in stone. He held the opportunity to save us from a great many tragedies, among them 9-11 itself, botched invasions, millions of dead and maimed, and a country that went from being a self-confident leader of freedom to a crippled international pariah. The entire course of history was changed for the worse. And but for the hubris of a man named Ralph Nader, much of this tragedy could have been avoided.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive


Ralph Nader tells the truth and a legenday consumer advocate who saved thousands of lives through his public service; if this country listened to him and not put up with professional politicians like Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush, our country would be far better off.
It was Bush who put us into war; and I am all too confident that Gore would have gone the same route what with his war-mongering VP choice Mr. Joe Liebermann. I suspect millions would have been dead.

There is a false equivalency between the actions of Bush/Cheney and the running of public citizen Nader for president. You need to clarify these things into your prejudiced and regressive posting. The country is in bad shape with your vile, polluted, and sickening thinking. The Democrats love you while they sell this country down the toilet.

You are the type of person who would prevent another person for running for office just because he is not a member of the established Republicrat party.

Ralph Nader’s legacy is one of a truth-telling, safe cars, cleaner air, serving the public sentiment, activism, peace, justice, environmentalism, and exposing corruption from the professional two-party dictatorship this country suffers from, and one of which your ignorance perpetuates and enables.

Please continue to fight Mr. Nader. You are a national treasure and a modern day Abraham Lincoln

Posted by mst3000jay | Report as abusive

“the lawless, corporatist, war-starting, anti-democratic Bush regime”

Mr Nader, I’ve been watching and listening to you since I was a little kid in the 60’s. I thought you were a nut then, and at 57 my opinion hasn’t changed, but I will say, America would be poorer without you. You are indeed a man of purpose who against great opposition has always stayed true to the vision in your head.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

If we are going to claim that the Ralph Nader elected Mr Bush in 2000, then we should recall that Ross Perot elected Mr Clinton in 1992 and 1996 and George Wallace took away the southern Democrats and elected Richard Nixon in 1968.

This is just a structural consequence of our election procedures: if any major party too long ignores the concerns of a faction of its coalition, then that coalition will bolt to a third party and cost that major party an election.


Posted by desdemona | Report as abusive

The only people that tell lies better than Politicians are Actors. No wonder they get along so well.

Posted by GLK | Report as abusive

Vint Cerf is generally described as one of ‘the father(s) of the Internet’. It’s not accurate, and he will be the first one to tell you that, but among the other things that he has done is produced an endorsement of Al Gore for president in 2000. You read that right, the ‘father of the Internet’ says that Al Gore was his political sponsor in getting funding for the research. He also makes the point that Gore himself never claimed to be what has been attributed to him.

The major point tho, is even when Gore had Vint’s endorsement, even when he was (is) getting ridiculed for something he never said, his campaign was unable to turn the whole situation to their advantage. Gore 2000 was a mismanaged mess. It should have never come down to Florida.


Nader’s correct here, ANYONE can run for President, we don’t belong to the parties, and I personally don’t have to/don’t want to, wear anyone’s label. We should thank him for making that point, you will never hear it from the political establishment.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

[…] On the rocky road to change in China Halting the Corvair made America safer […]

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Ingrassia is not only charging that Nader threw the election to Bush in 2000, but that Nader’s attacks on the Corvair in the 1960’s did so. Do we think that had Ralph decided to initially go after, say, airplane safety or shenanigans in the financial industry or environmental degradation that he would not have been in a position to grab 97,000 votes in Florida in 2000? That it had to be the Corvair? This is where the man is completely off base in a blatant effort to grab headlines and sell his silly book.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Mr.Nader, you know so much about a 1960 Corvair, you should the President of a foreign country since cars are being made overseas now a days.

Posted by running | Report as abusive

mst3000j wrote “It was Bush who put us into war; and I am all too confident that Gore would have gone the same route what with his war-mongering VP choice Mr. Joe Liebermann. I suspect millions would have been dead.”

I made assertions which I backed up with evidence. The only evidence you provide to back up your convictions is your own confidence in their truth. Well, that is quite inadequate. Lieberman was not know for being a “war-monger” at the time of the 2000 election and regardless the office of the VP holds little power unless the president sees fit to cede decision making.

Furthermore, it is willfully ignorant thinking to conclude that Gore would have invaded Iraq. The Clinton/Gore administration showed no appetite for invasion despite conducting an ongoing air war against Hussein. Nothing in Gore’s record indicates that he wished for a unilateral invasion, whereas much of Bush’s pre-election rhetoric did signal this intention.

You also write: “There is a false equivalency between the actions of Bush/Cheney and the running of public citizen Nader for president. You need to clarify these things into your prejudiced and regressive posting.”

I detect some confusion in your post about what the term ‘false-equivalency’ means. The definition of false-equivalency refers to an argument which seeks to make equal and the same two things which are not. I use it to refer to your idea that Republicans and Democrats are the same (i.e. “Republocrats”–very clever by the way).

You seem to be using the term to state that there is no equivalency between Bush/Cheney and a mythical Nader administration. It’s an obvious point and a red-herring besides. Of course a Nader presidency would not have been the same thing as the Bush presidency. What you can’t seem to grasp is that Nader had no more chance of being president than you did. Even Nader understood this. As I demonstrated in my previous post, he was actively trying to prevent Gore from being president so that the “Revolution” would finally be brought on by a progressive population pushed to the brink. That was his disgusting strategy, and it tells any rational person all they need to know about his fitness for the office should the dog ever miraculously catch the mechanical rabbit.

That you still pine for the Nader administration that you believe could have been tells everyone how deeply out of touch you actually are.

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[…] Halting the Corvair made America safer How the Corvair’s rise and fall changed America forever […]

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[…] Halting the Corvair made America safer How the Corvair’s rise and fall changed America forever […]

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wrong. The 60-63 corvair suspension caused all the issues. The 64 suspension fixed the issue. The 65-69 suspension was changed that also removed the problem. The only issue was the heating system – never was fixed. How do i know? I own a 66 corvair, and with 16inch wheels, the car behaves as well as a current vehicle. I really get tired of people coming up to me and telling me how this car flips. Not.

Posted by CorvairLover | Report as abusive

Ah Ralphie, still at it! It is amazing how misinformation is touted as fact constantly and people still buy it. CorvairLover even you have it wrong I’m afraid. There were no issues with ANY year Corvair suspension.. except for it looking scary on a lift. The fact is that the very thing that makes people think Corvairs roll over (wheel jacking) actually PREVENTS rollovers by reducing the contact patch and causing the rear end to break and slide. 42 years of CORSA racing events (including many bone stock 60-63 Corvairs and even the VANS!) with not one single rollover proves that. Also the NHTSA cleared the Corvair in 1971. On top of all this nobody made GM “halt” Corvair production, the Corvair went out of production because the Mustang came out and killed sales figures, making building the Corvair cease to be profitable.

Posted by TripRodriguez | Report as abusive