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.