The Great Debate

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.

How the Corvair’s rise and fall changed America forever

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.

Fiat’s over-ambitious expansion strategy

– Paul Taylor is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

Could Italy’s cash-strapped Fiat, Europe’s sixth auto maker, build a workable alliance with Chrysler and Opel to become be a profitable global player? Or would it be a marriage of losers, doomed to fail?

Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne has made clear that his interest in Opel, the European arm of ailing General Motors, is more than just a well-timed tactic to get better terms in the alliance he is negotiating with troubled U.S. number three Chrysler. Chrysler faces likely bankruptcy if a deal is not clinched by April 30.

One rule for banks, another for autos

jimsaftcolumn6– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

There is one law, it appears, for failing U.S. automakers but sadly quite another for similarly failing banks.

The Obama administration has decided to play hardball with auto firms; rejecting recovery plans from General Motors and Chrysler LLC (GM.N) and warning they could be thrown into bankruptcy. Chrysler, which is controlled by Cerberus Capital Management CBS.UL, has 30 days to complete an alliance with Italy’s Fiat SpA (FIA.MI) or face losing its government funding. GM chief executive Rick Wagoner is out at government request, as will be most of his board of directors in coming months.

Transfusions don’t stop the bleeding


– Louis E. Lataif is dean of the Boston University School of Management and a former Ford executive. The views expressed are his own. —

The federal government now wants to shore up ailing auto suppliers with a $5 billion bailout, despite a rising chorus of criticism against more government bailouts. The public is beginning to see bailouts as “transfusions,” rather than a closing of the wound, and is losing patience with them. The “wound” is falling housing values and toxic mortgage-backed securities which have paralyzed financial markets – not the auto industry.

The hastily approved $787 billion “stimulus package,” including aggressive spending programs unrelated to declining home values or the constricted capital markets, is tantamount to administering repeated, expensive blood transfusions rather than stopping the bleeding. Of course, if the blood flow at the wound eventually coagulates (one day the economy will rebound) then the transfusions can be claimed to have worked. But the delayed cure would have come at a crippling cost to the next generations of taxpayers.

Revival of U.S. automaking awaits if UAW will follow Toyota

morici– Peter Morici is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The views expressed are his own. –

General Motors and Chrysler are on the anvil of history. United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger holds the hammer and will determine whether they emerge more competitive or shattered in pieces and sold to foreign investors.

In December, George W. Bush granted $17.4 billion in temporary loans on the condition those firms convert two-thirds of their debt into equity. Another condition was to persuade the UAW to accept stock for one half of what these companies owe to fund retiree health care and align wages, benefits and work rules with those of the Japanese automakers operating in the United States.

Bailout for automakers?


As Congress debates legislation to help struggling automakers, many Americans say they are uneasy with the plan, arguing that while it may save jobs, it would reward companies for pursuing bad business practices. Some even question whether automakers will be viable, even with support.

“They need to restructure. If they get bailed out they are not going to do it,” said Eric Smith, a paint contractor interviewed in Chamblee, Georgia, on the outskirts of Atlanta.

U.S. automakers say federal aid is vital to their survival, and there could be devastating ramifications for the broader economy if the sector is not stabilized.