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)