By Bruce Nelson
I was at a car show the other day looking at a nice 1966 Corvair with a nicely installed small block where the back seat used to be. I've owned a number of Corvairs over the years, so when I see a car like this one, I check it out. The other people milling around this car were talking about how great Corvairs were, and how awful it was that Ralph Nader had had killed such a wonderful car. I am not a fan of Ralph Nader or whatever political party he's affiliated with at this time, but here's where I'd like to put in my 2 cents worth.
I read `unsafe at any speed' while I was in high school back in about 1970. I remember thinking it was interesting reading, but it wasn't until I happened into a copy at a used book store and read it again, that it really hit me that this book may have hurt the Corvair, but hit the nail on the head when it comes to automotive safety. If you have never read this book, I would recommend it. Very little of the book is about the handling aspects of the Corvair. In fact the problems with the handling was not nearly as important to the story as was the fact that GM knew about the problem and also knew about a relatively inexpensive fix for it. The small cost to repair the problem was weighed against the cost of the consequences and the problem wasn't repaired until 1964. This is what killed the Corvair, along with the fact that the Corvair was the first mass produced rear engined American car and that made it somewhat different when it comes to tire inflation, handling, general driving, and the fan belt issues (any Corvair owners know about this).
What really interested me when I re-read this book was that it was written in 1966. Like I said only a small part of the book is about the Corvair. The book is about the manufacturers total disregard for safety of the passengers of their cars and the pedestrians that may somehow come into contact with a car. At the time I re-read this book, I own a 1966 Pontiac Catalina Convertible, a 1971 Pontiac LeMans and a 1994 Pontiac Sunbird Convertible. As Nader talks about the items that he felt needed to be changed to make the car safer, it was interesting to me to look at the vehicles I own, and see the differences that had taken place in that period of time, especially from the 1966 to the 1971. During these few short years nearly every safety item that Nader discussed in the book were incorporated into the design of the later car. Just to name a few, fully padded dash, all knobs out of harms way, different shape knobs for lights and wipers, collapsible steering column, hazard lights, side marker lights, dual master cylinder, shoulder harnesses, locking seat backs and many more items than I care to list. Also mentioned in the book were such things as anti lock brakes and air bags, both of which were under development in the `60s.
As I said before, I am not a fan of Mr. Nader. In fact I'd probably vote for a Corvair for president before him. But what he did for the safety of the automobile was very important to us all, he got the ball rolling. No longer would the manufactures tell us we would live with as for safety, they would be required to make things realistic. Believe me, I find the cars of the 40s, 50s and 60s to be better looking and a lot more interesting than the stuff made after that, safety must be an important issue to all of us. People look at the huge old cars of the 50s and 60s and remark about how safe they must have been. Awhile back, I was only a few cars back from a terrible accident between an old Chrysler from the 60s and an almost new Geo Metro. The Metro driver came out better, the passenger compartment was still intact even though the front end was almost wiped off the car. The Chrysler driver couldn't get out because of the damage to the car.
Sure, there was a time during this safety transition from about 1973 until the early 80s when the styling of cars suffered immensely due the safety features they had to add. But now it's just taken for granted that is how cars look. How little time it has taken us to get used to cars with no chrome, no bumpers as we knew them in the old days and `jelly bean' styling.
I love the styling of the old cars, the personality, the flash, the ridicules ideas, but when I send my wife or kids out on the road in their new cars, I often think to myself, Thanks Ralph. I'm sure the Corvair folks won't agree.
By Bruce Nelson
Last Update: 07/26/03