Corvair gave Nader a ride to prominence
Ralph Nader devoted one chapter in his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed to lambasting the Corvair and accusing Chevro-let of knowingly selling a dangerous car.
The negative publicity led to the demise of the Corvair compact car and established Nader as an automotive consumer advocate.
Nader was a student at Harvard Law School in the 1950s when he wrote a paper on unsafe automotive design and the lack of safety standards in the auto industry.
In the late 1950s Chevy was getting ready to produce the Corvair, a lightweight, fuel-efficient compact car meant to compete with popular small imports such as the Volks-wagen Beetle.
The Corvair was produced from the 1960 to the 1969 model years. It was the only car with a rear-mounted air-cooled engine made by a domestic volume brand. The Corvair line included a two-door coupe and convertible, four-door sedan, station wagon, high-performance Monza and passenger and commercial vans.
Unlike other domestics
The 1960 Corvair sold for less than $2,000 and had a design that set it apart from other domestic cars. Instead of tail fins or a massive chrome grille, it had a boxy shape and no-fuss styling similar to that of European small cars.
The Corvair had a 2.3-liter six-cylinder, 80-hp engine and an independent suspension and was the first General Motors car using unibody construction. It was light - 2,382 pounds - and got about 25 mpg on the highway.
Chevy kept improving the Corvair through the 1964 model year, adding bucket seats, the Monza convertible and a turbo-charged engine. It redesigned the rear suspension for the 1965 model that competed with Ford's new Mustang.
Sales topped 200,000 annually through the 1965 model year.
Meanwhile, Nader had graduated from Harvard Law School, and his interest in automotive safety grew.
In 1964 Nader was in Washing-ton working for the Labor Depart-ment, but he kept doing research on automotive safety. His research led him to depositions filed in lawsuits alleging injuries because of poor designs. He focused on the industry giant; GM was facing more than 100 lawsuits over the Corvair. Court documents became the fodder for Unsafe at Any Speed.
Nader's first chapter told the story of a California woman who lost her left arm when her 1961 Corvair spun out of control and flipped onto its roof. She allegedly was going only 35 mph. The matter went to court and GM settled for $70,000. Nader said GM paid up because it didn't want to "expose on the public record one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in the present century."
Nader said that the Corvair's biggest problem was stability, and that aftermarket companies were selling stabilizer bars for the front end to give it better balance. GM began offering an anti-roll bar as an option for the 1962 model year and made it standard on the 1964 model when the suspension was modified. For 1965, the Corvair had a fully independent rear suspension.
Rick Small, senior program engineer for Consumers Union in Colchester, Conn., said the Cor-vair's problems weren't limited to oversteer and poor handling. The heater frequently would stick in the on position and oil seals didn't function properly, "so the heat smelled like oil."
Despite the changes made by Chevy, Nader's book scared away potential Corvair buyers. Sales plummeted to 88,951 in 1966 and 12,977 in 1968. In 1969, only 4,280 Corvairs had been sold when Chevrolet pulled the plug in May.
By then Nader had a reputation as one of America's top consumer auto safety champions. His testimony before Congress helped shape the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, which set automobile safety standards.
Meanwhile, GM paid private detectives to snoop into Nader's personal life and intimidate him, a move that would embarrass the company. Nader sued GM. He used part of the $425,000 court settlement paid by GM in 1970 for invasion of his privacy to set up the Center for Auto Safety - the watchdog group that has been a thorn in the side of automakers for decades.
There's a footnote to the Corvair story. A 1972 report commissioned by the National High-way Traffic Safety Administration and conducted by Texas A&M University, said the 1960-63 Cor-vair had no greater potential for loss of control than similar competing cars.
You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Diana on