‘Unsafe At Any Speed’ Turns 50: The Most Influential Book Ever On The Automobile Industry

Unsafe at any speed

(first posted 11/30/2015)     We drive phenomenally safe cars today. Safety factors into just about every aspect of car design and engineering. The number of deaths per 100 million vehicle miles driven in the US has dropped by 80% since 1965, from 5.30 to 1.11 in 2013. That is an astounding drop, and one that reflects roughly 125,000 lives saved per year, or millions over the decades.

Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe At Any Speed”, which appeared 50 years ago today, was the catalyst for the sea change in automobile safety that followed. Undoubtedly, automobile safety would have worked itself onto the agenda of the 60s or 70s eventually, but Ralph Nader gets the credit for affecting the changer sooner and swifter. Yet he gets pilloried endlessly by car enthusiasts. 

Nader Ralph NYT

photo by Andrew Sullivan for NYT

That’s probably in substantial part to a misunderstanding. Despite the fact that this red Corvair behind him is a central display in his new Museum Of American Tort Law in Winstead, Conn., Nader did not “kill the Corvair”. He rightfully gets the credit/blame for many things, including the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, but he didn’t “kill the Corvair”. Only the first chapter of the book was about the early (1960-1963) Corvair’s potentially dangerous oversteer, due to its heavy rear engine, swing axles, dependence on variable front/rear tire pressures, and the regrettable omission of a few cheap suspension parts that could have avoided its rep for instability at the limit and rolling over.

Nader museum NYT

photo by Andrew Sullivan for NYT

By the time “Unsafe At Any Speed” came out in late 1965, the Corvair was already mortally wounded, thanks to the Mustang. It was also into its second year of production with a new rear suspension that addressed the specific issues in the book. But 1966 sales were already way off, even before “Unsafe At Any Speed” made the best seller list in the spring of 1966. In fact, GM only kept the Corvair in production all the way through 1969 specifically to counter the impression that Nader had influenced the Corvair’s demise.

corvair 1960 monza ad

Yes, after the publication of the book and the resulting Congressional hearings that resulted in the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the early Corvair was pilloried. But thta was all after the fact; the real damage was to GM’s reputation overall. The 1960 Ford Falcon made it clear that the Corvair had no future as an economy car, causing Chevrolet to rush out its Falcon-clone Chevy II in 1962. Meanwhile,the Corvair was re-positioned as a bucket-seat floor-shift sporty car, in the form of the 1960.5 Monza coupe. It was the first of its kind, it sold quite well, and directly led to Ford responding with its Mustang.

Corvair kovacs

I’ve covered the issue of the Corvair’s intrinsic stability challenges due to its design, which were exacerbated by penny-pinching shortcuts by GM. And I’ve also waxed eloquently about the Corvair, from the perspective of having owned a four-speed Monza as my first car. It’s a car that has inspired passions on both sides.

In a NYT article on Nader’s book anniversary, David Cole,  the former director of the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation and currently the chairman of the nonprofit AutoHarvest Foundation, and the son of the Corvair’s daddy, Ed Cole, had this to say about being given a Corvair to drive: “I don’t think he would ever had me driving a 1960 Corvair if he had any inclination there was a safety issue.”  What else would he say about his father’s baby? Ed Cole had a thing for rear-engines going way back, and was apparently determined to prove that…big, heavy rear engines are not a good idea. Meanwhile, a number of GM executives were directly affected by the Corvair, including the death of the son of Cadillac General Manager Cal Werner, and the critically-injured son of Exec. VP Cy Osborne. And John DeLorean at Pontiac refused to build a version of it because of its rear engine design and handling issues. The Corvair was a controversial car, from GM’s 14th floor to Congress.

Nader in_1962_Corvair_a

Who said I would never get into a Corvair?

And GM made a bad situation much worse when it hired private investigators to follow Nader in the hopes of digging up some dirt on him. If they’d known what an ascetic’s life he lived, they wouldn’t have bothered, and it backfired. GM was forced to issue a public apology. How often does that happen?

Enough about GM and the Corvair. The rest of the book was about all of the other blatant safety shortcomings of Detroit’s cars in general, such as the lack of proper restraints (seat/shoulder belts), dangerous interior design, inconsistent automatic transmission shift quadrants, and more. The final chapter was a call for the government to step in and regulate automobile safety, as the industry obviously was not serious about it.

Ford 1956 Ad-Safety-2-699x1024

Nader charged that the industry annually spent 23 cents per car on safety research and $700 per car on the then-obligatory annual model change, which was mostly styling. Yes, Ford made some effort to “sell safety” in their mid-50s cars, but they were mostly extra-cost options. Americans in the 50s would rather spend their precious dollars on whitewalls, a V8 and more chrome trim. The simple fact is that humans don’t often act in their best long-term self interests, unless forced to. That applies as much or more to the issue of climate change today as it did to automobile safety in the 50s and 60s.

Car crash 1950s

There’s no doubt the relationship of Detroit and the American public regarding safety was largely a co-dependent one; everyone looked the other way, except when one encountered dead bodies on the highway, not an uncommon experience back then. I saw several myself as a child.  Denial was the overarching theme regarding the over 50,000 Americans that were dying every year, smashing their faces into hard steel dash boards studded with pointy chrome spears, impaled by rigid steering columns, or being ejected.  Or all three.

But the times the were a-changing’. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring”, on the widespread impact of DDT on wildlife, is considered the book that kick-started the modern environmental movement. Nader was inspired by it, and had spent some years researching the issue of auto safety. By 1965, he had completed much of it.

Family 1958

But his book almost didn’t get published; publishers felt that the American public wouldn’t want to read about such a downer subject. The first sentence in the book is:  “For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people.” Who wants to hear that?  Ignorance is bliss, behind the wheel, as elsewhere.

Insolent Chariots

Of course Nader wasn’t the first to critique the car industry. I just finished reading John Keats’ “The Insolent Chariots” from 1958, which takes on the general state of American cars in 1958, hardly a high point. It critiques the design, weight, handling and lack of safety of cars, as well as the marketing and unsavory sales practices so rampant at the time. Keats bemoans the lack of a modern Model T, so obviously he’s a spartan, and a bit stuck in that regard.

But he rightly called out the Edsel, which had just come out some months before this book was published, for being nothing more than a tarted-up Ford or Mercury. And he correctly predicted its failure. With a massive pre-launch marketing campaign, Ford had set up Americans for a truly new car, and in 1958, a recession year, that would have been sometime very different.

Keats writes on safety: “…because our automobiles are so poorly designed as to be unsafe at any speed…” Is this the source of Nader’s book title?

car crash tree

Some may not like his personality or his style, but Ralph Nader changed the American automobile in terms of safety at least as much or more than the energy crises did in terms of efficiency and the Japanese in terms of quality. Unfortunately, both the NHTSA and the EPA have been caught sleeping at the wheel in recent years; the NHTSA with the GM ignition lock fiasco, and the EPA with VW diesel emissions. It always seems to take a crisis to wake folks up before they run into a tree or something. At least nowadays there are air bags and seat belts, thanks in no small part to Ralph Nader.

And what is Nader concerned about today, regarding automobile safety? Self-driving cars.

 (from autonews.com)  He thinks manufacturers are rushing in too quickly, and that it’s going to be used as an imperfect BandAid for distracted driving. “There are definite benefits of collision-avoidance systems,” Nader said. “But the problem is once the auto companies get on to something, they don’t know when to stop. And so they are turning the automobile into an ever more complicated computer on wheels. Which means that the driver is losing control to the software, and the more the driver loses control to the software, the less the driver is going to be able to control the car down the road.”

Food for thought, and discussion.

Related CC reading: 1960-1963 Corvair: GM’s deadliest Sin Ever?