The 1960s were an exciting and tumultuous time in America. It was a decade that saw the first televised presidential debate (between Kennedy and Nixon), the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the moon landing, among many other historic events. You might not remember one of those milestones, which has lost some shine over time, but remains hugely important today: Ralph Nader’s deep investigation into the questionable motives of the automotive industry, claiming that manufacturers were reluctant to spend money to improve safety.
Nader, at the time a consumer advocate and political consultant, criticized many automakers. But the most notable casualty of his infamous 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, was the 1960-63 Chevrolet Corvair, which he referred to in the first chapter as “the one-car accident.” He called out the heavy Chevy’s handling characteristics that made the car more likely to spin out during a rapid emergency maneuver. “The vehicle’s technology wasn’t up to speed with [Chevrolet’s] ideas,” Daniel Soliz, a classic car restoration expert—and previous owner of two Corvairs—tells PopMech.
Ed Cole, the lead designer of the Corvair, wanted the engine to be all aluminum. However, the production motor had iron cylinders, making it much heavier than expected. This extra weight over the back axle led to the vehicle’s horrendous handling, amplifying the pendulum effect that made the tail very squirrelly. Also, the Corvair’s independent-rear suspension allowed the axles to flex, making the rear wheels articulate at extreme angles—potentially culminating in a sudden loss of traction. In extreme cases, there was even a chance that a wheel could tuck under the body and tip the vehicle into a rollover.
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“It was a fun car to drive, but it could get away from those that didn’t know the limitations,” says Soliz. (He mentions that this issue only affected early Corvairs.)
After Unsafe at Any Speed was published, Nader alleged that General Motors, Chevrolet’s owner, hired private investigators to surveil him in public places; hired prostitutes to accost him (in an attempt to catch him in a compromising situation); tapped his telephone; and eavesdropped on private conversations. There’s even a tale of the private investigators peeking over Nader’s shoulder at the bank to steal personal information. “If GM would have just gone along and fixed the issue, Ralph Nader would have likely just picked on other people,” says Soliz. The alleged harassment and intimidation tactics put Nader and the Corvair’s shortcomings further into the spotlight.
GM CEO James Roche admitted under oath only that he hired a private detective agency to follow Nader. After all was said and done, GM settled out of court for $425,000, the equivalent of just under $4 million in today’s dollars. Nader’s attorney said the settlement was by far the largest amount ever paid as damages for invasion of privacy.
Following the saga, Nader was credited with essentially killing Chevrolet’s new small car. The Corvair was billed as a family vehicle, but following all the publicity, not many people would go near it, as evidenced by a drop in the vehicle’s sales, according to Politico. In 1969, GM stopped making the Corvair. To GM, this was a critical blow, as the car was well ahead of its time. Its funky rear-engined layout allowed engineers to optimize the amount of interior space given the small dimensions of the body.
Along with its clever engine-layout, the car also had that four-wheel independent suspension, which was very futuristic at the time. The trunk-in-the-front, engine-in-the-back design actually predated the Porsche 911 by three years. The backwards Chevy also had a similar air-cooled, straight-six engine to the 911.
While Nader’s exposé led to the Corvair’s demise, more importantly, it began the conversation to start making automobiles and public roads a safer place. Nader used the proceeds from his legal victory to start an activist agency known as the Center for the Study of Responsive Law. Congress enacted the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act just a year after Nader published Unsafe at Any Speed. This was the first piece of legislation that allowed the federal government to set and administer new safety standards for motor vehicles and road safety. For Nader, it was mission success.
Matt Crisara is a native Austinite who has an unbridled passion for cars and motorsports, both foreign and domestic, and as the Autos Editor for Popular Mechanics, he writes the majority of automotive coverage across digital and print. He was previously a contributing writer for Motor1 following internships at Circuit Of The Americas F1 Track and Speed City, an Austin radio broadcaster focused on the world of motor racing. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he raced mountain bikes with the University Club Team. When he isn’t working, he enjoys sim-racing, FPV drones, and the great outdoors.