Dough from GM lawsuit funded Nader's Center for Auto Safety
At 74, consumer gadfly still has barbed words for the Corvair and the company that created it
Sounds outlandish, but it's true, says Ralph Nader, safety crusader and five-time presidential candidate. Nader set up the center with part of the $425,000 court settlement paid by GM in 1970 for invasion of his privacy.
General Motors had paid private detectives to snoop into the personal life of the man who was making its life miserable — and the result was an extra dose of misery.
Regulation began with the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which set up an agency to regulate the industry. Standards for cars made after Jan. 1, 1968, mandated features such as padded instrument panels and safety glass.
"When a new agency is set up to do regulation, its finest hour is in the early years, before it gets ground under and controlled by the people it regulates — in this case the car companies," Nader says.
Nader admits that his name in the industry was and perhaps still is akin to that of a modern-day terrorist. GM, as well as Ford and Chrysler, fought automotive legislation vehemently and publicly.
But Nader says the roar and defiance were just a public face. "Privately they knew they had to be pushed in order to get their engineers to work. Since then, I have had dozens of high executives tell me this is the best thing that happened to the industry."
Nader killed Corvair
The bad publicity generated by Nader's 1965 book, Unsafe at Any Speed, killed the Chevrolet Corvair. The title referred to the Corvair, and the book made Nader known and despised throughout GM and the auto industry.
At the time of the book's publication, GM was facing more than 100 lawsuits involving the Corvair. GM added an anti-sway bar between the front wheels and a single-leaf transverse spring under the rear wheels to solve the rollover problems in the 1964 Corvair, and the 1965 model got further improvements.
It was all in vain. The last Corvair was produced in 1969.
Nader doesn't tire of talking about the Corvair and is proud that he led to its demise. "The Corvair killed a lot of people," he says.
Nader recalls a 1988 speech to the Corvair Club of America in Maryland. "I figured they had mellowed a bit," he says. "They knew the score. For heaven's sake, they spend half their time trading components to make the car more stable."
But Nader says the reception was chilly. "So I say, 'There is one thing you, the audience, and I agree on: You have to be among the best drivers in the world.' They laughed, and then it was downhill."
Still bashing GM
Although his presidential campaign keeps him busy these days, Nader, 74, is not letting up on GM.
"In the last 15 years, they are back to the same mind-set," he says. "You cannot believe how similar the top executives at GM are compared with those in the mid '50s and late '60s. It is the same stubborn mind-set; look how many years they successfully fought fuel efficiency standards, and they fought emissions standards.
"They turned NHTSA into a consulting agency that has issued side-impact and airbags (standards) and not much more than that. Led by GM, the auto companies are going back to the future."
You can reach Diana T. Kurylko at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Diana on