WASHINGTON - A new book, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile, is being read widely in the auto industry.
Its author is Ralph Nader, 31, who was an adviser to the Ribicoff subcommittee in its investigation of highway safety last July.
When the Commerce Department presents its legislative proposals to improve highway safety, it would seem natural to have Nader appear as a witness.
Nader told Automotive News that he views his book only as the tip of an iceberg, basically an understatement of what he feels is wrong with the way the auto industry handles safety problems. It is a strong indictment of the auto industry.
'Strong indictment'? Yes, you could call it that. Nader dumped on every part and parcel of the industry, and he reserved particular scorn for the Chevrolet Corvair, which he called 'one of the greatest acts of industrial irresponsibility in the present century.'
Unfortunately, General Motors did not take that lying down. Early in 1966, the GM general counsel approved the hiring of private detectives to tail Nader and look into his background. GM figured Nader was in league with the attorneys who had filed 100 damage suits involving the Corvair.
But GM hired a bunch of gumshoes so inept they would have made the Keystone Kops look like polished Interpol agents. Nader soon realized he was being tailed, and friends told him private eyes had been asking intensely personal questions about him. The gumshoes found nothing; Nader was truly Mr. Clean. Nader was angry, and he complained - to the United States Congress, which was right and proper. Nader had been subpoenaed to testify before a congressional committee considering safety legislation. GM was tampering with a congressional witness, and that constitutes contempt of Congress.
GM issued a press release admitting to a routine investigation of Nader but denying harassment. GM had to eat that press release.
The whole affair led to the darkest day in the history of a proud corporation. On March 22, 1966, GM President James Roche appeared before a Senate subcommittee and apologized publicly to Nader. Roche had not known of the investigation, but he accepted responsibility for the surveillance and for the false information in the press release.
Overnight, Nader became a public figure and the auto industry's chief safety critic. Given the mood of Congress after GM's shadowing of Nader, many observers believe the passage of tough safety legislation became a foregone conclusion on that day.