Bookshelf: Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader

Car buffs may not approve of this assessment, but Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at any Speed is one of the most important automotive books ever written. 

 

 

If you are a student of the automobile, Unsafe at any Speed is required reading. Without it, there’s a giant gap in your knowledge of the industry. And if all you knew about the book is what you’ve been told by the automotive enthusiast press over the years, you may be astounded by what you read.

Those of us who grew up reading car magazines in the ’60s and ’70s were conditioned to despise Nader and his book. We were told he was a kook and an extremist, that the book was a hatchet job on the American car industry in general and Chevrolet’s rear-engine Corvair specifically. For gearheads this was simply received belief, church dogma.

Okay, now read Unsafe for yourself with 21st century eyes. There’s no escaping it: For the most part, Nader was right.

If you don’t now own a copy of your own, the book is widely available used at Amazon.com or alibris.com for a few bucks. You can also read it online or download it here free of charge at the American Buddha Online Library:

Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile

So check it out for yourself—the book is meaty but a quick read.  Among the things you will discover: First, only one small chapter in Unsafe at any Speed is actually about the Corvair. Next, the advances Nader advocated throughout the book are totally commonplace today, including padded dashes, collapsing steering columns, safety door latches, and other low-hanging fruit in the pursuit of passenger safety.

In fact, you will be struck at how tame Nader’s pleadings were, especially by modern standards. Today, the industry wouldn’t build cars any other way. For a supposed Bolshevik, the Nader of 1965 was a bit of a milquetoast.

And for this, Nader was vilified by an industry too arrogant to listen to its own customers—or even to reason. The initial response of GM executives was all too predictable: they hired private detectives to stalk Nader in an effort to dig up personal dirt on him. The kakhanded attempt blew up in their faces, naturally.

 

And note this about the devastating critiques of the Corvair’s handling in Unsafe at Any Speed.  These were supplied not by Nader himself, but by his quotations of industy-friendly auto writers Denise McCluggage and Ocee Ritch, and by an excerpted Car and Driver magazine test of the 1965 Corvair, which described the previous 1960-64 swing-axle model this way:

“Despite a widespread misconception that the old Corvair was ‘almost’ a sports car, it was one of the nastiest-handling cars ever built. The tail gave little warning that it was about to let go, and when it did, it let go with a vengeance few drivers could cope with.”

Ouch. That’s fairly plain. So all right, then. After all these decades of blabbering on both sides, what is the truth about the 1960-64 swing-axle Corvair? Was its handling inherently unsafe? Actually, one need look no further than the car’s recommended tire pressures as specified by Chevrolet: 16 PSI front, 26 PSI rear.

Now, if you know anything at all about vehicle dynamics, you know that’s pretty screwed up. This vehicle has a significant handling problem and they are attempting to mask it with radically biased front/rear inflation pressures. The industry would never build such a car today. It knows better. No engineer would sign off on it in 2013. The standards for acceptable vehicle road behavior are miles beyond that today.

Hold on, you can hear the Corvair defenders objecting. That’s unfair. You can’t judge the Corvair by the higher standards of today. In 1960, practices like these were totally acceptable, standard operating procedure.

And that’s precisely the point: Nader raised the bar.

 

Before Unsafe at Any Speed, there was no safety culture in the auto industry, and today there is. More than any other single individual, Nader is responsible for that.

Really, only a handful of auto executives in history have had the impact on the industry that Nader did. One incomplete but totally valid way to regard the American auto business is pre-Nader and post-Nader. From that angle, Unsafe at Any Speed is an absolutely indispensable book.

 

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6 thoughts on “Bookshelf: Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader

  1. The original Corvair had swing axles .They were prone to the “jacking effect” where the outside tire in cornering would literally lift the transaxle upward raising the roll centers and causing the tires to tuck under producing a vary unstable condition .After Mr Nader called attention to this fact the problem was remedied by GM with an independent rear suspension . Unfortunately too little too late . The Corvair was doomed .

  2. I read the book in 1970 after many of the recommendations had been put in place. I agreed with Nader’s arguments for the most part. The unfortunate thing was that the book contributed greatly to the demise of the Corvair. That was a great car that could have been even better if the public hadn’t lost interest.

    I felt that it could have battled the Mustang. The Porsche 911 proves that you can make a rear engine car manageable, and stuff it with big power. In fairness, I should note that the 911 wasn’t tamed for the average driver until at least a decade after the demise of the Corvair.

    Public relations and damage control are paramount, and GM took entirely the wrong tack. The Ford Pinto carried on for several years after the “explosion” stories but they certasinly steered some consumers toward Japanese cars. You still hear cracks about the Pinto today. The recent Toyota “unintended acceleration” problem killed more people than the Pinto but nobody is running away from the Camry.

  3. I think it’s clear the Corvair needed articulated IRS from the start, or at least a camber compensator as Maurice Olley suggested. A heavier and larger car than a VW or Porsche, it also could have used better weight distribution than it ended up with. I salute GM’s willingness to innovate with the vehicle, but the execution was lacking.

  4. Porkers still use widely different tyre pressures now. This is 80s cars not early 60s. Really any rear engine car always has. VW, Porsche, Hillman Imp, Renault 8 and 10 etc etc.
    While I agree with a lot Nader said it did come back on GM harder than the favoured imports. And or the US manufacturers. Euro cars were built to the same or less standards.
    And yes runaway Toymotas probably have killed more people.

  5. As a former owner and a 3 year driver of a 1963 Corvair I can attest to Nader’s comments about the handling problems. I was able to work around by installing a sway bar and wide tires on the back. But that was only the tip of the iceberg as it were, the 4 foot long fanbelt that would throw itself off whenever it got below freezing outside, the engine’s ability to pump all of it’s oil out the dipstick tube whenever it felt like it , usually on the freeway, even had the front end lift off once with a strong side wind and set me down 3 lanes over, I always kept a bag of sand up front after that. The final insult came at the end when you had to add 2 cans of STP with every oil change or the engine would freeze up and you would have to sit around until it cooled down enough to turn over, it made for a lot of quick runs in to the store with the engine left running. But it was fun to drive when all was working and I drove it with all my crap from New York to San Francisco one summer and only replaced 3 fan belts and 1 fuel pump and one wheel bearing . It ended it’s life at the bottom of a cement ravine after the engine stalled at a stop light and I got a helpful push from the car behind as I was standing beside it and down the hill she went with me in not so hot pursuit.

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