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A Brief History of
The First 100 Years of the Automobile Industry
in the United States

Chapter 12 - Insolent chariots unsafe at any speed

by Richard A. Wright

The American auto industry's golden age started with the end of World War II and it began fading in the mid-'60s. Through the '50s and the early '60s, Detroit dazzled the world with a procession of cars that were reliable, luxurious, powerful, low-priced, often beautiful, always interesting.

Americans loved them and bought them in undreamed-of numbers.

There were hints of what was to come. Along with the good-humored cracks about Studebakers back in the '40s, Bob Hope and Jack Benny also joked about the smog in Los Angeles. Before the '60s ended, Detroit did not think the jokes were funny. Automobile exhaust was suspected of contributing to, if not causing, the smog.

Detroit was also coming under increasing fire as engines got more powerful and tailfins got bigger. Critics wanted more sensible, more economical smaller cars. Many servicemen returning from Europe brought back little Volkswagens, MGs, Triumphs and Porsches, strange-looking relics of the '30s.

Detroit had not ignored the small car. Both Ford Motor Co. and General Motors had plans at the end of World War II to build small cars. Harlow Curtice, president of GM through most of the '50s, explained why neither program came to pass: "You can take the value out much more rapidly than you can take the cost out."

At the end of World War II, American makers were invited to consider purchase of Volkswagen. Ford executives dismissed the idea, as did Chrysler Corp. One Ford executive put it this way: "You call that a car?" While Ford and GM canceled their small-car programs -- both of which had been quite advanced -- Chrysler offered a smaller version of its '49 Plymouth and Dodge, which was a dud and was killed by '52.

The Crosley, Kaiser's Henry J and Allstate (marketed by Sears), the Nash Metropolitan, Willys Aero and Hudson Jet all came and went in the early '50s. But the VW, dubbed "the Beetle" by its owners and later by the importer, continued its steady and rapid sales growth.

In 1952, Charles E. Wilson resigned as GM president to become secretary of defense in President Eisenhower's administration. He had served GM well during the hectic war years and the post-war changeover. He had been a central figure in bringing labor peace to the industry. But he is remembered most for telling the Congressional committee considering his nomination "what's good for GM is good for the country," a statement often cited as an example of corporate arrogance.

But that was not what he said. And what he did say was not out of arrogance but out of Wilson's old-fashioned patriotism.

At the confirmation he was asked if he could make a decision as secretary of defense in the interest of the nation if it were adverse to GM.

"Yes sir, I could," Wilson said. "I cannot conceive of one, because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference does not exist."

Harlow Curtice, as general manager of Buick Division in the late '40s, was intrigued with a custom job Buick's chief engineer Ned Nickles had done on his car. The engineer had put four "portholes" on each fender with bulbs wired into the distributor so they would light sequentially as each of the engine's cylinders fired.

Curtice ordered the portholes put on all Buicks, but without the lights. They became Buick's trademark. Like tailfins, they had no function except to sell cars. Buick moved from its eighth rank in sales to challenge and displace Plymouth in third.

Curtice succeeded Wilson as president of GM in 1952 and the Buick portholes were an example of his uncanny ability to divine what the buying public would go for.

Ford Motor Co. demonstrated that despite all the scientific research available, the odds are steep against a new car. It introduced the Edsel as a '58 model amid great hoopla. It was dropped in '60.

The Edsel has become a symbol of failure, but in fact Ford lost little but face. The production facilities used for the Edsel were sorely needed to meet demand for the Falcon, Ford's highly successful compact car. Had it not been for the Edsel, the Falcon could not have set a record as the biggest selling new car ever introduced.

The first rumbles of trouble came from dealers who were losing sales to imports. Many in Detroit dismissed the growing ranks of foreign car buyers as oddballs, flakes, college professors and leftists. But many of the dealers knew they were buyers with above-average incomes, many of whom owned more than one car. They were not all oddballs, they were trend-setters.

When George Romney took over the new American Motors in 1954, he ordered that the Rambler be revived and launched his famous crusade against Detroit's "gas-guzzling dinosaurs."

Detroit was not worried. It sold more cars in 1955 than it had in any year in its history. Then in 1956, sales slumped, but import sales doubled. Romney was convinced. So was Ed Cole, general manager of Chevrolet. He wanted to build a small car of unusual design and he did. But not quite the way he wanted.

The Big Three unveiled their "compacts" as '60 models -- Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant and Chevrolet Corvair. The Falcon and the Valiant were very conventional, but the Corvair was all-new, revolutionary in many ways. Its air-cooled six-cylinder engine was in the rear of the car. And unlike Charles F. Kettering's copper-cooled engine of the '20s, it worked well.

There were compromises between Cole's original design and what GM top management approved for '60 introduction. Frederic Donner had succeeded the ebullient salesman Curtice as chairman. The financial people were taking over Detroit and not just at GM.

Tire diameter was cut, the aluminum engine was modified, the plush interior was downgraded and a $15 stabilizing bar was deleted from the suspension system.

A Chevrolet test driver rolled over the first prototype on the test track, admittedly at high speed. A Ford test driver also rolled one over. Word spread at Ford that the Corvair had problems. In high-speed turns, the rear end of the Corvair tended to lift or "jack" and the wheels tucked under. And because of the rear engine placement, the car tended to oversteer, that is, turn more sharply at higher speeds. Most American cars have always understeered, which means they make a wider arc when turning at higher speeds. The combination of jacking and oversteer made the Corvair handle quite differently from most cars.

The Corvair split GM deeply. When Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, son of William Knudsen, was named general manager of Chevrolet in 1961 succeeding Cole, it is said that he insisted he be allowed to make some changes in the Corvair or he would quit the corporation. Knudsen installed the stabilizer bar on the '64 Corvair and ordered a completely new suspension based on the Corvette's design for the '65.

But before the fix was made, more than one million Corvairs had been sold and the car had come to the attention of a young Harvard Law School graduate named Ralph Nader. Nader had been handling insurance litigation in Hartford, Conn., and gathering information about auto accidents. In 1964, this austere, intense loner moved to Washington and set up shop as a self-appointed lobbyist for the public.

He served as unpaid consultant to a new Senate Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization, chaired by freshman Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, former governor of Connecticut and brother of a Ford dealer. Ribicoff decided to hold hearings on the federal government's role in auto safety. Among Detroit "celebrities" called to testify were GM Chairman Frederic Donner and the new president, James Roche.

They were not prepared for the hostile grilling they received from Ribicoff and, in particular, the committee's counsel, Robert Kennedy. The brusque Donner and the grandfatherly Roche turned in dismal performances.

Nader had collected an enormous amount of data about the Corvair and wrote a book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," an indictment of the auto industry in general and the Corvair in particular. By 1965, more than 100 lawsuits involving the car had been filed.

It came out that GM had hired a private detective to follow Nader to try to "get something" on the crusader. But there was nothing and the public was outraged that mighty GM would put a gumshoe on the trail of this lone lawyer. The upshot was that Roche appeared again before a congressional committee and publicly apologized to Nader. It was a class act by Roche. It was also a painful humiliation for this honorable man.

The Corvair was dead. In his book Nader cited the suspension on the '65 Corvair as an example of excellent engineering, what Chevrolet could and should have done in the first place. But the damage was done. Nader probably did not kill the Corvair by himself. He had a lot of help from Ford Motor Co. in the form of the Mustang, introduced in 1964. Corvair sales plummeted and in 1969 it was quietly dropped.

It was not widely mourned at GM. The Chevrolet sales department had never liked it, many dealers didn't like it; it was an engineer's car.

The auto industry was making money and sales were strong as the '60s came to a close. But things had changed. The golden age was over. Detroit was on the defensive. America's love affair with the auto, some said, was on the rocks.

Copyright 1996, Richard A. Wright
Published by Wayne State University's Department of Communications