Unsafe at Any Speed?

Are Corvairs "unsafe at any speed"?  Ralph Nader said YES in 1965.  In 1972, after reviewing Nader's evidence and conducting it's own tests on Corvairs, the United States government said NO. 

Many people are aware of Nader's contention that Corvairs are unsafe, but few are aware that, after an exhaustive investigation, the government arrived at a different conclusion.  Naturally, the Corvair Society of America (CORSA) welcomed the results of the government study as soon as it came out.  The following is an editorial that appeared in the October 1972 issue of CORSA's "Windmill" magazine.

Corvair Exonerated!  On Friday, July 21, 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - a branch of the federal government - issued a report on its two year investigation of the 1960-1963 Corvair.  The report concludes: "The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles, both foreign and domestic." 

The NHTSA investigation proceeded along four fronts:  (1) a comprehensive search and review of all related General Motors/Chevrolet internal letters, memos, tests, reports, etc. regarding the Corvair’s handling, (2) a similar search and review of all related public technical literature, (3) a review of all national accident data compiled by insurance companies and traffic authorities for Corvairs and four other brands compact cars, both foreign and domestic, and (4) most importantly, a series of actual driving and handling tests designed to evaluate the handling and stability of Corvairs and the other cars under extreme maneuvering conditions.  The driving and handling tests were conducted for NHTSA by the Texas Institute of Transportation at Texas A&M University.  Click HERE for a pdf copy of NHTSA's "Evaluation of the 1960-1963 Corvair Handling and Stability".

To ensure the credibility of its findings, the results of the NHTSA investigation were then evaluated by a panel of three automotive experts (Raul Wright, Edwin Resler, and Ray Caldwell) who concluded the investigation was "adequate in scope and depth" and agreed that the Corvair "did not have a safety defect and is not more likely to roll over than contemporary automobiles." Click HERE for a pdf copy of the "Panel Evaluation of the NHTSA Approach to the 1960-1963 Corvair Handling and Stability".

Whitewash?  A day before this report was released, Ralph Nader released to the press a copy of a letter he wrote to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.  In it he called the government investigation a "whitewash" and urged a congressional investigation.  He said the testing procedures had "numerous defects" and was "rigged" in General Motors' favor.  Nader further complained the government conclusions were contrary to the evidence he had previously shown on Corvair rollovers, statistical highway data or Corvair accidents, and cash settlements paid to Corvair victims by GM.

A statement from General Motors said only that the NHTSA report "confirms our position concerning the handling and stability characteristics of the 1960-1963 Corvair."

GM and the Feds.  Your Windmill editor has purposely avoided the Nader/Corvair controversy.  My feeling has been that CORSA members want to enjoy their Corvairs without constant reminders through news clippings in The Windmill of the car's supposed defects.  Now that an unbiased government report has been published, the time has come to speak out.

Mr. Nader may call this report a whitewash if he wishes, but does he actually expect us to believe that the government would bias it in favor of GM?  After more than five years of ever tougher federal safety and pollution laws, does Mr. Nader expect us to believe the government has suddenly done an about-face just to please GM?

During the seven years since Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed was published, we've been subjected to a continual barrage of anti-Corvair material.  In this period, not one court case has been decided against GM.  Now we have a government report declaring the stability of the car "at least as good" as its contemporaries.  If Mr. Nader is the hard-hitting, factual consumer advocate he claims, he would retract his whitewash charge and openly admit he is wrong in his Corvair stability findings.

About the Corvair Direct Air Heater.  In related actions this past winter, the NHTSA issued a bulletin on "potential health and safety hazards" of the 1961-1969 Corvair heaters, citing preliminary findings of carbon monoxide concentrations in some Corvairs.  This was merely a bulletin "inviting current consumer experience" and was in no way a final report.

Concurrently with the NHTSA bulletin, Chevrolet mailed certified letters to all registered Corvair owners notifying them of the NHTSA findings (Of 292 Corvairs tested, six were found to have sufficient amounts of carbon monoxide in the passenger compartment to cause a loss of driver alertness over a period of eight hours or more).  The letter urged that owners have their Corvairs inspected by a Chevrolet dealer.  It further stated "Chevrolet does not agree with the initial determination of a defect which was made by the NHTSA.  It is Chevrolet's position that there is no such risk if the Corvair has been regularly inspected and properly maintained and is in good working order."   Click HERE for the text of Chevrolet's certified letter.

Although an automobile heater is usually not considered a regular maintenance item, the system used in the Corvair necessitates periodic inspections.  Your editor supports Chevrolet's position on this subject.

The Ford Film.  CORSA members attending the '72 convention in Maryland may well remember seeing a film supplied by Dr. Charles Nash.  Dr. Nash, representing Mr. Nader, spoke briefly at the business meeting and presented this film as conclusive proof that the 1960 Ford Falcon was superior to the 1960 Corvair in handling tests.  The film, entitled "1960 Falcon- Corvair Handling Comparison", was an official Ford Motor Company project, and was made in the summer of 1959.  The tests were conducted on a circular track with a center radius of 150 feet.  Tire pressures on both vehicles were varied for different phases of the tests; in all phases the Corvair followed the Falcon.  The Corvair continually spun-out.

The NHTSA investigated this film and their findings appear in their Corvair investigation report.  They conclude "that the film......is not a valid evaluation of the handling characteristics of a 1960 Corvair."  NHTSA observed, "As the vehicles come to the end of the second curve with no apparent problems the driver of the Corvair can clearly be seen turning the steering wheel to the inside of the radius of the curve, for no logical reason, just as the vehicle passes the camera.  At this point in time the vehicle starts to skid."  Their analysis further states: "The test was conducted so that the Falcon was always the lead car when the two cars were driven in the same scene.  It was the conclusion of the analysis that this gave the Falcon a distinct advantage.  The drivers could not be monitored in their steering, throttle, or brake activities.  The drivers did not use any visible crash helmets or other safety equipment; apparently rollovers or accidents of this nature were not anticipated.  There were skid marks and dirt on the track at several points, where the driver ultimately left the road, which were there prior to the filming.  This indicated that some practice runs may have been performed before the filming.  It was interesting to note that the driver generally got the car to skid in about the same location, at a point where he was in front of the camera.  The driver also got the Corvair to go straight off the circular test track both forward and backward in the same spot."  Clearly the tests were rigged to make the Corvair look bad. No surprise - the film was produced by Ford Motor Company.


Regarding the scope of the NHTSA investigation:  Due to Nader’s charges about the Corvair and the national concerns for automobile safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was authorized to run a series of comparative tests during the Spring and Summer of 1971 to demonstrate the handling of the 1963 Corvair against four contemporary competitive automobiles.  Involved in the tests were the Ford Falcon, Plymouth Valiant, Volkswagen Beetle, Renault Dauphine, the 1963 Corvair, and a 1967 Corvair for reference.