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An Unreasonable Car

The doomed Chevy Corvair turns 50. Ralph Nader blows out the candles.

Fifty years ago, a well-designed automobile generally called to mind sleek tail fins, baroque hood ornaments, and dashboards filled with shiny, unusually shaped knobs. Ralph Nader disrupted that narrative when he published Unsafe At Any Speed. The target of wake-up call to the automobile industry was the notorious 1963 Chevy Corvair.

“It was a fairly pretty car,” Ralph Nader remembers from his office in Washington D.C. “It was a new idea—a rear-engine car during a period of enormous industrial auto stagnation.” Nader explains that in the early 1960s, Chevrolet looked to reverse its lagging sales by turning to Europe, which was ahead of the United States in terms of disc brakes, radial tires, and rear-engine assembly. The Volkswagen was all the rage, and the Corvair was Chevrolet’s attempt to capitalize on it with what even its harshest critic acknowledges as an aesthetic achievement. “Even by today’s standards, it was a pretty car,” he says. “It had a nice modulation to its exterior. The ‘frisky Corvair’ is how they’d refer to it.”

Nader pauses for a moment as if for dramatic effect. “Of course, I don’t think GM continued calling it ‘frisky’ when the litigation started.”

That litigation revolved around the Corvair’s swing-axel rear suspension, which made the vehicle prone to oversteer when traveling over curves in the road. Though the car was marketed for its easy handling, what unfortunately set the 1960-63 Corvair apart from comparable foreign models was, in Nader’s words, “the sudden onset of the critical point at which the vehicle goes out of control and flips over.” Yeah, and you thought the auxiliary input jack you need to play your iPod in your car is a nuisance.

What made Nader’s criticism more stinging to the auto industry was how he framed it—not as a product of faulty or careless production, but of deliberate decision-making by its maker.

“I was ascribing intentions at the highest level for the bad design,” Nader recalls. “The manufacturer [GM] couldn’t blame some worker who had a drunken weekend and came in and did a sloppy job on the assembly line. It went up the hierarchy of power and responsibility. Why didn’t they just put a collapsible steering column in the Corvair? Well, because it would’ve cost more. Why didn’t they put a better suspension system? Well, it might’ve cost three to four bucks. Now, multiply that by a million Corvairs and you’ll understand why.”

Unsafe catapulted Nader into national stardom and established his street cred as a passionate consumer advocate. “I was 31 at the time of its publishing,” he remembers. “It took me by surprise because when I first proposed it, a publisher wrote me back saying, ‘Thank you very much for your manuscript. I cannot accept it for publication, although it might appeal to a small market of insurance agents.’” Nader, now 79, trails into a chortle. “With that kind of letter it kind of lowers your expectations.”

Rereading the book today, it’s hard to imagine a single rational mind dismissing the book on the basis of its insularity. It’s a veritable design manifesto to a culture that somehow took for granted that aesthetics could be divorced from ethics. Perhaps there is no greater measure of the impact of that message than the reaction that came out of Detroit once the book was eventually published.

“I didn’t quite realize that such a book could make the industry extremely nervous because it moved from criticizing construction defects like sloppy assembly lines,” Nader remembers. “The lug falls off—they could always brush that off as being episodic, but when you go right to the design, that’s no longer episodic—that’s at the highest levels of the corporation, and it’s systemic. So it really stunned them.”

Nader’s book resonated well beyond the auto industry and became a national bestseller in the United States for 15 weeks. It’s safe to say it was one of the cultural catalysts behind legislation such as the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, which required the establishment of federal safety standards for all vehicles sold after January 31, 1968, including precautions we now take for granted, like safer windshields, collapsible steering columns, dashboards shorn of hazardous knobs and sharp edges, and...oh yeah, that modest contraption known as the seat belt.

In a world in which social impact is a cornerstone of the design process, it’s hard to imagine how radical Nader’s critique of the Corvair’s design must have sounded back in the 1960s. “At the time, the designer had a low status,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Call in a designer and make it look a little better!’ Of course, there are transcendent principles of product design.”

One of the principles weaving its way through Unsafe is one that has been gathering momentum in the design community today—what has come to be referred to as “resilience.” Design thinkers such as Andrew Zolli have questioned the pragmatism behind the sustainability movement, referencing the growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, non-governmental organizations, philanthropies, governments, and corporations designing solutions around the premise that vulnerable systems will persist. As Zolli wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year: “Where sustainability aims to put the world back in balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.” Rereading Nader’s critique of the Corvair, one cannot help but be reminded of this moment in which resiliency is increasingly de rigueur. “I can’t stress enough,” Nader wrote in Unsafe, “that with proper design, accidents can be safe.” Or, as he paraphrases today, “You may not eliminate the accident—the car swerving off the road and into a tree or an abutment, but you can minimize or even eliminate the injurious consequences of the second collision when the motorist goes through the windshield.”

I ask Nader about a hypothesis I’ve had since watching Steve Skrovan and Henriette Mantel’s 2007 documentary film about his life, An Unreasonable Man. It sprung from a scene in which Nader traces his problem-solving skills back to his childhood in Winsted, Conn., and describes how his father Nathra would give him and his siblings “design challenges” at breakfast and ask them to present their solutions at dinnertime.

“It wasn’t like an engineering session with young mechanics-to-be,” he recalls fondly. “Since my father was in the restaurant business, it started with burn problems. How do you deal with being burnt by the stove or hot water? He had plants (that turned out to be aloe). You squeeze them and put [the liquid] on your finger, and that was a design solution.”

Lost in reverie, he continues: “When my father was watching a baseball game with a batter being hit in the head, he asked, ‘Why don’t they have a padded hat?’ [The batting helmet was not introduced to Major League Baseball until 1940.] And one time, I remember seeing a game where—I think it was with the Dodgers— the player went back, [outfielder] Bryce Harper-like, way back, back... hit against the wall and then... He was silent on the grass. My father asked, ‘What are they doing building steel or hard wood walls in the ballpark?’ Come to think of it, he was also the first person to tell me about the ancient Roman chariots having padded dash panels.”

For more, check out our companion piece on classic books with inspiring design messages.

Illustration by Jessica de Jesus.

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