How the Chevrolet Corvair helped elect George W Bush

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Designed to take on the flood of cheap imports . . . the 1960 four-door Chevrolet Corvair.

You might think that the Model T Ford is the most influential car ever produced in the USA, but I disagree.

My pick is the Chevrolet Corvair.

Chevrolet released the Corvair in late 1959. With its engine made out of aluminium, cooled by air and mounted in the rear, this was a different American car by any measure.

Its driving force was Mr Ed Cole, soon to be president of all of General Motors, but in 1959 – he was the general manager of Chevrolet.

The Corvair was GM’s answer to the rising tide of imported small cars. Ford and Chrysler went with conventional driveline layout for their compacts, Falcon and Valiant – but Cole, the engineer, wanted to go radical.

He reasoned that an air cooled engine eliminated all of the complexity, costs and weight of cooling systems. A rear mounted engine also meant no drivelines, saving even more weight and costs.

It seemed all too good to be true. And for a while it was. GM sold over 300,000 Corvairs in 1961 alone.

Trouble was, during the development of the Corvair the bean counters decided to save a few dollars per car and the rear stabilisers bars were removed from the swing axle suspension. Wrong decision.

Soon the stories of accidents started to filter into GM and you know the whole sad story from there on, which can be summed up in four words – oversteer, crashes, injuries and lawsuits.

In November 1965 an unassuming Washington lawyer. Ralph Nader, who’d been working for a Senate subcommittee, published his book “Unsafe at Any Speed”. Only the first chapter was about the Corvair and the accidents and injuries it was claimed it have caused – but that was enough for it all to unravel.

By early 1966 the lawsuits had really started to roll into GM and politicians had started to take notice.

During 1967 the political pressure was so great that the US congress started to pass laws regulating automobile design and safety standards. And so the great consumer protection regulatory reforms began in the US, covering many industries and products.

That regulatory tsunami swept around the world.

Quite simply, the Corvair changed consumer laws on a global scale. The burden of proof on accidential injuries caused by faulty products now fell on those who made and marketed those products.

Meanwhile, Nader had become a global celebrity, his name synonymous with consumer protection.

In the year 2000, a 66 year old Nader decided to run for President of the USA against then Vice President Al Gore and Republican nominee George W Bush. Nader received nearly 95,000 votes in Florida, which George W Bush won by less than 2000 votes.

It was Florida which kept Al Gore out of the White House. Perhaps, had not Nader been on the ballot, it is possible that many of those 95,000 votes would have gone to Gore. And if it had not been for the Corvair, Nader might have been just one of many unknown names on the ballot.

You might say, the Covair legacy elected George W Bush.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au



David Burrell is the founder and editor of Retroautos.com.au, a free online classic cars magazine. David has a passion for cars and car design. He's also into speedway, which he's been writing about since 1981. His first car was a rusted-out 1961 Vauxhall Velox. Prior to starting the magazine, David worked as an international executive in a Fortune 500 company, in Australia, NZ, Asia, Latin America and the UK.