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:
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.