Unsafe in any County: Chevrolet Corvair

This is the third instalment of a four-part series, Unsafe in any County, by Special Project Coordinator Jeremy Dechert.  The series focuses on the dangers posed by historic automobiles or automobile components and is inspired by the museum’s growing database of historical digitized newspapers from across Huron County. These newspapers can be accessed by visiting our website. In our previous two instalments, we focused on the dangers of the 1953 Buick Roadmaster’s braking system, and the dangers and innovations of early automobile windshields.

This week we will be discussing the infamous Chevrolet Corvair, a vehicle that was thrust to the forefront of a national vehicle safety campaign. To some it was a menace; to others, it was merely a scapegoat.

In the late 1950s, Chevrolet wanted to break into the compact car market. European imports like the Volkswagen Beatle and the newly released Studebaker-Packard Lark were selling well and Chevrolet wanted to take a chunk out of their market share. Only one domestically produced compact vehicle was being sold at this time, the AMC American Rambler.

In 1959, Chevrolet released their infamous Corvair. It marked a significant change for Chevrolet. Instead of placing the engine in the front of the car, it was moved to the back. The suspension system incorporated a swing axel design, allowing each wheel to independently absorb impacts. The modifications made for the Corvair were touted as a being practical by allowing for more floor space, reducing engine noise and heat, and providing better handling and suspension.

In an advertisement published in the November 26, 1959 issue of the Seaforth News, Chevrolet boasted that “every wheel can sod a bump without affecting any other. So the ride is far softer- and the wheels cling to the pavement better.” This advertisement also claimed that the Corvair “rides rock solid through the tightest turns. Steering is light as a feather, [so it] will never need power assistance.”

In another advertisement, published in the April 28, 1960 edition of the Seaforth News, the Corvair’s suspension was said to “give each wheel its own cell spring and its own knee action. Result: a smoother, flatter ride.”

The Corvair’s suspension system may have made for a smooth ride when passing over bumps, but flexibility of the axels made the Corvair’s wheels susceptible to tucking under the vehicle when taking sharp turns. This could result in the vehicle skidding out of control or tipping over. Compounding this issue was the fact the vehicle’s engine was located in the rear. This could generate quite a bit of momentum, exacerbating the traction issue.

In his book Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader cited a 1965 Car and Driver article, stating that the Corvair (prior to 1965) “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. The rear wheels would lose traction, tuck under, and with the tail end up jacked up in the air, the car would swing around like a three-pound hammer on a thirty-foot string.”

Like Buick did with their 1953 Roadmaster, Chevrolet provided a factory-made modification package to address the shortcomings of the Corvair. The package was offered as early as 1961 and provided more substantial suspension springs and shock absorbers, a front stabilizer bar, and rear axle round straps to reduce wheel tuck under. However, like Buick, Chevrolet did not openly advertise this modification package. It was also factory installed.  This meant that the average, less-informed, Corvair driver would either not know about the package or see its value.

Also like Buick, Chevrolet was hit with lawsuits filed by aggrieved customers. In 1965, three lawsuits were filed against GM for alleged vehicle instability. Two were won by GM and one was not. In none of the cases was information on technical data or test results revealed.

The safety of the Corvair was brought to light by Ralph Nader in his book Unsafe at Any Speed. He took Chevrolet to task for disregarding of the Corvair’s safety issues once they came to light. The unethical nature of Chevrolet’s response to Nader’s book and public safety campaign did not help Chevrolet’s image. They hired private detectives to find compromising information about Nader in order to discredit and silence him. However, according to a subsequent study for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it was determined that the Corvair (1960-1963) was no more dangerous than similar vehicles produced by other manufactures. So, was Chevrolet unfairly singled out for creating an unsafe vehicle? Yes. But, were they unfairly criticized? No.

 

Unsafe in any County: Windshields

This is the second instalment of a four-part series, Unsafe in any County, by Special Project Coordinator Jeremy Dechert. The series focuses on the dangers posed by historic automobiles or automobile components and is inspired by the Museum’s growing database of digitized historical newspapers from across Huron County. These newspapers can be accessed by visiting our website. In our first instalment, we focused on the dangers of the 1953 Buick Roadmaster’s braking system.

This week, we will be focusing on the dangers and innovations of early automobile windshields. Windshields were first introduced as optional vehicle components in 1904. Automobile manufacturers such as Ford and Cadillac offered windshields as standard equipment as early as 1911 while other manufacturers such as Studebaker, EMF, and Flanders offered windshields as optional equipment available at an extra cost. Windshields were not standard features on most vehicles until 1915.

The Herald. May 24, 1912 p.5

Originally, windshields were made with single sheet plate glass. The 1925/1926 Essex Super Six, originally owned by the Museum’s founder Mr. Neil, and on display here at the Huron County Museum, has a windshield made of plate glass. This glass was effective for keeping bugs, debris, water and snow out of a vehicle. However, should an accident occur, it was less successful at keeping the driver or passenger(s) in. They could easily be ejected through the window or the glass could break into large, sharp pieces which were liable to cause injuries. There are numerous accounts of such injuries occurring in Huron County as seen in local newspaper articles.

The Seaforth News. September 15, 1938 p.2

 

The Wingham Advance. May 15, 1930 p.1

The Signal. April 29, 1920 p.8

The Signal. June 21, 1917 p.7

In 1909, there was a major development in glass technology: safety glass. Safety glass does not break as easily as plate glass. It is intended to crack and splinter rather than shatter when impacted. This type of glass helps to prevent occupants from being ejected from the vehicle in the case of a crash, provides more rigidity to the car frame in the case of a rollover, and makes it more difficult for thieves to break into a vehicle. The August 2, 1956 edition of the Zurich Herald included a concise explanation of how safety glass was invented by French Chemist Edouard Benedict…by accident.

Zurich Herald. August 2, 1956 p.6

Wingham Advance-Times. July 18, 1929 p.2

Two decades after its invention, Ford was the first vehicle manufacturer to include safety glass as a standard feature on a vehicle under $1500. Meaning, Ford was the first company to put this new windshield in front of the average consumer. Beginning in 1929, triplex safety glass windshields were a standard feature on all Ford models. This triplex glass consisted of three layers. The outer two layers were made of regular sheet glass and the inner layer was made of cellulose, giving the windshield rigidity and form. In 1928, The Seaforth News ran an article describing the manufacturing process for “Non-Shatterable Glass.”


Seaforth News. July 12, 1928 p.7

Although the invention of safety glass undoubtedly saved many drivers and passengers from injury and death, it did not avoid criticism. In 1937, The Department of Highways (US) outlined the shortcomings of safety glass in an article titled Automobiles – and Sudden Death. Though sensationalist in tone, the article notes the danger of partial occupant ejection during automobile accidents. According to the article, the safety glass could “guillotine.” Ralph Nader echoed this concern in 1965. He specifically criticized the quality of safety glass. He named safety glass windshields as the third greatest culprit in causing injury during automobile accidents. He argued that while safety glass windshields often prevented an occupant from fully leaving the vehicle, they did not protect occupants who were only partially ejected. The glass would act as a jaw when the occupant’s momentum came back towards the vehicle following the initial impact. Safety glass has progressed immensely since 1965 but this great innovation was not an instant solution to a serious safety issue facing motorists. For more automobile history, visit our website and search our growing collection of digitized newspapers from across Huron County.

 

excerpt: “Automobiles – and Sudden Death,” Clinton News Record September 2, 1937 p.7

 

Unsafe in any County: The 1953 Buick Roadmaster

This is the first of a four part series on vehicle safety, inspired by articles found in digitized historical newspapers from across Huron County. Many of these newspapers can now be accessed by visiting our website. The story of vehicle safety is protracted and involves many actors. In this series on the history of vehicle safety, Special Project Coordinator Jeremy Dechert will shed light on particular vehicles and vehicle components which were discovered to be dangerous through either design flaws or negligence.

 
According to the above advertisement for the 1953 Buick Roadmaster, “all this flash-fast getaway, this new quiet, this stepped-up efficiency, this more spirited performance, can be judged only for the driver’s seat.” I disagree; this car can also be judged by those who have never driven one. On January 18, 1954, Leon Friend drove his 1953 Buick Roadmaster to the Lawless Buick Company in Ferndale Michigan for service. The previous day he had experienced a total loss of braking power. Clifford Wentworth, the assistant service manager, was pulling Mr. Friend’s car into the garage when the brakes failed yet again. Unable to stop, Mr. Wentworth crushed the leg of mechanic Robert Comstock between the Buick and another vehicle he was working on. Comstock lost his leg as a result of his injury.

The negligence of General Motors in dealing with the ‘53 Roadmaster’s known braking issue was highlighted during the course of the lawsuit brought by Comstock and his workmen’s compensation carrier against General Motors and Clifford Wentworth, the assistant service manager. The Roadmaster’s hydraulic breaking system had faulty ‘o’ rings. The ‘o’ rings acted as a seal between the master cylinder and vacuum cylinder of the power braking system. Because they created a poor seal, brake fluid would be sucked out of the braking system and up into the engine where it was burned off. With the brake fluid depleted, when the brakes were engaged the amount of pressure required to stop the vehicle could not build up in the brake lines.

Wentworth testified that General Motors was aware of the braking issue problem with the Roadmaster by November of 1953. Garages were told to fix the problem when vehicles came in for service. However, Buick’s Service Department advised garage operators not to preventatively warn known Roadmaster owners of the danger they faced. Only if an owner brought their vehicle in for service were garage mechanics were to fix the issue. Further, if a Roadmaster owner did bring their vehicle in for service but the garage did not have the parts to fix the braking issue, the garage owner was pressured by General Motors not to inform the vehicle owner of the issue. Comstock lost the case in circuit court but upon appeal to the Supreme Court of Michigan, he was granted a new trial. However, before the re-trial began, GM settled the case out of court to the tune of $75 000. This example of negligence was featured in Ralph Nader’s 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed, an explosive exposé on safety standards in the automobile industry. This work changed the nature of vehicle safety in North America.

*Details for this story were taken from Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, 1965.

Children in the Huron Jail

May 18th is International Museum Day! Museums and historic sites across the world are opening their doors for free today. For those whom cannot visit the Huron Historic Gaol in person, Student Museum Assistant Jacob Smith delves into the building’s past to reveal how some of Huron’s youngest prisoners ended up behind bars. 

During its operation [1841-1972], hundreds of children were arrested and sent to the Huron Jail. Their crimes ranged from arson and theft to drunkenness and vagrancy. The most common crime that children committed was theft. In total, thefts made up over half of all youth charges between 1841 and 1911. In total, children under the age of 18 made up 7% of the gaol population during that time.*

 
Occasionally, young people were sent to gaol for serious crimes. In 1870, William Mercer, age 17, was brought to the Huron Gaol and charged with murder. He was sentenced to die and was to be hanged on December 29, 1870. Thankfully for Mercer, his sentence was reduced to life in prison and was sent to a penitentiary. This is an example of an extreme crime for a young offender.

On many occasions, children were sent to gaol because they were petty thieves. Many young people who were committed for these types of crimes would only spend a few days in gaol. If the crime was more severe, children would be transferred from the gaol to a reformatory, usually for three to five years.

The youngest inmates that were charged with a crime were both seven years old. The first, Thomas McGinn, was charged in 1888 for larceny. He was discharged five days later and was sentenced to five years in a reformatory. The second, John Scott, was charged in 1900 for truancy; he was discharged the next day.

First floor cell block at the Huron Historic Gaol.

Unfortunately, some children were brought into gaol with their families because they were homeless or destitute. An example of this was in 1858, when Margaret Bird, age 8, Marion Bird, 6, and Jane Bird, 2, spent 25 days in gaol with a woman committed for ‘destitution’ (presumably their mother). Some children were also brought to the Huron Jail because their parents committed a crime and they had nowhere else to go while their parents were incarcerated. Samuel Worms, age 7, was sent to gaol with his parents because they were charged with fraud in 1865. He spent one day in the Gaol.

When reading through the Gaol’s registry, it is clear that times have certainly changed for young offenders. Most of the crimes committed by the young prisoners of the past would not receive as serious punishments today.

Here are some examples of their crimes in newspapers from around Huron County:

Richard Cain, 16, spent two days in jail.
The Huron Signal, 1896-09-17, pg 5.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Butler, 15, spent eleven days in the Huron Jail.
The Exeter Advocate, 1901-08-29, pg 4.

Sources came from the Gaol’s 1841-1911 registry and Huron County’s digitized newspapers.

*Dates for which the gaol registry is available & transcribed. There were young people in the Huron jail throughout its history, into the twentieth century. 

The Gathering Place Part 3: Interviews with Museum Staff

Over the course of the past several months that I’ve spent photographing artifacts at the museum, I’ve been lucky to get the perspectives of several different Huron County Museum staff members to see how they encounter objects and their narratives. Below are a selection of responses from interviews with Curator Elizabeth French-Gibson, Archivist Jenna Leifso, Registrar Patti Lamb, and Museum Technician Heidi Zoethout.

Do you have a favourite artifact/archival document at the museum (either on display or in storage)? If so, could you describe why?

Jenna Leifso (Archivist): I really enjoy the photograph collection and couldn’t pick just one photo because every time I catalogue a new collection or look through the photos I find something that delights me. The facial expressions, the clothes, and the hair are all really incredible.

Elizabeth French-Gibson (Curator): My favourite artifacts are the textiles, primarily the clothing. I look at each piece and wonder about the person who wore it – why did they have it & why did they save it? I am curious to know what other clothes they had and wore out, had and ruined or simply had and didn’t think were significant enough to save. We have many pieces in the collection that are the fancy dress, wedding attire, baby clothing, etc. that are beautiful and special but what about the everyday? What did they chose to simply wear and what to wear out?

Patti Lamb (Registrar): So many of our artifacts tell really cool stories, it’s hard to pick out just one. But my favourite artifact has to be Tiger Dunlop’s silver cup with the gold sovereign in it. We just received it a few months ago. It is so incredible to me to be able to hold in my hands the same silver cup that Tiger Dunlop drank from…someone that was so significant politically to Goderich, the county, our county and the world. The cup was willed to his sister in his quirky will.

Beaded necklace: 1957.10.3. Photo from Huron County Museum’s catalogue.

Heidi Zoethout (Museum Technician): I have a few favourites, right now the top of the list is the carved beaded necklace. The detail in the larger beads is amazing. I did not realize that some beads are carved fruit pits. Something that is normally discarded that can be made into something so beautiful.

Close-up of carved bead.

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What is your perception of artifacts? What place and value do you think they have in society to-day?

Jenna Leifso (Archivist): I think I may have a different perception of artifacts than most people. Growing up, my family always went to museums and historical villages. I think it’s cool to see how we have evolved and how we are always trying to constantly improve.

Elizabeth French-Gibson (Curator): I think that artifacts provide us with a tangible connection with the past. It is necessary to have all types of artifacts available to the public in order to have a better view of the past. It would be easy to change the story, or overlook the mundane if the true pieces were not there. Each artifact has the ability to tell a story but the storyteller must be open to what it is truly saying.

Patti Lamb (Registrar): The artifacts create ties with the past and gives history a visual component. In such a disposable world in which we live, I think it’s important to be able to physically see and possibly touch items from the past.

Heidi Zoethout (Museum Technician): Some people look at an artifact and imagine who would have used it and create a scene in their mind. When I am working with an artifact, I think about the work and thought that went into its creation. Some designs have not changed much over time while others can be seen evolving through the collection we have.Through artifacts we are able to see how our thoughts and values have changed over time as a society and where they have not. It is a common refrain when staff are moving large objects that “they don’t make them like that anymore”. From the materials used, the amount of material used and the details that have gone into producing the product. An example of this is a bicycle that I was preparing for exhibit. It had many grease fittings which we no longer require on bicycles and the rims were made from wood. The wood had been lacquered and pin striping had been applied. When I finished working with the bicycle I came to appreciate it as work of art rather than a mode of transportation.

What would your dream project be? (e.g curating a certain type of exhibition, working with a certain set of artifacts, researching a particular area, etc.)

Jenna Leifso (Archivist): One of my dream projects would be exploring how Huron County residents acquired their clothes. I think there is a misconception that rural citizens were out of fashion and that everything was homemade, drab and boring. It would be interesting to have an exhibit that looks at the clothing factories that used to be here, mail order catalogues like Eatons and Simpsons, and how residents were influenced by fashions overseas. I would use photographs, newspaper advertisements, local directories, maps, correspondence, diary entries, and of course, clothes that are in the collection to research and create this exhibit.
Elizabeth French-Gibson (Curator): I would like to be able to spend more time on research for the Gaol. I think there are resources out there that we have not found yet and the resources that we have that have not been given the focus yet. It would be interesting for me to be able to learn more about the circumstances and lives of the people who spent time in our Gaol, as well as the functions and habits of the Gaol itself.

Patti Lamb (Registrar): My dream project would be anything related to glass or to be able to spend a greater amount of time on the Huron Pottery exhibit and the archeological collection.

Heidi Zoethout (Museum Technician): Currently my dream project would be organizing offsite storage so we could have tours available to the public. There are many details and much work required to make that possible.

Overall, throughout this project one of the most valuable experiences has been hearing the varying perspectives on museums, exhibit design, and artifacts, from such a knowledgeable and unique staff. The differing responses speak to how each of us experiences artifacts and their narratives differently according to our own lived experiences.

The artistic exhibition of photographs taken during this project will be on display in St. Catharines at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts from April 11th – May 5th with an opening reception to be held on April 13th from 5-7pm.