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.