You might think the Model T Ford is the most influential car ever produced in the USA, but I beg to disagree. My pick is the Chevrolet Corvair.
Chevrolet released the Corvair in late 1959. With its aluminium engine, cooled by air and mounted in the rear, this was a different American car by any measure.
Its driving force was Ed Cole, soon to be president of General Motors, but in 1959 he was manager of Chevrolet.
The Corvair was GM’s answer to the rising tide of imported small cars. Ford and Chrysler went with a 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.
Mounting it in the rear also meant no drivelines, saving even more weight and costs. And, of course, there were those swing rear axles, with no stabiliser bars.
It seemed all too good to be true — and for a while it was.
GM sold over 300,000 Corvairs in 1961 alone. But soon the stories of accidents started to spread. And you know the whole sad story from there on, which can be summed up in three words: oversteer, crashes and injuries.
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 to have caused, but that was enough for it all to unravel for Ed Cole and GM.
By early 1966 the lawsuits had really started to roll in, and politicians had started to take notice.
During 1967 the political pressure was so great that 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 accidental 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 United States 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 Nader not 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.
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