Popularity of Nader Declines to Its
Nadir Among Corvair Owners
By Charles B. Camp
Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
CHICAGO—To a great many American consumers, Ralph Nader
is a hero.
Time and again, he has crusaded against big, impersonal
corporations and organizations; he has sought protection for the buying
public from what he has contended are unsafe practices or dangerous
products. Many people say his most spectacular crusade even led to the
demise of an entire line of automobiles, the Corvair, after he charged
that is was unsafe.
But tomorrow a group of Corvair owners from around the
country is gathering here to give Ralph Nader some lumps. It will be the
first national convention of the Corvair Society of America, and to many
of the 200 or so Corvair lovers attending the meeting Mr. Nader is an arch
villain rather than a hero—at least when it comes to their favorite car.
"I'm not so sure Ralph Nader isn't more interested in
promoting Ralph Nader than he is in promoting safety," snorts Anthony
Fiore, a 54-year-old purchasing agent from Bronxville, N.Y. Complains
22-year-old Diana Brodman, an attractive Chicago computer programmer who
organized the meeting, "He's just a publicity hound; he'll say
anything just to get mileage out of it."
The Road to Prominence
Ralph Nader, of course, first gained prominence in the
mid-1960s with his charges against the Corvair, General Motors' popular
rear-engine compact. He contended that because of an unsafe design, the
car was prone to go out of control and tip over under certain driving
conditions. His charges are generally believed to be the reason that
Corvair sales went into a tailspin in the late 1960s, prompting GM in
mid-1969 to yank the car out of production for good.
Mr. Nader hasn't been content to let sleeping Corvairs lie.
Even though the car isn't produced any more, he has recently stepped up
the attack, urging that those Corvairs still on the road be recalled.
The meeting here, which is attracting participants from as
far away as California, is being billed as a social affair. But anti-Nader
feelings among Corvair fans seem to be running higher than ever. Already,
several direct Nader-countering activities have been planned.
One is a proposal for a Green Beret-like "surveillance
group" of Corvair buffs to try to offset the influence of Mr. Nader's
"Raiders" in the auto-safety field. The group plans to call
itself the Corsairs (Corvair Society for Automotive Industry Research). It
will lobby for better auto brakes and suspension systems and for tougher
driver education, licensing and laws on drunken driving. It will also seek
to "prevent the recurrence of such regressive steps as the
elimination of the Corvair, which was one of the safest cars on the
American road." And it will fight the inclusion in future cars of
"such asinine devices as air bags, governors and clanging
Will a Corvair Tip Over?
More spectacular, perhaps, will be a public attempt to
tip over a Corvair by roaring it around on an obstacle course set up in a
parking lot near the convention. Convention planners promise, of course,
that the Corvair won't tip over and will thereby disprove Mr. Nader's
charges once and for all. ("The damn thing better not tip over,"
"I'm not worried about it at all," says 16-year-old
Larry Claypool, a Chicago High-school senior who has volunteered his car
(a 1963 model) and his neck for the demonstration. Larry has three
Corvairs, his mother has another and so does his brother. "We've had
Corvairs in the family since I was in first grade," he says.
"The car just doesn't deserve the bad name Ralph Nader gave it."
Others share that view. "About the only way I could
think of to tip my Corvair over would be to drive it off a cliff,"
says Rick Norris, a Charleston, W.Va., draftsman, who was recently elected
president of the society.
Indeed, some Nader-critics think the Corvair is being
attacked on bum information. "I saw some excerpts of a film that Mr.
Nader said proves Corvairs are unstable," says Jim Micheau, a Chicago
owner of two Corvairs. "A driverless Corvair was towed up to 50 of
55 miles an hour by another car and released. It went of of control and
tipped over. Now, to me, all that proves is that a Corvair is unsafe when
traveling at 50 or 55 miles an hour without a driver."
Mr. Nader says he doesn't have that film, only reports on GM
proving ground tests in which, he says, cars with drivers tipped over at
much lower speeds.
Intentionally or otherwise, Mr. Nader has dented the
reputation of all Corvairs even though his original attack was
specifically on 1960 through 1963 models. Corvair supporters say,
"The 1961 model wasn't a bad handling car, and from 1965 on the
Corvair was one of the safest, most predictable handling cars ever built
in this country," says Richard M. Langworth, a Hopewell, N.J.,
magazine editor, who started the society. "But by that time no one
would believe it."
So Corvair Society of America members (the acronym of the
club, CORSA, spells out the name of a popular model of the non-defunct
car) are trying to set the record straight. "I've written more than
100 letters" to Congressmen, Transportation Secretary John Volpe,
President Nixon, Vice President Agnew and other public officials, says
Miss Brodman, who owns two Corvairs.
"I even wrote to Tricia (Nixon) from a girl's point of
view," Miss Brodman says, "I told her to whisper in her father's
ear that Corvairs are really nice cars." Tricia didn't answer the
letter, Miss Brodman says.
Tricia may or may not have whispered in her father's ear, but
Mr. Nader hasn't changed his stand by a whisper. He continues to demand
that GM call back or buy back all the Corvairs on the road. And that idea
makes Corvair buffs blow their tops.
Mr. Norris, the society's president, bristles at Mr.
Nader's suggestion that he ought to be relieved of his Corvair.
"He'll have to take it over my dead body," he says. "The
only thing I'd give up my Corvair (a 1964 model) for is a newer one just
Many Corvair lovers have carefully read Mr. Nader's book,
they watch him when he is on television, and when he comes to town for a
speech, they go to listen. And many say they admire some things he has
accomplished. "He has done a lot of good things to help
consumers," says young Mr. Claypool, the convention test driver. But
when it comes to the Corvair, they think that Mr. Nader is all wet.
As far as Mr. Nader is concerned, it's the Corvair lovers who
are uninformed. "I only wish their Corvairs would love them as much
as they love their Corvairs," he says. He contends that GM documents,
statements by former GM employees and statements by other industry
engineers in the past 10 months "prove" that the car is unsafe.
"It used to be our charges against GM; now it's GM's own
documents," he asserts. "Either (the Corvair lovers) haven't
read the latest stuff, or they're too emotionally committed to face the
facts. They're developing an automotive religion, not an automotive
science." Mr. Nader says Corvairs constitute a "public
health" hazard to others even if their owners are content with them.
So far, the Corvair society has shied away from any formal
confrontation with Mr. Nader. But members wage guerrilla warfare. In the
society's quarterly magazine, Mr. Nader's name is mangled regularly,
"not entirely by accident," according to its editor, Mr. Fiore.
Two variations: Nat Rader and Nat Ranter. )Mr. Nader is sent a
complimentary copy of each issue, Mr. Fiore says, but Mr. Nader says he
hasn't received any.) Through letters to major car-buff magazines,
nonmembers are asked to help in letter-writing campaigns. And all the
while, society membership is growing, approaching 1,000, which makes it
one of the biggest specialized auto-fan clubs in the U.S.
Still, being a Corvair lover and a Nader hater isn't as easy
as it sounds. Sometimes you have trouble knowing who your friends are.
Take General Motors, for instance. You might think the company would cheer
the Corvair society on and lend all the help necessary to make the
convention here a success.
But instead GM has been acting as though it wishes the
society would just go away. "We offered Edward Cole (GM's president
and a key figure in the development of the Corvair) an honorary
membership," Mr. Fiore says. "He turned it down." So Mr.
Fiore now just sends Mr. Cole and his wife complimentary copies of his
magazine. Mr. Cole was asked to be the convention's banquet speaker, but
he turned that down, Corvair society officials say. He was then asked just
to come as a guest, they add, but declined once again.
Now some Corvair lovers might be miffed at that kind of
treatment. But not Mr. Micheau, the Chicagoan who owns two Corvairs. In
fact, he isn't even annoyed that GM "knuckled under" to Mr.
Nader's pressure and dropped the car, as some fans are. "If you go to
a wake, the minister usually says, 'We thank God he was here,'" Mr.
Micheau asserts. "Well, we feel the same way. We thank GM just for
making the Corvair at all."
U.S. Rejects Nader Charge
a WALL STREET JOURNAL Staff Reporter
WASHINGTON—The Justice Department
rejected recent charges by Ralph Nader that General Motors Corp. should be
prosecuted for allegedly making false statements during 1966 Senate
The department's position was disclosed in a letter to Sen.
Abraham Ribicoff (D., Conn.), who in May requested a review of new charges
raised by Mr. Nader regarding GM's testimony at a 1966 hearing into the
auto maker's much-publicized investigation of Mr. Nader's activities. Sen.
Ribicoff is chairman of the Government Reorganization subcommittee that
had conducted the hearing.
Mr. Nader, in seeking the review, had cited what he said was
new evidence that GM, contrary to its 1966 testimony, had investigated
persons other than himself and that the official hearing record has been
unlawfully revised to delete alleged misstatements by GM officials.
A previous Justice Department inquiry into GM's testimony at
the hearing concluded in 1968 that there wasn't any basis for prosecution.
But Mr. Nader contended that the inquiry was based on a narrow statute
related to perjury rather than a broader law against giving false
testimony to a congressional hearing.
The Justice Department in its letter to Sen. Ribicoff
rejected prosecution on either ground. "We have determined that none
of the matters brought to our attention merits further outside inquiry or
suggests a conclusion different" from the 1968 finding regarding
perjury or obstruction of justice, the department said. Nor is there
"a reasonable basis" for prosecution for false statements, the
Sen. Ribicoff said the subcommittee staff is continuing an
investigation into other charges by Mr. Nader concerning GM's 1966
testimony about the safety of the Corvair.
Note: A two-year study by the
Department of Transportation's National Highway Transportation Safety
Administration later concluded, "The handling and stability
performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal
potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as
the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and