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 bells."
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," one quips.)
"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 like it."
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
By 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 hearings.
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 letter added.
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 domestic." Ed.