The WC Family Corvair, or, Ralph Nader Comes to Fairbanks

No, the DeWitt Corvair didn't have white-walls, or posed models

No, the DeWitt Corvair didn’t have white-walls, or posed models

In 1960, WC’s parents decided to combine a visit to the relatives in California with the purchase of a new car. WC, WC’s mother and WC’s younger brother flew to Seattle Field – now Boeing Field – in a rackety Lockheed Constellation, and then on to Los Angeles in a DC-3. WC’s maternal grandfather, Grandpa Mike, picked us up and drove us to his home in Santa Barbara. And a day or two later the family bought a new car, a 1960 Chevrolet Corvair. Yep. Apparently, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

After a week or so in Santa Barbara (during which Grandma Ruth read WC a fairy tale), Grandpa Mike and WC’s mom drove us up U.S. 101 and the back roads of that pre-interstate Highway era to Hayward, Stockton and Sacremento. From there, up U.S. 99 to Beaverton and then Seattle for still more family visits, and then the long haul up through British Columbia and along the Alaska Highway. It rained most of that drive, and the Alaska Highway was a mess. Coming down the long hill past Summit Lake, about 375 miles west of Dawson Creek, with Grandpa Mike at the wheel, the Corvair acted just as Ralph Nader would write three years later. The overweight rear end – the Corvair had the engine in the back – and the ill-designed suspension put the car in a skid. Grandpa Mike lost control, mis-corrected (turning away from the skid) and the Corvair spun out of control for the better part of 500 feet. The family could never agree on how many loops the car did, but at least three and maybe five full spins. We ended up high-centered over the ditch on the left side of the road, front wheels over the edge.

No one was hurt. The car was fine; well, as fine as a Corvair could be. Grandpa Mike and I stood on the back bumper and WC’s mom backed us up onto the road. Grandpa Mike refused to drive any more; WC’s mom drove the rest of the very long haul to Fairbanks. “I almost killed us all,” Grandpa Mike kept saying. As it turned out, he was blaming the wrong person. The road got worse and worse under the rain. The Corvair high-centered a couple of times, and at Burwash Landing the road was washed out completely. We joined a very large number of truckers and an Army convoy waiting for the Yukon Territory to repair the washout. We hit asphalt six days later about 15 miles south of Delta Junction.

Fast forward to January 1966. WC found a book in the George C. Thomas Memorial Library called Unsafe at Any Speed. The book was irresitible; there was a photo of a Corvair identical to the family sedan on the cover. WC read the whole thing. And then left it on the dining room table where WC’s mom couldn’t miss it. And she didn’t. In February 1966, after some noisy arguments, WC’s parents sold the Corvair and bought a 1965 Ford Comet Station Wagon. It didn’t help that the Corvair’s passenger compartment heater was purely incapable of keeping the front window de-iced at anything below zero; i.e., most of a Fairbanks winter.

All this comes to mind because this is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Only the first chapter of the book is devoted to the Corvair, but it’s a devastating critique. Don’t ever say one person can’t make a difference; Nader’s book and his testimony to Congress resulted in the creation of what is now the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration. Auto accident fatalities have fallen from 5 per year per 1 milllion miles to 1 per year per 1 million miles. Like Rachel Carson’s earlier Silent Spring, there have been criticisms of the details of Unsafe, although most of them have come from the auto industry or its apologists. Auto safety and efficiency design have been forced on an industry that has fought against it tooth and nail. But cars today are indisputably afer, indisputably get much better mileage and create far less pollution.

And it all started with the Corvair. That almost killed WC.

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