Photo courtesy Nader.org.
He may never have owned or driven a car, but Ralph Nader has had an undisputed influence on the development of the automobile over the last 50 years, and it’s for that influence the Automotive Hall of Fame has selected the automotive safety advocate as a member of its class of 2016.
Automotive safety had certainly been a topic of concern for some going back as far as Henry Ford’s decision to use safety glass in his cars with the transition to the Model A (as well as all the non-Ford manufacturers that adopted the much safer hydraulic brakes around the same time). A renewed interest in the Fifties led to the creation of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But it was a then-unknown 31-year-old staff attorney from Connecticut named Ralph Nader who became the face of automotive safety and consumer protection in 1965 with the publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.”
As many have pointed out, the book itself probably wouldn’t have had much impact had not General Motors attempted to spy on and discredit Nader, an attempt that backfired when it later became public and General Motors was forced to pay Nader $425,000 in restitution. Nader’s subsequent testimony in front of Congress helped lead to the passage of legislation that created the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the latter of which charged with implementing safety standards on every new car sold in the United States.
Ironically, while Nader’s book is most famous for its criticism of first-generation Chevrolet Corvair rear suspensions, the NHTSA undertook a two-year study of the Corvair at Nader’s urging and, in results released in 1972, found that the Corvair’s rear suspension didn’t substantially lead to a loss of control nor did the Corvair pose any more of a risk for rollover accidents than comparable compact cars.
Nader, who went on to a career in consumer advocacy and has run for president five times, most recently opened the American Museum of Tort Law in Winsted, Connecticut, a museum that includes a Corvair prominently displayed at its heart. He did not return a request for comment for this story.
Photos courtesy Mercedes-Benz, Ford Motor Company.
Three other inductees into the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016 span the automobile industry from its 19th-century beginnings to the modern day. From the latter era comes Alan Mulally, who served as president and CEO of Ford Motor Company from September 2006 to July 2014. From the former comes Bertha Benz, whose husband Karl Benz patented one of the first gasoline-powered automobiles and who famously borrowed that car for the first documented road trip. In between comes Roy Lunn, the Ford engineer who worked on the Ford Mustang I, GT40, and Ford Mustang Boss 429 programs before eventually becoming the vice president of engineering at AMC and working on the AMC Eagle and the Jeep Cherokee.
This year’s Automotive Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place July 21 in the Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. For more information, visit AutomotiveHallofFame.org.