Ralph Nader: Unsafe at any Speed


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December 23, 1965, Vol. XI, No. 10

The Shmoo Lives

By Daniel List

Back in May of 1964 Fact magazine devoted eight pages to a feature entitled “S.O.B. Detroit,” dealing with findings to the effect that American cars are death traps. None of the information came as a surprise to knowledgeable readers, but a few pages on such a diverse topic can only add up to a diatribe. Among other catalogued niceties, it’s shockingly possible for a child to strangle himself in an electric window, according to publisher Ralph Ginzburg.

Now a man named Ralph Nadler [sic] has covered the the topic of Detroit’s derelictions between hard covers. “Unsafe at Any Speed” (Grossman, $5.95), I would imagine, will not be widely reviewed in the daily press since they carry a tremendous volume of automobile advertising and there is little in the book that is complimentary to the industry. Nadler has selected a wide range of boo-boos, carefully annotated and reasonably investigated, ranging fro the engineering shortcomings of the early Chevrolet Corvairs to reports of collusion in high places, including such sacrosanct institutions as the National Safety Council, the Society of Automotive Engineers, and our own redoubtable AAA. It is a pretty dreary tale. What is more remarkable is Nadler’s observation that none of this information is in any way a secret.

Among the insiders in the plot to “murder” the motorist, except for a very small cadre of conscience-stricken editors and engineers, is the mass of the motoring press, the manufacturing Establishment, and several hundred thousand gung-ho insiders and auto hobbyists who know better and read between the lines of the road tests. The principal difference between this latter group and yourselves is that they read and understand the specifications and you only read and react to the advertisements. The ads are your undoing. They are scientifically couched to appeal to everyman’s nagging fear about vireility, fertility, his posture in respect to the boss, the Jones, the neighbors, and the grocer’s delivery boy; everything but the hard facts of what is really going on inside that nearly two tons of tightly packed, sculptured sheet metal that you shell out around $3000 for. You see, the car magazine fan can still buy a car that an uninitiate can flip over, but he knows how to cool its erratic tendencies with judicious applications of optionals and additions that you will never hear nor even conceive of.

In the main, readers, we are, automotively speaking, mostly shmoos. The last car manufactured for the shmoo was the first one your father bought in the late ’20s or early ’30s. Fundamentally, you are still driving a 1929 car today, the difference being in the matter of business principle. In those old days, they carefully worked out the engineering problems and covered them over with a simple, comfortable people-sized body. In this age they create the body and compromise to fit in whatever components that will make it go. Today you are buying a stylish carton and not carefully conceived contents. Frankly, it’s all you deserve. The public has finally and completely abandoned its role of control by selective purchase, and the builders are running wild with their profits. Too bad for you, fellas.

Nadler makes several ironic points. In a chapter on automotive air pollution, he notes the forced adoption for California-bound 1966 models of an automobile exhaust gas suppression device whose fundamental design was patented in January, 1909.

To reduce your gloom, I would like to inform you that the Rover Motor Company has a sensational Grand Tourismo car in the works — or so I hear.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956. Go here to see this article as it originally appeared in print.]