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Crash and Burn

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Executives as Ford in Pretoria could've done a lot worse than reading Ralph Nader's book, Unsafe at Any Speed, first published in 1965. It is a reminder as to how uncaring and self-centred corporates can be - whether because of sloth-inducing bureaucracy, obsession with cost cutting, or genuine callousness and greed. It should be prescribed reading for managers at car companies and dealerships who think they’re doing the consumer a favour.

Nader (an attorney, who subsequently ran for president several times) was what we today would call a consumer activist and he challenged the American motor industry on safety and other issues. He is best-known for exposing the Chevrolet Corvair, the car that (especially in its earliest guise) inspired the title of the book.


Rear-engined and air-cooled, from 1960 to 1963/4 it had swing axle a suspension design like that of the Beetle. They fell over with little provocation and what started out as a simple lane change could all too easily end up in a roll-over, sometimes precipitated by a rear wheel rim digging into the tarmac and turning an initial slide into a sudden flip. Owners that did manage to emerge from the wreckage reportedly made comments like: "something went wrong with the steering..."

In retrospect, part of the problem was that most straightforward of issues: tyre pressure. A Corvair needs to run much lower front pressure than rear because it is so light in front. Try driving a Volksie Beetle with the pressures a 2 Bar all round – it’s horrible.

Corvairs also had - as an aside to the handling maladies - a ventilation and heating system which could pump toxic fumes into the cabin.

The slow pace at which the industry introduced basic features like seatbelts, padded dashboards, and collapsible steering columns suggests a complete lack of empathy for their fellow Americans. And the industry fought all the way and used their strong connections in Washington to procrastinate, stall and delay such technology. General Motors even spied on Nader, and when he took them on in court, they settled.

There always seemed to be a reason why a safety feature couldn't be introduced with the next model year and Nader reaches the conclusion that between the late 50s and mid-60s there was no real improvement in safety standards. Despite the record profits being enjoyed by GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Switchgear that could poke out your eyes, steering columns that displaced by feet rather than inches in a collision, gearshift quadrants with reverse along forward gears, highly-reflective dashboard materials and engine mountings that could collapse and jam the accelerator linkage full open were some of the issues that typified what Nader referred to as "the designed-in dangers of the American automobile."

Pedestrians weren’t spared either, and styling features that acted like a Zulu’s assegai when contact was made with the car were commonplace.

But the early 1970s the power of the Big Three had been curtailed and independent regulatory bodies were calling the shots. It resulted in an age which was definitely not golden in terms of power and styling but the cars were a lot safer and cleaner-burning. Ironically, a series of tests conducted in 1971 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducted comparative tests and reached the conclusion that the Corvair was no less safe than its contemporaries. But maybe they used the correct tyre pressures.

Nevertheless, if we all learnt lessons from the past, the same mistakes would theoretically not happen again and again. It’s for the same reason that boomerang wars occur.


The Kuga saga is just such a reminder that history repeats itself. Same mistake (poor communication and an inability to act decisively in the best interest of the consumer), but different generation. And probably, somewhere along the line, is an engineer whose been overridden by an accountant, now saying ‘I told you so…’

As the finishing touches were being put to this article the National Consumer Commission announced that it had launched a probe into the Kuga fire/recall issue (about 130 complaints have been received and over 4 500 vehicles have been recalled).

As they say in the classics, some heads are bound to roll.



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