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How the Chevrolet Corvair helped elect George W Bush

1960 Chevrolet Corvair.

My pick is the Chevrolet Corvair. Chevrolet released the Corvair in late 1959. With its engine made out of aluminium, cooled by air and mounted in the rear, this was a different American car by any measure.

Its driving force was Mr Ed Cole, soon to be president of all of General Motors, but in 1959, he was the general manager of Chevrolet.
The Corvair was GM's answer to the rising tide of imported small cars. Ford and Chrysler went with conventional driveline layout for their compacts, Falcon and Valiant, but Cole, the engineer, wanted to go radical.

He reasoned that an air cooled engine eliminated all of the complexity, costs and weight of cooling systems. A rear mounted engine also meant no drivelines, saving even more weight and costs. And, of course, there were those swing rear axles, with no stabiliser bars.

It seemed all too good to be true. And for a while it was. GM sold over 300,000 Corvairs in 1961 alone. But soon the stories of accidents started to spread. And you know the whole sad story for there on, which can be summed up in three words. Oversteer. Crashes. Injuries.

In November 1965 an unassuming Washington lawyer. Ralph Nader, who'd been working for a Senate subcommittee, published his book "Unsafe at Any Speed". Only the first chapter was about the Corvair and the accidents and injuries it was claimed it have caused, but that was enough for it all to unravel for Ed Cole and GM.

By early 1966 the lawsuits had really started to roll into GM , and politicians had started to take notice. During 1967 the political pressure was so great that the US congress started to pass laws regulating automobile design and safety standards. And so the great consumer protection regulatory reforms began in the US, covering many industries and products. That regulatory tsunami swept around the world.

Quite simply, the Corvair changed consumer laws on a global scale. The burden of proof on accidental injuries caused by faulty products now fell on those who made and marketed those products. Meanwhile, Nader had become a global celebrity, his name synonymous with consumer protection.

In the year 2000, a 66 year old Nader decided to run for President of the USA against then Vice President Al Gore and Republican nominee George W Bush. Nader received nearly 95,000 votes in Florida, which George W Bush won by less than 2000 votes.

It was Florida which kept Al Gore out of the White House. Perhaps, had not Nader been on the ballot it is possible that many of those 95,000 votes would have gone to Gore. And if it had not been for the Corvair, Nader might have been just one of many unknown names on the ballot. You might say, the Covair legacy elected George W Bush.

David Burrell is the editor of retroautos.com.au