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Exposing a Crime.U.S. Auto Industries Deception of America

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Ralph Nader, General Motors

Exposing a Crime.U.S. Auto Industries Deception of America

Enrico Nestler
January 10, 2006

Going back to the 1920’s, the U.S. automakers began to break away from Henry Ford’s philosophy of sticking with the same model, in the same color, at the same price. Instead, manufactures like General Motors changed models every year, to give the impression that there was something unique that the American Consumer needed to buy. But changing models constantly required large investments of capital for design and retooling. Detroit was planting the seeds of its own destruction if it didn’t keep up with trends amongst the buying public.

A high demand for cheap attractive models would lead to one of the biggest muckraker stories in the mid 60’s.

In 1965 Ralph Nader published “Unsafe at Any Speed: The designed-In-Dangers of the American Automobile.” He exposed how General Motors and the American auto industry were placing consumers’ lives at risk by failing to design safe cars. Nader especially singled out the General motors’ Corvair which he labeled a death trap.

By the late 1950’s, the Big Three automakers were losing out to a public that was demanding smaller, less expensive cars, and was also increasingly attracted to imports, especially the Volkswagen Beetle. Imports, in fact accounted for 10 percent of all sales in the U.S., exceeding 600,000 a year in 1958. So in 1959 it came as no surprise when the Big Three introduced three smaller models to compete against the imports: the Ford Falcon, Chevrolet Corvaire, and the Plymouth Valiant. These cars, which were cheap to make, and appealing to the consumer would turn out to be unsafe and poorly constructed.

Nader, being a consumer, himself was outraged that the U.S. auto industry could get away with murder. So he published his book “Unsafe at Any Speed” to expose the automakers. Millions of people read his book.

For its part, GM was shocked that this young, unknown attorney would attack one of the pillars of American business. General Motors trying to hide from the problem was finally caught, and James Roche, president of GM, was forced to apologize before the Senate Subcommittee on Traffic Safety. Also, thanks to Nader, the Consumer Product Safety Act was passed along with the Freedom of Information Act. This forced the U.S auto industry to redesign and overhaul their automobiles.

America owes more than it may ever realize to Nader and his research. If not for him Automobile industries could still be building unsafe cars. The time and efforts put into “Unsafe at Any Speed” has paid off for American consumers and also for the US auto industry.

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