By GENE H. McINTYRE
My cable service includes the Velocity channel. It is all about cars, how various models are manufactured, how they’re rebuilt when rusted and generally used up but can be made to look like new again, engine types and kinds, safety features and anything else auto-related.
The car was not invented in America but we’ve made it ours. Technical innovations, vehicle mass production, the electric starter—Americans added these features. As the world has turned, Europeans can claim just as many automotive achievements, including unibody construction, disc brakes, and front-wheel drive. Yet, nowhere else in the world can any other group of nationals compete with what we’ve given to the meaning of cars along with our insatiable American appetite for their dream fulfillment.
Cars became important to me at an early age when I owned and drove several grossly-used versions, such as a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air, until I was able, during my first teaching job, to buy my first new one, a Chevy Corvair. Some readers will remember the Corvair as a poor man’s sports car, rear-engined, air-cooled “space-age” compact. Ralph Nader was primarily responsible for doing away with the Corvair by his first book, Unsafe at Any Speed.
It was only later, as I learned more about how cars made in the 1950s and ‘60s, that I considered myself, and most every other young person I ever knew, fortunate to have escaped the use of them and still kicking. Unpadded metal surfaces, blunt knobs and rods, steering columns that could impale in a crash, while seatbelts could not be purchased or even installed as options on those cars.
Hoping not to cause cold sweats among those who were driving around in Chevys and other brands way back when we look at such features then as A-Pillars, that looked attractive in wraparound windshield designs, but left the roof supported only by thin pillars of sheet metal ready to collapse underneath a car’s weight if a rollover occurred. Collapsible steering columns were invented in the 1930s but General Motors (Chevy’s parent company) did not use them until 1967. Steering wheels included a bullet-nose cap that in a crash almost guaranteed forehead and sternum-wrecking injuries. Meanwhile, the dashboards had no cushioned material, the hood ornament could fillet a person in a pedestrian altercation, and door latches jammed in a crash while the doors thereafter wouldn’t open.
The facts about the young lives of my wife’s and mine, regarding safety, is that we had been, as babies, small children, adolescents and young adults, riding around in unsafe cars. My mom and dad owned an aged Chrysler from the late 1930s they used to take me home from the hospital without seat belts or any other safety feature and used thereafter during my growing-up years. Whenever we went anywhere we kids were in the back seat fighting with each other and for the most part using the area as a wrestling mat and boxing ring. My wife’s growing up years were similar with several siblings to make every trip somewhat like being aboard a scary carnival ride.
Modern day car-driving protections, in the U.S. at least, can be attributed in large measure to the work of Ralph Nader and his team of young Nader’s Raiders. One of his earliest safety calls resulted in those goofy automatic seatbelts while his supercilious manner sometimes discouraged some Americans from enthusiasm for his safety appeals. Nevertheless, against the mighty General Motors, and its car-manufacturing competitors like Chrysler and Ford, and other car companies, Nader began his campaign by going after the Corvair.
Nader turned the nation’s attention to some dangerous negligences that the auto industry had overlooked in production of cars for decades. His work resulted in the enactment of car impact, safety, and passenger-protection regulations. He promoted and lobbied successfully for the impactful National Traffic and Motor Safety Act. Further, if you appreciate clean tap water, safe operating equipment at your job, protections against predatory banks, private universities, insurance companies, drug companies, electrical and telecommunications utilities, government transparency and accountability, to the extent you do, you have Nader to thank.
Specialty car shops across the country can make old cars look new again. Those cars are still old cars without most or any modern safety features; therefore they remain inherently unsafe but are fun to look at for nostalgic satisfactions. They should be seen at summer fairs and festivals but not out in traffic competing for space with the current models. If your life has been saved by an air bag, anti-lock braking, crash-worthy frames and the like then you may want to keep your new or near-new car for the length of the Trump administration as The Donald wants, as his inimitable contribution to America, to do away with all federal regulations and those include the ones that have made our cars so much safer.
(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)