How Ralph Nader killed Volkswagen’s first Phaeton.
America had enjoyed a good Second World War from an economic perspective, and this set the stage for strong growth in the 1950’s. US GDP rose by 81% over the decade, while GDP per capita rose by 53%. Increasing affluence and a growing suburban population had supported strong auto sales, and US cars had grown larger and more ostentatious, reflecting the confidence of the era. 1959 marked the peak in the fashion for such cars, with their large tailfins and extravagant chrome laden exteriors.
There was, however, a growing appetite for smaller and more economical cars that the Big Three had largely neglected. These were often bought as second cars for wives or teenage children. This market was being satisfied by imports such as the Renault Dauphine and Volkswagen Beetle, and what would later become known as subcompact models from the smaller US manufacturers such as AMC, Nash and Studebaker, who hadn’t the financial or technical resources to compete directly with Ford, GM or Chrysler.
Ford and Chrysler responded by offering conventionally engineered scaled-down versions of their mainstream models, but GM took a different approach. Under the direction of Ed Cole, Chevrolet’s General Manager, a completely new smaller car was developed. Named the Corvair, it was revolutionary for Chevrolet, with its monocoque construction and rear-mounted flat-six air-cooled 140 cu.in. (2.3 litre) engine. It was also a refreshingly smooth and clean design from the pen of Bill Mitchell, with an influential ‘bathtub’ lower body that was reprised on designs as diverse as the NSU Prinz 4 and 1000, the Hillman Imp, BMW’s Neue Klasse models, the Fiat 1300 and 1500, and the Mazda Familia.
The Corvair was launched in 1959 as a 1960 model and was an immediate success. It was roomy and comfortable, and good value, with prices starting from around $2,000. While positioned as a competitor to the European imports, it was actually considerably larger. Its wheelbase was 108” (2,743mm) compared to the Beetle at 94.5” (2,400mm) and Dauphine at 89.3” (2,267mm). It immediately made the Beetle and Dauphine look old-fashioned, cramped and sparsely equipped.
The Corvair’s success was noticed by Heinz Heinrich Nordhoff, Managing Director of Volkswagen, and his colleagues in Wolfsburg. Nordhoff wanted to expand Volkswagen’s range from essentially just two vehicles, the Type 1 (Beetle) and Type 2 (Transporter). The company had experimented with a number of different mechanical layouts in prototypes throughout the 1950’s but none had made production. Volkswagen’s only tentative attempt at diversification was the 1961 Type 3, but this was little more than a Beetle in a sharp suit.
By happy coincidence, Porsche was developing a larger and more powerful replacement for the 356 coupé. This would be launched in 1964 as the 911 and would have a rear-mounted air-cooled 1,991cc flat-six engine. Porsche and Volkswagen enjoyed a strong working relationship, with the former often undertaking design and engineering work for the latter. When Volkswagen, which had considered designing its own flat-six, became aware of the new engine, it seemed to be a perfect fit for a new, larger model that would compete head-on with the Corvair in the US market. Porsche was also enthusiastic at the prospect of a much bigger market for its new engine and drivetrain, giving it greater economies of scale.
The new model, codenamed EA128, was to be produced in four-door saloon and five-door estate formats. The three-box design was rigorously bluff and square cut, with the only feature line being a lower bodyside crease on the otherwise smooth exterior. One unusual detail was the wing-mounted indicators front and rear which were interchangeable all round. The design was quite ahead of its time in that it anticipated the mid to late-1970’s fashion for crisp, rectilinear shapes. The estate in particular was a rather handsome beast. The EA128 was a large car. At 185″ (4,699mm) it was actually 5″ (127mm) longer than the Corvair.
The interior was positively luxurious for a Volkswagen, with a Porsche style cowled instrument binnacle set within a padded dashboard, a 911 steering wheel with a VW roundel in the centre, thickly padded leather upholstery and full door cards. The front seats were full-width, meeting over the small centre tunnel, a feature that would appeal in the US market as it allowed the possibility of the car carrying six people. The front passenger seat was actually wider than the driver’s seat to facilitate this.
All was going well with EA128 project, but in the US the Corvair was becoming the subject of controversy. Its swing-axle rear suspension, essentially similar to that of the Beetle, could cause potentially dangerous lift-off oversteer if a driver entered a sharp bend too quickly, then released the accelerator midway through the bend. The Beetle was not really powerful or quick enough for this to be a major issue, but the number of Corvair accidents linked to this phenomenon was rising and GM was faced with over 100 lawsuits claiming damages for these accidents.
Consumer rights activist Ralph Nader described these (and other) issues in his 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed. The title of the book was more than a little disingenuous in the case of the Corvair, as the problem was only apparent at high cornering speeds. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation and subsequent independent review concluded that the Corvair was no more susceptible to loss of control or rollover than domestic or foreign competitor vehicles.
Despite this, the reputational damage was done and Corvair sales halved between 1965 and 1966. Ironically, the complaints related to the 1960 to 1963 Corvair and by 1965, the second-generation model had received fully independent suspension in place of the rear swing-axles, largely eliminating the problem.
For Volkswagen, the timing of the Nader book and surrounding controversy was most unfortunate. There were already concerns that the Porsche engine, which was expensive and a labour-intensive build, would make EA128 uncompetitive in the US market. Moreover, early 911 models had developed a reputation for the same lift-off oversteer issue as the Corvair. Nordhoff and his colleagues were terrified of Volkswagen becoming embroiled in a similar debacle in the US. Even if Volkswagen, like GM, engineered out the problem with independent suspension, many US consumers were unlikely to trust the rear-engined format again.
The EA128 was cancelled and only two prototypes remain, a saloon and an estate, both on display in Wolfsburg. The saloon is at the Volkswagen Foundation Museum, the estate at the VW Autostadt. It is a shame that such an interesting and innovative design as the EA128 was scuppered by circumstances entirely out of its designers’ control, as a Porsche flat-six powered luxury saloon remains an enticing prospect – even today.