Collateral Damage

How Ralph Nader killed Volkswagen’s first Phaeton.

(c) diariomotor

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 (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.

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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.

(c) hemmings

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.

(c) diariomotor

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.

(c) secret-classics

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

21 thoughts on “Collateral Damage”

  1. thank you so much, Daniel and Eóin, for unearthing these
    fascinating histories of possible Volkswagens. and here too
    the sad story of the much-loved Corvair. (but surely swing axles
    are independent?) ah, lift-off oversteer… much more evident in
    my 205 Gti than the carefully fettled ’57 Beetle my eldest brother
    had in 1966-7, wide rims, Cinturatos, front sway bar, rear camber
    compensator spring, Konis. a joy to drive for this 20 year old,
    progress enhanced by a wonderful bunch-of-bananas exhaust.

  2. Good morning Lorender and thank you for your kind words. It’s been an interesting and enjoyable series to put together and has revealed just how difficult it was for VW to break free from is past.

    Part of me bemoans the fact that VW had to embrace the new orthodoxy of transverse engine and FWD to thrive. An updated Brasilia, Type 4 and EA128 would make for a much more intriguing range. Perhaps the move to EVs will allow for more diversity in mechanical layouts in the future?

  3. Nader’s book killing the Corvair is a famous bit of received wisdom that fits a comfortable narrative. But it’s a distortion of history which is verifiably false. In fact GM ceased development of the Corvair seven months before Nader’s book was published, so it is not likely that “Unsafe At Any Speed” had any influence whatsoever on the demise of the Corvair.

    The book’s legacy and influence is not disputed regarding the safety legislation which followed, some of which was reactionary, ill judged, and eventually withdrawn, but none of it ever specifically addressed design features unique to the Corvair (or Beetle, 911, Tatra, etc.).

    1. Good morning Gooddog. That’s an excellent piece on the Corvair, which pretty much gets to the truth of the matter. Thanks for sharing. When writing the EA128 piece above, I had to check myself to stop deviating too much into the rather more fascinating history of the Corvair!

  4. Um, er, ah, I rented a number of first series Corvairs. They didn’t suffer from lift off oversteer. They were exquisitely sensitive to tire pressures. If I recall correctly, 24 psi front, 28 psi rear. With soft rear tires they’d try to spin with power on and power off. The only more spin prone car I’ve ever driven was a ’55 Porsche 1500N Speedster. My mother wanted a sports car, couldn’t afford new, so I brought her the Speedster. It would go sideways making a normal 90 degree turn from one street to another at very low speeds. It and my rental pre-’65 Corvairs were lethal.

    The ’66-on Corvair was something else. I had a ’66 Turbo Corsa convertible (DHC in bloke). Wonderful handling. I had a colleague whose shiny new car was a 2002. He boasted about how well it handled. I took him for a drive in my Corvair, turned him properly green. I’d driven his car, loved the motor but thought that its cornering limits were very low.

    1. It was 15 psi front and 26 rear, Fred, on the first Corvairs. And five turns of the steering lock-to-lock for a wide 39 foot turning circle. Yup, it was a doozie, fellow down the hall at uni my first year had one, badly faded green and no idea of the tire pressures. Scary six up. One ride in that and I never wanted to hop in a Corvair again. it swung about lazily while he sawed away at the useless steering, mentioned in the review below.

      Specs are all here, plus a remimiscence with a ride in a completely restored one:

      Most manual steering in the US was over six turns lock to lock in those days. Chrysler had the fastest POWER steering at three and a half turns, most were over four. That was why US cars slowed to a crawl to enter side roads or driveways, wheel-winding takes time.

      My boss for my 1968 summer job in Ottawa had a ’66 pale yellow Corvair coupe, and that car was lovely, I agree. Very supple ride and no control problems whatoever. He drove me from home base to the NRC Railway Lab almost every day, about 3o miles round trip. It was fun on the dirt road portion when he gave it a go. Of course, he knew that he’d got a great deal on the car, because sales died on the ’66 Corvair after Nader was tailed and telephone-tapped by GM and a US Senate hearing followed. (Read the Wikipedia article on Nader)

      The public didn’t understand the entire rear suspension was now fully IRS on the ’65s, and even had the first ever toe-control link. The new car had sold very well for the 1965 model year because of its looks, then poof, it died in the 1966 model year right after the Senate hearing where GM pleaded guilty under oath about harrassing Nader, no matter what “universum” Kraus thinks. He even forgets the ’58 Rambler American and its predecessors with a 100 inch wheelbase which sold very well before the Big 3’s compacts saw the light of day in the link given above here. I doubt he was there following the Corvair saga, likely far too young. I went to his website, found yet another article all screwed up on the Corvair and left him my compliments.

      By 1965 the Chevy II, the world’s fastest-developed car and Falcon fighter, 18 months start to finish, not some VW or other, had been on the market for three years. What? Chevy was going to give up on a quarter million Corvair sales a year on its lonesome in a mere 7 million a year market? Dreaming. I detest stuff like Kraus’s, revisionism delivered in authoritative style and as wrong as can be.

    2. Bill, I believe that Kraus makes a solid case for why those quarter million sales per annum didn’t equate to satsfactory profit margins.

      This article by a well-known and respected automotive journalist documents how and when GM chose to switch horses (over a year before the November 1965 publication of “Unsafe at Any Speed”).

      “General Motors now realized that the 1965 Corvair couldn’t match the Mustang’s engine and option versatility.”

      Chapter 1 of Nader’s book was flogging a dead horse because: The heavily revised Corvair for 1965 was released more than a year before the book was published, the book failed to acknowledge that and thus falsely maligned the then current product. And GM had already chosen to deprecate the Corvair such that it would not see any further developments, save for mandated side marker lights in 1968.

      Considering Nader’s depiction of the Corvair’s handling issues as being ongoing when in fact they were addressed, and that the remaining eight chapters of the book constituted a direct threat to GM’s business model, GM’s motivation to viciously attack Nader seems clear, irrespective of their actual (lack of) plans for the future of the Corvair. What is the problem with this analysis?

  5. I’ve always seen this as VW:s biggest missed opportunity, it’s effectively a 911 sedan and station wagon. And it could make for a brand extension into Porsche territory, why not sell it as a Porsche in the US?

  6. Not sure when EA128 was intended to reach production had it been launched, however concerns about the cost and labour-intensive Porsche 901/911 engine could have been easily remedied with a bit of joined-up thinking via a Flat-Six version of the Type 4 engine as was said to have been considered during the development of the Volkswagen-Porsche 914. Which would have likely been eventually succeeded by production versions of the Flat-Six Wasserboxer engines that appeared in the Volkswagen Type 2 T2 as the 165-180 hp 3.2-3.7-litre VW-Oettinger WBX6.

    Guess an upsized Flat-Six EA128-based version of the Karmann Ghia was out of the question.

    Also assume had EA128 reached production that Volkswagen would have sought to eventually fit a more conventional engine at the back as was the case with the EA111-engine Beetle and EA827 SP3 prototypes as well as the Brazilian Type 2 and South African (Audi engined) Type 2 T3.

    Surprised Volkswagen did not opt for a more sophisticated suspension layout for EA128 as on the Type 4 and Variant II or even following the all-independent suspension layout as the 2nd generation Chevrolet Corvair.

    GM’s cost cutting brigade can be blamed for the original Corvair not featuring a front anti-roll bar as standard from the outset like it was on the 2nd generation Corvair.

    Had the Corvair not received bad press by implementing a front anti-roll bar from the outset, it is likely the attention would have been focused on the rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle and Type 2 as well as other foreign cars in an alternate version of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed.

    Which may find less success and potentially discredit him as being a tool of the establishment, though given Volkswagen’s desperate situation in finding a replacement for the Beetle and the rear-engined layout may just be the catalyst to push the company into bankruptcy with a much earlier sharp drop in sales by the mid-to-late 1960s instead of the early-1970s.

    Roughly around that time Mercedes-Benz were experimenting with Multi-Link Suspension on the C111, which later found its way on the 1994 Porsche 993 though unsure whether it was within Volkswagen’s capability to develop a such a system early on.

    Would be interesting seeing the non-Western production versions of the EA128 and smaller rear-engined models later feature fake front grilles like the Skoda 120/130 Estelle and Tatra 613 Special.

  7. There’s another – I’m guessing earlier – image of the EA128 which is very different from the surviving prototypes:

    I’m seeing the hand of Michelotti in that.

    The later EA128 design was a striking pre-cog of both the Mercedes-Benz W116 S Class and the Fiat 130, which could only have been coincidental given the relative timeframes.

    The astonishing thing about the EA128 was how far distant it was from VW’s “comfort zone”. I’m not sold on the idea of it being a Corvair competitor – it looks far too ‘premium’. There’s also a description which refers to use of a ‘new four cylinder boxer engine’ – The Type 4 unit? A 1700 would struggle to haul that beast.

    Perhaps EA128 was devised as a dollar-earner. That was uncharted territory, given that in the post-WW2 era big German cars not featuring a three-pointed stars were not big sellers anywhere, not even in the home market – refer BMW ‘Baroque Angel’, Hansa 2300, Borgward P100, Opel K-A-D and predecessors. Only the BMW E3 turned the tide.

    Much as we might regret the abandonment of the Pheaton-Vorläufer, on this occasion VW’s management made the right decision.

    1. Frankly Robertas, I’m seeing more Pininfarina Corvair (or indeed the carrozzeria’s 1963 Sigma concept) in that proposal. Interestingly, this headlight treatment appeared time and again on VW proposals of that era, including a version of the the type 4, not to mention the mid-engined Type 266 prototype, suggesting that Pininfarina’s influence laid heavily upon the banks of the Mittelandkanal. Not that it made much difference in the final analysis.
      Absolutely agreed on W116 and 130 Berlina however… Would this (in slight miniature) have made a more convincing Type 4, I wonder?

  8. Eóin – I can’t find any evidence of Michelotti working for VW, although as a long shot he could have been called on for some ‘jobbing’ work -he had a reputation for being one of the quickest prototype builders in the business, and charging agreeable prices.

    That EA128 estate has a lot of Triumph 2000 about it.

    I note that another German manufacturer was involved with the PF Sigma – and a rear engine was a possibility:

    1. Are those seats from the early Rover P6? The pleading and headrest look very similar.

  9. These scalloped headlight recesses were everywhere – As well as on his Triumphs, Michelotti used them on the lovely c.1962 Siata 1500TS / Neckar Mistral:

    1. Every day truly is a school day Robertas – that’s a new one on me. Strong shades of Tom Tjaarda’s Ferrari 330 GT (for Pininfarina) around the nose treatment, which was from the same year I believe. But then, the Torinese carrozzieri were most likely imbibing wildly (or however else you might describe it) from one another at the time.

      Good spot on the seats Daniel, but I’m not wholly confident the timelines would bear it out. The P6 was ’63 as well, yes?

  10. Please allow me to necro this post and be the bad guy here, as I ran into this YouTube video recently:

    In the automotive world, Ralph Nader is almost universally hated as a “killjoy”. As an engineer (School of Production Engineering and Management, Technical University of Crete), I think I’m a bit more qualified than automotive journalists who come from disciplines entirely unrelated to mechanical engineering to judge a mechanical contraption’s merits or demerits. So, as an engineer, I’m grateful to him. There. I said it. And I’ll double down by saying thank whatever supernatural being you might believe in for Ralph Nader.

    Yes, I know he’s hated. But he’s hated by the same kind of lemming that worships predatory sociopaths like Activision Blizzard’s Bobby Kotick. I know he’s vilified by the automotive Press, which often acts as a vulgar corporate mouthpiece. The true reason he’s hated is that he held cynical, profit-driven corporations, and their complacent designers and engineers accountable.

    I don’t care about the excuses offered by those involved in the Corvair’s design. I don’t want to hear them any more. This “if you knew what you were doing, the Corvair, the Beetle, the 300SL Gullwing, the Triumph Herald, the Renault 8 and 10 were safe” is something no self-respecting engineer or “journalist” would ever say.

    Let’s begin by asking one basic question: what exactly was the Corvair supposed to be? The answer is, of course, simple: an affordable family car. This answer contains two crucial words: “affordable” and “family”. By “affordable”, we obviously mean that the car was supposed to be easily obtainable by the less well-off members of the American society. By “family”, we mean its job was to carry a family of four or five and their luggage from A to B in relative comfort, reliably, dependably, and, above all, SAFELY.

    Need I reiterate the demerits of swing-axle suspensions that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever seen how suspensions work? Need I remind anyone that a family car is supposed to be driven by your grandmother, your younger sibling, you, your father, your mother, your wife, your husband, your kid? Need I point out that the fact it is meant to be driven by all manner of people who are not professional race drivers and, most likely, just want to go from A to B in relative comfort, reliably, dependably, and SAFELY, it must be docile in its manners under the widest range of circumstances humanly possible? Need I remind anyone that this means engineers must go out of their way to design its suspensions accordingly? Also, need I remind anyone that we often have to lift-off mid-bend?

    Now, how does this relate to the EA128? Well… I’m not going to shed a tear over its cancellation. In fact, if Nader’s book made them axe it, I’m glad it did. Let me also go on record for saying that all cars that employed swing axles, from the Corvair to the Triumph Herald and from the Renault 8 to the Beetle needed to be dysthanized. There’s no excuse for bad engineering.

    1. Hi Konstantinos. You make a compelling argument. I suppose I take a somewhat more nuanced view. The revisions to the Corvair apparently sorted its evil on-the-limit handling. I think it’s a shame that VW, rather than abandoning EA128, didn’t give it proper independent rear suspension. It would have been an interesting alternative luxury car, in the manner of the Tatra.

    2. Hi Daniel, the Corvair was eventually sorted indeed. But for some time, GM and its people opted to gaslight the public and just try ridiculous responsibility-offsetting tricks like the vastly different tire pressures in the front and rear, a trick that would later be employed by Ford. The mods of the later Corvairs only certify that the early cars were indeed badly engineered, with the designers aiming to cut cost at all costs instead of making the car safe. As for the EA128, even if VW could be bothered to give it a proper rear suspension, I don’t think it would cut it. Rear-engined saloons were no longer as desirable as they once were, and the estate version could never be as practical as a front-engined one, since the engine would deprive it of luggage space depth.

    3. Can’t argue with any of that, but I’m just a sucker for automotive oddities!

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