What’s Good for General Motors Was…



…maybe not so great for you.

I’m in this week’s New Scientist with a piece on the Cornell-Liberty Mutual Survival Car, and the tremendous resistance safety reforms faced from Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s:

“The level of safety [in cars] which we accept for ourselves, our wives, and our children is… on a par with shipping fragile, valuable objects loose inside a container,” warned Hugh DeHaven, a crash investigator at Cornell University’s aeronautical laboratory in New York. As part of its pioneering Automotive Crash Injury Research Project, and with the help of two crash test dummies dubbed Thin Man and Half Pint, DeHaven and his colleagues vividly demonstrated how unbelted car drivers could be thrown into angular metal dashboards and unpadded steering wheels that concentrated the force of the impact like a meat cleaver. More often, the dummies were ejected through windscreens and doors, or propelled into rigid steering columns that snapped their necks or impaled their chests….

To show that a safe car could be made cheaply and appealingly from existing models, they produced Survival Car II: a 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air retrofitted for safety at minimal cost…. Crandell logged 240,000 kilometres driving one around the country to exhibitions…. American car firms were still not interested. A safe vehicle like the Survival Car was “completely unrealistic”, proclaimed John Gordon, president of General Motors. “This company is run by salesmen not engineers,” an engineer at Ford observed later. “The priority is styling, not safety.”

The results of those rigid steering columns, by the way, are visible in photographs made public as early as 1961 from this UCLA crash test. These two dummies — impaled on the spear-like column, and neck snapped and staring skywards — is mute testimony to the near-criminal callousness of Detroit during those years:


Paul Collins teaches writing at Portland State University, and his work appears regularly in New Scientist, Slate, and The Believer. His next book, The Murder of the Century, will be published in June by Crown. More from this author →