Book reviews, October 1966, October 1966

“Unsafe At Any Speed,” by Ralph Nader. 365 pp. 8 1/4in. x 5 1/2in. (Transatlantic Book Service Ltd, 43, Essex Street, London, W.C.2. 45s.)

I dislike books about car accidents, possibly because I believe that concentration, normal skill and sensible selection of a car makes motoring tolerably safe, perhaps because any activity with a slight risk attached is stimulating.

But Nader’s book, so outspoken, so technically interesting, has had an enormous impact in the U.S.A., so it is good to know that it is available here for those who wish to read it and are likely to benefit from it.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is the first, explaining in detail the dangerous oversteer handling characteristics of pre-1964 Chevrolet Corvair rear-engined cars and General Motors’ apparently entirely casual attitude to curing them. The evidence, much of it presented in the Courts against Chevrolet, is extremely convincingly presented, with a proper understanding of the difference between what skilled and unskilled drivers can do with oversteering automobiles. Incidentally, this chapter is not an indictment of the Volkswagen.

Nearly as eye-opening is the sudden and complete brake failure to which 1952/53 Buicks were prone—incidently, American lawyers appear to be far more conversant with technical terms and descriptions than one would expect of our legal luminaries.

Some interesting items not so directly connected with car safety emerge from close study of “Unsafe At Any Speed.” There is the fascinating exposure of the Industry’s united front, so that when only Chrysler got ahead of Los Angeles’ air pollution problems, the superiors of the engineer responsible, Charles Heinen, banned any advertising of Chrysler’s achievement, for fear of offending Ford and G.M., although “automobile makers will advertise a victory in one phase of an economy run or auto endurance race.”

Nader debunks the comparison K. A. .Stonex of G.M. made between a 1910 Oldsmobile taken from the Oldsmobile Division’s museum and the 1955, 1960 and 1964 Oldsmobile models, on safety grounds, claiming that it was begging the issue. I lis book is, intentionally or not, loaded heavily against General Motors, and the saying common in 1956 that Ford sold safety and “Chevrolet sold cars” is quoted in a footnote. Ford and Chrysler come rather more happily out of his swingeing attack.

There is, naturally, an enormous amount of common sense in Nader’s book, but he misses the point that roads should be made as safe for autos as he demands autos should he made safe for roads.

We can feel smug that in Europe most of the nasty items this author exposes do not figure in our cars—although breakages of vital parts have not been unknown, and the startling possibility of hidden brake pipeline fracture on the Rover 2000 is still too fresh in the mind for complacency—and that Mercedes-Benz, Rover, Standard-Triumph and others have pioneered crash research, while VW is spending money to investigate how its cars can be made safer.

Such engineers will enjoy, probably benefit, from this book. But enthusiasts, bigoted enough to imagine that our skill will keep us immune from accidents and that we can detect imminent mechanical disasters before they wreck the car, can probably afford to pass it by.—W. B.

“A History of the World’s Motorcycles,” by Richard Hough and L. J. K. Setright. 192 pp. 10 in. x 7 1/2 in. (George Allen & Inicin Ltd., 40, Museum Street, London, W.C.1. 45s.)

The motorcycle has had hardly any hooks devoted to it compared to the motor car, but whether this picture history book will be deemed adequate coverage by those thirsting for knowledge of the subject remains to be seen. Its main appeal is in comprehensive photographic coverage, backed up by big colour plates, together with the reproduction of old advertisements and similar matter. The colour plates are good, although not all of them have quite come off, nor did the blown Brough appear as early as 1924, while Ghersi’s Ouzzi should not be credited with second place in the 1926 Lightweight T.T.

The book is divided into periods—” Until 1900 Primordial Chaos,” 1901-1915, 1916-1925, 1926-1935, 1936-1949, 1950-1965, and it is indexed, for quick reference.—W. B.

“Volkswagen—Nine Lives Later,” by Dan R. Post. 318 pp 10 in. x 7 in. (Post Publications, 125, South First Avenue, Arcadia, California. 5.95 dollars.)

The Volkswagen arouses intense enthusiasm and affection amongst its followers and this is Dan Post’s tribute to it. He has packed in almost everything about the VW you can think of, except perhaps Motor Sport’s championship of this very remarkable car in Britain, using 500 illustrations to supplement the text.

The book is naturally Americanese in style and wording but will enthrall any VW enthusiast who wants to browse over pictures and descriptions of almost every facet of the VW and Volkswagenwerk; indeed, of Dr. Porsche and his pre-VW creations as well. By means of a photolitho process all manner of old illustrations are reproduced and classic VW advertisements from American magazines—some of the cleverest in the game— are reproduced. Even the now notorious report by Humber Ltd. on the VW, concluding “Looking at the general picture. we do not consider that the design represents any special brilliance. . . and it is suggested that it is not to be regarded as an example of first-class modern design to be copied by the British Industry ” is made the subject of a separate chapter, Post reminding us that Maurice Olley, reporting on the VW when he was Chief Research Engineer for Vauxhall Motors, was more clairvoyant when he remarked, “Perhaps critics of the vehicle forget that large areas of the World are still looking for cheap tranportation and that the Model-T Ford, which started World motorisation, also had technical faults. This car (the VW), it its pre-war selling price of RM. 990, was certainly a challenge to the whole Motor Industry ”—how right Olley was! The S.M.M.T. also reported favourably, as Post points out.

All told, this book should constitute every keen VW owner’s Christmas present !—W. B.

The annual review of the competition season. under the title of “Autocourse” (191pp., 10 3/4 in. x 9 1/2, in.), has again been published by Macdonald & Co. Ltd., Gulf House, 2, Portman Street, London, W.1, price 55s. The Introduction is by Jim Clark. David Phipps deals with the last year of the 1 1/2-litte G.P. Formula. Graham Macbeth with Formula J, Sir John Whitmore, who won it, covers the 1965 European Saloon-Car Championship, and Indianapolis, the GT Championship races,the European Mountain Championship and the rally season are included. The races are described in uniform fashion, with starting grids and circuit maps, the book contains some fine colour plates, and some advertising.