The Pop History Dig

“G.M. & Ralph Nader”
1965-1971

1966 paperback version of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Pocket Books (hardback published earlier in November 1965 by Grossman Publishers, see cover below).
1966 paperback version of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” by Pocket Books (hardback published earlier in November 1965 by Grossman Publishers, see cover below).
     It was November 1965.  Ralph Nader, a young Harvard law school graduate, had just written an explosive book on what he called the “designed-in dangers” of American automobiles.  It was titled, Unsafe at Any Speed, and part of its message was aimed  directly at the world’s biggest auto company, General Motors, known by its initials, “G.M.”

     Nader’s book was a broad investigation of auto safety failings generally, critical of both the auto industry and the federal government.  But one chapter in particular – the first chapter – focused on a compact car named the Corvair produced by GM’s Chevrolet division.  Nader titled the chapter, “The Sporty Corvair: The One-Car Accident.”  People were being killed and maimed in Corvair accidents that didn’t involve any other cars.  The Corvair, it turned out, had some particularly dangerous “designed-in” features that made the car prone to spins and rollovers under certain circumstances.  

     Initially, Nader and his book were featured at one U.S. Senate hearing in early 1966.  But a furor erupted shortly thereafter when it was learned that General Motors had hired private investigators to try to find dirt on Nader to discredit him as a Congressional witness.

     Unsafe at Any Speed and Ralph Nader would go on to national fame – the book becoming a best-seller and its author, a national leader in consumer and environmental affairs.  But the controversy that first swirled around Nader and the book in the mid-1960s would help spark changes in Washington’s political culture, investigative journalism, and the consumer protection movement that would reverberate to the present day.  Some of that history is highlighted below, beginning with background on the man who set all of this in motion.

 

Young Ralph Nader.
Young Ralph Nader.
Citizen Nader

     Ralph Nader was born in Winsted, Connecticut in 1934 to immigrant parents from Lebanon.  Nader credits his parents with instilling the basic values and inquisitiveness that sent him on his way.  He graduated from Princeton University in 1955 and Harvard Law School in 1958.

     At Harvard, Nader had written articles for the Harvard Law Record, the student run newspaper at the law school.  He had also become quite excited on discovering the arguments put forward in a 1956 Harvard Law Review article written by Harold Katz that suggested automobile manufacturers could be liable for unsafe auto design.  In his final year at Harvard Law, Nader wrote a paper for one of his courses titled “Automotive Safety Design and Legal Liability.”  In his travels around the country as a young man, often hitchhiking, Nader had also seen a share of auto accidents, one of which stayed with him into law school, as former Nader associate Sheila Harty has noted:

“… He remembered one in particular in which a child was decapitated from sitting in the front seat of a car during a collision at only 15 miles per hour.  The glove compartment door came open on impact and severed the child at the neck.  The cause of the injury—not the accident—was clearly a design problem: where the glove compartment was placed and how lethally thin [the compartment door was] and how insecure the latch.

When studying liability later at Harvard Law School, Nader remembered that accident scene.  He posed an alternative answer to the standard determination of which driver was at fault.  Nader accused the car…”

Auto accident 1956.  Ralph Nader argued that passengers suffered fatalities and injuries needlessly due to poor auto design and lack of safety features.
Auto accident 1956. Ralph Nader argued that passengers suffered fatalities and injuries needlessly due to poor auto design and lack of safety features.
     Nader first criticized the auto industry publicly in an April 1959 article for The Nation magazine titled, “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy.”  In that piece, he wrote: “It is clear Detroit today is designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence, but not… for safety.”  This despite the fact that annually there were 5 million reported accidents, nearly 40,000 fatalities, 110,000 permanent disabilities and 1,5 million injuries.  People were dying and being injured unnecessarily.  Nader believed that engineering and design could prevent many deaths and injuries, and he would pursue that argument with great fervor and determination in the years ahead.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, shown here in 1976, hired Ralph Nader as a Labor Dept. consultant in 1964.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, shown here in 1976, hired Ralph Nader as a Labor Dept. consultant in 1964.
     After law school, Nader joined the U.S. Army and served six months active duty in 1959.  He also started to practice law in Hartford, Connecticut and lectured as an assistant professor of history and government at the University of Hartford.  But in 1963, at the age of 29, Nader hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., where he took up residence in a local boarding house.  In Washington, Nader’s law school paper on auto design liability came to the attention of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then Assistant Secretary of Labor and later a U.S. Senator.  Moynihan had a long interest in auto design and highway safety issues and had written a famous article in April 1959 titled “Epidemic on the Highways.”  Moynihan contracted Nader in 1964 as a part-time consultant at the Labor Department at the rate of $50 a day.  During this contract, Nader reportedly worked odd hours often arriving at his office after midnight.  He compiled a report titled, Context, Condition and Recommended Direction of Federal Activity in Highway Safety; a report that was meant primarily for background purposes and received little attention.

Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, 1960s.
Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, 1960s.
     By then, Nader had already committed to write an “untitled book on auto safety” for a new publisher in New York founded by former Simon & Schuster vice president, Richard Grossman.  In 1962, Grossman set up his own small house, Grossman Publishers.  Nader and Grossman had met in New York in September 1964 to make the deal for the auto safety book.  Grossman had been prompted to do the book by an article he read in The New Republic.  That article, written by James Ridgeway, was titled, “The Corvair Tragedy,” and had been instigated by information Nader had supplied Ridgeway.  Grossman was outraged by what he had read in Ridgeway’s piece, and at first wanted Ridgeway to write the book.  But Ridgeway informed Grossman that Nader was the guy who had all the information.

     In the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT), the former Governor of Connecticut (1955-1961), had begun a year-long series of hearings on the federal government’s role in traffic safety.  Ribicoff was chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee’s Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization, and his hearings had begun a year earlier, in March 1965.  The hearings would continue for another year, yielding nearly 1,600 pages of testimony.  In the process, Ribicoff’s committee staff had discovered that Nader was particularly well informed on auto safety issues, and invited him to serve as an unpaid advisor to help the subcommittee prepare for its hearings.

     By May of 1965, Nader left the Department of Labor to work full time on the book that would become Unsafe at Any Speed.  With his book, Nader would be asking a basic question: why were thousands of Americans being killed and injured in car accidents when technology already existed that could make cars safer?

 

November 1965: Cover & spine of 1st edition hardback copy of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published by Grossman Publishers, New York, NY.
November 1965: Cover & spine of 1st edition hardback copy of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published by Grossman Publishers, New York, NY.
Unsafe at Any Speed

     On November 30, 1965, Ralph Nader’s name appeared in a New York Times story the day Unsafe at Any Speed, was published.  The hardback edition by Grossman was 305 pages long and had a photo of a mangled auto wreck on its cover.  On the back cover, the book’s chapters were listed accompanied by a red-ink headline that stated: “The Complete Story That Has Never Been Told Before About Why The American Automobile Is Unnecessarily Dangerous.”

     In the New York Times article on the book’s release, which ran in the back pages of the paper, Nader criticized the auto industry, tire manufacturers, the National Safety Council and the American Automobile Association for ignoring auto safety problems.  The second paragraph of the Times story read: “Ralph Nader, a Washington lawyer, says that auto safety takes a back seat to styling, comfort, speed, power and the desire of auto makers to cut costs.”  Nader also charged that the President’s Committee for Traffic Safety was “little more than a private-interest group running a public agency that speaks with the authority of the President.”  The following day, the New York Times ran an article in which the auto industry reacted to Nader’s book and denied that the car companies were ignoring safety.

Hardback edition back panel, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
Hardback edition back panel, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
     In early 1966, in his State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson called for the enactment of a National Highway Safety Act.  Nader at the time was doing some work at the state level, and had convinced an old friend, Lawrence Scalise, who had become Iowa’s Attorney General, to schedule some auto safety hearings in Iowa. 

     In Washington, meanwhile, by January 14, 1966 news organizations were reporting that Senator Ribbicoff’s auto safety hearings – the series of hearings begun the previous years – would resume in February.

     With Unsafe at Any Speed still in the news, Senator Ribicoff summoned Nader to testify during hearings scheduled for February 10, 1966.  Ribbicoff had noted that Unsafe at Any Speed was a “provocative book” that had “some very serious things to say about the design and manufacture of motor vehicles.”  The book also raised public policy questions, and was being widely read in the auto industry.  At the hearing, Nader lived up to this advance billing, as he provided a scathing description of the auto industry and auto safety establishment.

Ralph Nader testifying at U.S. Senate hearing, 1966.
Ralph Nader testifying at U.S. Senate hearing, 1966.
     But Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, while it was closely read by auto industry insiders and those dealing with auto safety public policy, was not exactly jumping off bookstore shelves.  It was not then a best seller.   Although it had a few good reviews by then and modest sales, Unsafe at Any Speed had a limited circle of readers.  Auto safety was not a hot issue for the general public.  This was also the era of big cars and big engines.  The auto safety debate, for the most part, was for policy wonks.  But that soon changed – primarily because of what General Motors did next.

     At the time Nader wrote his book, more than 100 lawsuits had been filed against GM’s Chevrolet division for the Corvair’s alleged deficiencies.  Nader had based much of his scathing account of the Corvair’s problems on these legal cases – though he himself was not involved in any of this litigation.  GM became very concerned about Nader’s use of this information and worried that more lawsuits would result in the future.  The company’s legal department was at the center of this concern, though others in the company were also annoyed by Nader’s book and his activities on Capitol Hill.

 

GM “Tailing” Nader

Part of GM’s office complex, Detroit, MI, circa 1960s.
Part of GM’s office complex, Detroit, MI, circa 1960s.
     Privately and quietly, as early as November 1965 when Nader’s book first came out, GM authorized the hiring of a private detective agency headed up by a former FBI agent, Vincent Gillen, to dig into Nader’s background.  Multiple agents were assigned to track Nader and question his friends. 

     The assignment, as Guillen would explain in a letter to his agents, was to investigate Nader’s life and current activities, “to determine what makes him tick,” examining  “his real interest in safety, his supporters if any, his politics, his marital status, his friends, his women, boys, etc., drinking, dope, jobs, in fact all facets of his life.”

     None of this skullduggery had surfaced publicly, of course – at least not initially – although Nader himself suspected something was going on as early as January 1966.  Gillen and agents made contact with almost 60 of Nader’s friends and relatives under the pretense they were doing a “routine pre-employment investigation.”  Their questions about Nader probed his personal affairs, and also questioned why a 32-year-old man was still unmarried.  Nader would also recount two suspicious attempts in which young ladies made advances toward him – one at a drug store newsstand invited him to her apartment to talk about foreign relations and another sought his help in moving furniture – invitations which Nader declined.  Claire Nader, his sister would later report that their mother was getting phone calls a 3 a.m with messages that said: “Tell your son to shove off.”

First story of Ralph Nader being followed by private investigators appeared in the Washington Post, February 13, 1966.
First story of Ralph Nader being followed by private investigators appeared in the Washington Post, February 13, 1966.
     Nader suspected that he had been followed to Capitol Hill at one point in February 1966, and there was some corroboration of this incident as a Senate office building guard was approached by two men who had been following Nader, but had lost him, and asked the guard if he had seen a man fitting Nader’s description.  Nader had also mentioned to friends that he was being followed and had received late-night phone calls.  Reporters at the Washington Post corroborated some of Nader’s being followed, and on February 13, 1966 Post reporter Morton Mintz published a story that used the headline: “Car Safety Critic Nader Reports Being ‘Tailed’.”  Another story on GM’s spying of Nader – titled “The Dick” by James Ridgeway ( photo below) — appeared in The New Republic on March 6, 1966.  This story was followed by others in the New York Times.  Then on March 9, 1966, GM admitted that it had investigated Nader, but only as a “routine” matter.

GM’s use of private detectives to follow Ralph Nader became a national news story in March 1966.
GM’s use of private detectives to follow Ralph Nader became a national news story in March 1966.
     Nader, by this time, was reacting publicly to GM’s snooping, as reported in a Washington Post story of March 11, 1966: “…Is it ‘routine’ for General Motors to hire detectives to ask about one’s sex life, religious practices, political affiliations and credit ratings?  Is it routine for GM agents to solicit information form a professor of law at Harvard and other associates of mines on the wholly false pretext that I was being considered for a ‘lucrative research job’?  Against such a faceless and privileged prober, who knows what other invasions of privacy have occurred…?”

     When details of GM’s investigation of Nader became public, Senator Ribicoff and others on Capitol Hill were outraged.  Ribicoff, for one, announced that his subcommittee would hold hearings into the incident and that he expected “a public explanation of the alleged harassment of a Senate Committee witness…” “Anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night have no place in a free society.”
       – Sen. Abraham Ribicoff, 1966
 Ribicoff and Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin also called for a Justice Department investigation into the harassment.  “No citizen of this country should be focused to endure the kind of clumsy harassment to which Mr. Nader has apparently been subjected since the publication of his book,” said Ribicoff.  “Anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night have no place in a free society.”  Senator Gaylord Nelson had also made remarks about GM’s investigation of Nader: “This raises grave and serious questions of national significance.  What are we coming to when a great and powerful corporation will engage in such unethical and scandalous activity in an effort to discredit a citizen who is a witness before a Congressional committee.  If great corporations can engage in this kind of intimidation, it is an assault upon freedom in America.”  Ribicoff, meanwhile, had summoned the president of General Motors to appear at the hearings, making for a dramatic showdown in the U.S. Senate.

 

On The Hill
Senate Showdown

U.S. Senators taking their places for the 1966 hearing.
U.S. Senators taking their places for the 1966 hearing.
A portion of the crowd attending GM hearing, 1966.
A portion of the crowd attending GM hearing, 1966.
Senators Ribicoff, Harris & Kennedy during the hearing.
Senators Ribicoff, Harris & Kennedy during the hearing.
Ted Sorensen, left, with GM CEO James Roche.
Ted Sorensen, left, with GM CEO James Roche.
Senator Kennedy during questioning of James Roche.
Senator Kennedy during questioning of James Roche.
Ralph Nader sat in the first row of the audience during the hearing and also testified.
Ralph Nader sat in the first row of the audience during the hearing and also testified.
GM’s general counsel, Aloysius Power, admitted to ordering the spying on Nader. Eileen Murphy, right, directed the operation. Asst counsel, L. Bridenstine, left.
GM’s general counsel, Aloysius Power, admitted to ordering the spying on Nader. Eileen Murphy, right, directed the operation. Asst counsel, L. Bridenstine, left.
Holding the GM report on Nader, Senator Ribicoff at one point, upset with GM’s campaign to “smear a man,” reportedly said to GM witnesses, “...and you didn’t find a damn thing,” tossing the report on the table.
Holding the GM report on Nader, Senator Ribicoff at one point, upset with GM’s campaign to “smear a man,” reportedly said to GM witnesses, “...and you didn’t find a damn thing,” tossing the report on the table.
Ralph Nader addressing the Ribicoff Committee during the March 1966 Senate hearing.
Ralph Nader addressing the Ribicoff Committee during the March 1966 Senate hearing.

     On March 22, 1966, the hearing was set in a large U.S. Senate committee room.  Television cameras were set up and a throng of print reporters had come out for the hearing.  An overflow audience also packed the hearing room to standing room only.  In addition to Senator Ribicoff, chairing the proceedings, others Senators had also come to ask questions, including Senator Bobby Kennedy (D-NY), Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-WA), and Senator Fred Harris (D-OK).  The main attraction, of course, was the head of General Motors, James Roche.  Roche was accompanied that day by legal counsel, Ted Sorensen, former aide to President John F. Kennedy.

     At the hearing, Roche explained to the committee that GM had started its investigation of Nader before his book came out, and before he was scheduled to appear in Congress.  GM wanted to know if Nader had any connection with the damage claims being filed against the corporation in legal actions regarding the Corvair.  Roche said that his company certainly had legal right to gather any facts needed to defend itself in litigation.  But he also added, “I am not here to excuse, condone or justify in any way our investigation” of Nader.  In fact, in his statement Roche deplored “the kind of harassment to which Mr. Nader has apparently been subjected.”  He added that he was “just as shocked and outraged” as the senators were.

     Ribicoff asked Roche whether he considered this kind of investigation “most unworthy of American business.”  Roche replied, “Yes, I would agree,” adding this was “a new and strange experience for me and for General Motors.”  And Roche did apologize, saying at one point: “I want to apologize here and now to the members of this subcommittee and Mr. Nader.  I sincerely hope that these apologies will be accepted.”

     Nonetheless, Roche took the opportunity – no doubt at the advice of legal counsel – to publicly deny some of the more unsavory aspects of the Nader investigation that had been reported in the press.  Roche testified that to the best of his knowledge the “investigation initiated by GM, contrary to some speculation, did not employ girls as sex lures, did not employ detectives giving false names…, did not use recording devices during interviews, did not follow Mr. Nader in Iowa and Pennsylvania, did not have him under surveillance during the day he testified before this subcommittee, did not follow him in any private place, and did not constantly ring his private telephone number late at night with false statements or anonymous warnings.”

     Senator Robert Kennedy, in questioning  Roche, agreed that GM was justified in the face of charges about the Corvair to make an investigation to protect its name and its stockholders.  But Kennedy also questioned whether GM’s earlier statement of March 9th, which had acknowledged the investigation as a routine matter, wasn’t misleading or false in denying the harassment of Nader.  Kennedy questioned whether the GM investigation of Nader hadn’t moved into intimidation, harassment, “or possibly blackmail.”  Referring to the earlier GM press statement, Kennedy said: “I don’t see how you can order the investigation and then put out a statement like this [March 9th statement], which is not accurate.  That, Mr. Roche, disturbs me as much as the fact that you conducted the investigation in the way that it was conducted in the beginning.”  Roche said the March 9th statement may have been misleading but added that might have been due to lack of communications in GM.  Kennedy expressed doubt that a firm such as GM could be that inefficient.  “I like my GM car,” Kennedy said at the end of his questioning, “but you kind of shake me up.”

     Committee members also questioned GM’s chief counsel, Aloysious Power, and assistant general counsel, Louis Bridenstine, as well as Vincent Gillen, the head of the detective agency.  Gillen denied Nader’s charges.  GM’s Power acknowledged ordering the investigation explaining that Nader was something of “a mystery man” – a lawyer who did not have a law office.  GM also wanted to know about the man whose book was charging that GM’s Corvair was inherently unsafe.  Kennedy remarked there was no mystery about Nader, that he was a young lawyer who had just come out of law school.

     Ribicoff at one point referred to the surveillance of Nader, the questioning of his former teachers and friends, querries about his sex habits, etc., as pretty unsavory business.  Ribicoff then asked Roche: “Let us assume that you found something wrong with his sex life.  What would that have to do with whether or not he was right or wrong on the Corvair?,” to which Roche replied, “Nothing.”  Holding a copy of GM’s report on Nader in his hand, Ribicoff contended there was little in it about Nader’s legal associations or any possible connections with Corvair litigation.  Nader had also reiterated for the committee that he had nothing to do with the Corvair litigation.  Ribicoff contended the investigation “was an attempt to downgrade and smear a man.”  Richard Grossman, the publisher of Unsafe at Any Speed, later recalling Ribicoff’s manner during the hearing, paraphrased him, noting:  “He said: ‘and so you [GM] hired detectives to try to get dirt on this young man to besmirch his character because of statements he made about your unsafe automobiles?’  Then he grabbed [the GM report], threw it down on the table and said, ‘And you didn’t find a damned thing’.”

     Nader, earlier, had called GM’s investigation “an attempt to obtain lurid details and grist for the invidious use of slurs and slanders…” “They have put you through the mill, and they haven’t found a damn thing wrong with you.”
        –Sen. Ribicoff to Ralph Nader
Nader also told the committee that he feared for democracy if average citizens were subject to corporate harassment whenever they had something critical to say about the way business operated.

     Ribicoff, meanwhile, practically anointed Nader as “Mr. Clean” at the hearing, finding him gleaming of character having survived the digging and scheming by GM’s private eyes.  Ribicoff told Nader that he could feel pretty good about himself.  “They have put you through the mill,” Ribicoff said of the GM investigators, “and they haven’t found a damn thing wrong with you.”  A few weeks after the March 22, 1966 hearing it was also learned that the GM-hired detectives had also sought to find links between Ribicoff and Nader.  One of Nader’s friends, Frederick Hughes Condon, a lawyer in Concord, New Hampshire, had been contacted by GM’s detective, Vince Gillen, on February 22, 1966 asking him about Nader’s relationship with Ribicoff.  Ribicoff, however, said that he had met Nader for the first time the day he walked into the hearing room during his first committee appearance on February 11, 1966.

 

National Notice

Washington Post story by Morton Mintz, “GM's Goliath Bows to David,” appeared on March 27, 1966.
Washington Post story by Morton Mintz, “GM's Goliath Bows to David,” appeared on March 27, 1966.
     In any case, the March 1966 hearings on GM’s surveillance of Ralph Nader provided a big boost for Nader and his book.  Whenever the head of a major corporation as powerful as GM apologizes publicly for wrongdoing, that alone is big news.  This story, however, had the added dimension of a “David-and-Goliath” confrontation – which made it even more appealing to the national press. 

     The evening of the Senate’s March 22nd, 1966 hearing, in fact, Nader appeared on each of the three network news TV shows – this at a time when there were only three televisions channels.  And in the next morning’s newspapers, the apology by GM was front-page news all across the country.  The headline used on the front page of the Washington Post, for example, was: “GM’s Head Apologizes To ‘Harassed’ Car Critic.” 

1966: Ralph Nader testifying in Congress.
1966: Ralph Nader testifying in Congress.
     Nader did not let up, however, and continued pushing ahead for national auto safety standards and traffic legislation, testifying before other committees in Congress and generally using his national notice to help move the legislation quickly through Congress.  And in record time that year, Congress passed two auto safety laws – the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, the latter creating a new agency to oversee auto safety standards that would become the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  

     As the Washington Post put in on August 30, 1966, Nader was a “one-man lobby for the public [who] prevailed over the nation’s most powerful industry.”  Cars were soon required, for the first time, to include seat belts, headrests, shatter-resistant windshields and impact-absorbing steering wheels.

Ralph Nader at the White House shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson after bill-signing ceremony, September 9, 1966.
Ralph Nader at the White House shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson after bill-signing ceremony, September 9, 1966.
The Washington Post also used a photo of the Nader-LBJ meeting at the highway bill signing.
The Washington Post also used a photo of the Nader-LBJ meeting at the highway bill signing.

     President Lyndon Johnson invited Nader to the White House for the signing of the highway safety bills.  During the ceremony, LBJ remarked in his speech: “The automobile industry has been one of our Nation’s most dynamic and inventive industries.  I hope, and I believe, that its skill and imagination will somehow be able to build in more safety—without building on more costs.”

     Nader would later write of that day at the White House: “At the request of a New York Times reporter I prepared a statement for the occasion and walked from the nearby National Press Building to the White House… The atmosphere inside was upbeat and LBJ was passing out pens furiously while shaking everybody’s hand.  At the time I recall thinking:  Now the work really starts to make sure the regulators are not captured by the industry they are supposed to regulate…”

 

Nader Sues GM

     Nor was Nader finished with GM.  In fact, not long after the GM-Nader showdown on Capitol Hill, an attorney friend of Nader’s, Stuart Speiser, called him on the phone.  Speiser had heard Roche apologize to Nader during the March hearings, and he suspected Nader might have a good shot at a lawsuit.  “I told Ralph I was sure GM expected to be sued and that they were probably prepared to pay a large sum, larger than any previous award, to bury their mistakes,” Speiser would later write in his own book, Lawsuit (1980), recounting their case against GM.  Speiser believed GM would be the perfect target because the company’s image suffered after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed.  And Nader, by contrast, would serve as the “knight in shining armor, champion of the consumer, the last honest man. . .”.

     In November 1966, Nader and Speiser sued GM for compensatory and punitive damages.  GM’s attorneys tried multiple times to throw the case out of court by saying the carmaker was not responsible for any wrongdoing.  Speiser proved that the independent private detective, Vincent Gillen, had acted directly on behalf of GM and used Gillen’s testimony to that effect against GM.  More than two years after the suit was filed, GM agreed to pay Nader $425,000 – the largest out-of-court settlement in the history of privacy law.  Nader used the settlement money to found several public interest groups, including the Center for Auto Safety.

January 28, 1968: Newsweek magazine cover story – “Consumer Crusader, Ralph Nader.
January 28, 1968: Newsweek magazine cover story – “Consumer Crusader, Ralph Nader.
Dec. 12, 1969: Ralph Nader featured in Time magazine’s “consumer revolt” cover story.
Dec. 12, 1969: Ralph Nader featured in Time magazine’s “consumer revolt” cover story.

 

Media Coverage

     During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ralph Nader enjoyed rising popularity and increasing media coverage.  He was becoming America’s  leading consumer advocate, and he broadened his appeal by working for environmental protection, improved food safety, corporate accountability, and other causes.  He soon began  showing up on the covers of mainstream magazines such as Time and Newsweek, and on nightly news TV broadcasts.  In January 1968, Newsweek magazine featured him in knight’s armor in a cover story titled, “Consumer Crusader – Ralph Nader.”  In December 1969, Nader made the cover of Time magazine for a covers story on “The Consumer Revolt.”

     “To many Americans, Nader, at 35, has become something of a folk hero,” wrote Time, “a symbol of constructive protest against the status quo.”  But Nader would also continue to have a major impact on public policy – not only by his own actions and advocacy, but also that of a legion of young people he recruited and inspired.  These “Nader’s Raiders,” as they would be called by the press, churned out a continuing series of books and reports through the 1970s and 1980s, some of which helped revive and transform the art of investigative journalism.  For that part of the story please see “Nader’s Raiders,” also at this website.

     There is, of course, much more to the Ralph Nader story beyond his early struggles with GM and the auto industry covered here.  Readers are directed to “Sources, Links & Additional Information” below which includes various websites and books profiling his long career.

     In later years, Nader would take a turn toward running for public office himself, launching bids for President of the United States in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008.  In the 2000 election, running nationwide as the candidate of the Green Party, Ralph Nader won nearly three million votes, close to three percent of the votes cast.  That election proved to be the closest presidential election in American history – in which the deadlocked outcome between George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore was resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush’s favor. 

Ralph Nader campaigning for President, 2008.
Ralph Nader campaigning for President, 2008.
     Some Democrats blamed Nader for their loss in 2000, noting that had Nader’s votes in either Florida or New Hampshire gone Democratic, Gore and the Democrats would have had an electoral victory.  A number of former Nader friends and associates, including some long-time allies and trusted associates, emerged personally bitter toward Nader following that contest.  And while these rifts and critiques have been serious, with many still festering and unforgiving, other of his supporters still revere Nader for what he has accomplished.  In fact, some regard his contributions to consumer and environmental protection as truly significant and perhaps without equal, placed in a very special category of good works that few public advocates have ever achieved.

     David Booth, writing in 2010 at the 45th anniversary of Unsafe and Any Speed in his “The Fast Lane” column for MSN.com, observed, for example:

…Love or hate him, Nader is single-handedly responsible for much of the modern automotive safety technology that now cocoons us.  Never mind that he has since become a caricature of the American political scene….[W]ere it not for Unsafe, there probably might never have been a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  Anti-lock brakes, air bags and the three-point [safety belt] harness might still be a glint in some Swedish engineer’s eye had not Nader taken up his one-man crusade…

Part of the cover of the 25th anniversary paperback edition of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published by Knighstbridge Publishing Co. in 1991.
Part of the cover of the 25th anniversary paperback edition of “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published by Knighstbridge Publishing Co. in 1991.
     Beyond his accomplishments in the auto safety arena, Nader has authored or co-authored more than 20 books ( a sampling of some of these are noted below in “Sources, Links & Additional Information”).  He has had a hand in enacting or reforming more than two dozen major laws, including:  the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, the Freedom of Information Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, and others.  And he has founded or helped start more than 40 organizations, among them: the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Study of Responsive Law, the Center for Women Policy Studies, the Clean Water Action Project, Congress Watch, the Health Research Group, Capitol Hill News Service, Multinational Monitor, the Freedom of Information Clearinghouse, Public Citizen, Global Trade Watch, the Tax Reform Research Group, the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, and a number of state-based Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs).

     As of this writing, Ralph Nader, now 79, continues his fight on behalf of consumers and an active and aware citizenry — writing books and a weekly web column, making public appearances, and advocating for numerous causes.  See also at this website part 2 of this story, “Nader’s Raiders.”  For other stories on politics at this website please see the “Politics & Society” category page.  Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 31 March 2013
Last Update: 31 March 2013
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “GM & Ralph Nader, 1965-1971,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 31, 2013.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

A young Ralph Nader with the Washington beltway in the background, August 1967. Associated Press photo.
A young Ralph Nader with the Washington beltway in the background, August 1967. Associated Press photo.
Cover of Charles McCarry’s “Citizen Nader” book, 1972, hardback edition, Saturday Review Press.
Cover of Charles McCarry’s “Citizen Nader” book, 1972, hardback edition, Saturday Review Press.
Ralph Nader on Capitol Hill, early- mid-1970s.
Ralph Nader on Capitol Hill, early- mid-1970s.
Thomas Whiteside's 1972 book on the GM investigation of Ralph Nader.
Thomas Whiteside's 1972 book on the GM investigation of Ralph Nader.
Ralph Nader at a Public Citizen press conference, 1970s.
Ralph Nader at a Public Citizen press conference, 1970s.
“The Big Boys” of 1986 profiles CEOs from nine major companies such as Dow Chemical, U.S. Steel, Control Data and others. Published by Pantheon.
“The Big Boys” of 1986 profiles CEOs from nine major companies such as Dow Chemical, U.S. Steel, Control Data and others. Published by Pantheon.
Ralph Nader, in public forum, engaging his audience.
Ralph Nader, in public forum, engaging his audience.
“Crashing The Party” of 2002 tells the story of Nader's 2000 presidential bid.  Published by St. Martin’s Press.
“Crashing The Party” of 2002 tells the story of Nader's 2000 presidential bid. Published by St. Martin’s Press.
Ralph Nader’s “Seventeen Solutions” of 2012 offers ideas for addressing problems from corporate crime and tax reform to health care and housing.
Ralph Nader’s “Seventeen Solutions” of 2012 offers ideas for addressing problems from corporate crime and tax reform to health care and housing.
A compilation of Ralph Nader columns, published by Seven Stories Press, April 2013, 540pp.
A compilation of Ralph Nader columns, published by Seven Stories Press, April 2013, 540pp.

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“Lawyer Charges Autos Safety Lag; In Book, He Blames ‘Traffic Safety Establishment’,” New York Times, November 30, 1965, p. 68.

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“Writer Predicts ‘No Law’ Auto Act; Charges Harassment,” Washington Post, Times Herald, February 11, 1966, p. A-3.

Morton Mintz, “Car Safety Critic Nader Reports Being ‘Tailed’,” Washington Post, February 13, 1966.

Richard Corrigan, “Behind the ‘Chrome Curtain’,” Washington Post, Times Herald, February 21, 1966, p. A-3.

Charles C. Cain, (AP), “GM Finally Fights Critics on Safety; Cites Results, Takes Stand, Attacks Book,” Washington Post, Times Herald, February 27, 1966, p. L-3.

Morton Mintz, “LBJ Asks $700 Million Traffic Safety Program,” Washington Post, Times Herald March 3, 1966, p. F-8.

Walter Rugaber, “Critic of Auto Industry’s Safety Standards Says He Was Trailed and Harassed; Charges Called Absurd,” New York Times, March 6, 1966, p. 94.

Richard Harwood, “‘Investigators’ Hound Auto Safety Witness,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 7, 1966, p. A-3.

United Press International, “Probe of Nader Harassment Report Is Asked,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 9, 1966, p. A-9.

Walter Rugaber, “G.M. Acknowledges Investigating Critic,” New York Times, March 10, 1966, p. 1.

“Ribicoff Summons G.M. on Its Inquiry Of Critic; Head of Senate Safety Panel Plans Hearing March 22,” New York Times, March 11, 1966.

Richard Harwood, “GM Chief Called to Quiz On Probe of Auto Critic,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 11, 1966, p. D-6.

James Ridgeway, “The Dick,” The New Republic, March 12, 1966.

Fred P. Graham, “F.B.I.. Will Enter Auto Safety Case; Inquiry Ordered on Charge of Intimidation of Critic,” New York Times, March 12, 1966.

United Press International, “Nader Testifies Wednesday Before Magnuson’s Panel,” New York Times, March 14, 1966.

Richard Harwood, “Sorensen Expected At Nader Quiz Today,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 22, 1966, p. A-1.

Jerry T. Baulch, Associated Press, “GM’s Head Apologizes To ‘Harassed’ Car Critic,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 23, 1966, p. A-1.

Associated Press, “General Motors’ Head Apologizes To Critic For Probe Harassment,” March 23, 1966.

Walter Rugaber, “G.M. Apologizes for Harassment of Critic,” New York Times, March 23, 1966, p. 1.

“The Corvair Caper,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 24, 1966, p. A-24.

Chris Welles, “Critics Take Aim At Auto Makers: The Furor Over Car Safety,” Life, March 25, 1966, pp. 41-45.

Bryce Nelson, “GM-Hired Detective Sought to Find A Link Between Ribicoff and Nader,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 26, 1966, p. A-1.

Morton Mintz, “GM’s Goliath Bows to David,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 27, 1966, p. A-7,

“What’s Good for G.M.,” Editorial, New York Times, March 27, 1966.

Morton Mintz, “The Second of a 1-2 Punch at Automen,”Washington Post, Times Herald, March 29, 1966, p. A-14.

George Lardner Jr., “Private Eye Accused of Roving,” Washington Post, Times Herald, March 30, 1966, p. A-4.

Morton Mintz, “Minimum Tire Safety Standards Approved by Senate, 79 to 0,” Washington Post, Times Herald, Mar 30, 1966, p. A-6.

“Investigations: The Spies Who Were Caught Cold,” Time, Friday, April 1, 1966.

Morton Mintz, “Nader Assails Car Makers For Secrecy on Defects,” Washington Post, Times Herald, April 15, 1966, p. A-1.

Morton Mintz, “U.S. Blames GM in Auto Accident; Case May Be 1st Government Try To Hold Manufacturer Responsible,” Washington Post, Times Herald, April 17, 1966, p. A-4

Morton Mintz, “Nader Raps GM, Ford On Faulty Seat Belts,” Washington Post, Times Herald, Aprril 26, 1966, p. A-1.

Drew Pearson, “Car Accident Reports Suppressed,” Washington Post, Times Herald, April 26, 1966, p. B-13.

Hobart Rowen, “Safety Factor Weighed in Corvair Slump,” Washington Post, Times Herald, May 1, 1966, p. L-3.

Morton Mintz, “Nader Sues GM and Detective for $26 Million,” Washington Post, Times Herald, November 17, 1966, p. A-1.

James Ridgeway & David Sanford, “The Nader Affair,” The New Republic, February 18, 1967, p.16.

Art Siedenbaum,”Crusader Nader and the Fresh Air Underground,” Los Angeles Times, 1968,

“Meet Ralph Nader,” Newsweek, January 22, 1968, pp. 65-67.

“An Explosive Interview with Consumer Crusader Ralph Nader,” Playboy, October 1968.

“Ralph Nader,”Wikipedia.org.

“Ralph Nader Bibliography,” Wikipedia.org.

“Consumerism: Nader’s Raiders Strike Again,” Time, Monday, March 30, 1970.

Editorial, “The Nader Settlement,”New York Times, Monday, August 17, 1970.

“The Law: Nader v. G.M. (Cont’d),” Time, Monday, August 24, 1970.

Nader v. General Motors Corp., Court of Appeals of New York, 1970.

Thomas Whiteside, The Investigation of Ralph Nader: General Motors Versus One Determined Man, New York: Arbor House, 1972.

Charles McCarry, “A Hectic, Happy, Sleepless, Stormy, Rumpled, Relentless Week on the Road with Ralph Nader,” Life, January 21, 1972, p. 45-55.

Charles McCarry, Citizen Nader, New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.

Elizabeth Drew, Book Review,“Citizen Nader, by Charles McCarry,” New York Times, Sunday, March 19, 1972.

Sandra Hochman, “America’s Chronic Critic; Ralph Nader Finally Has the President’s Number,” People, February 28, 1977.

“Ralph Nader Interview: Making Government Accountable,” Academy of Achievement (Washington, D.C.), February 16, 1991.

U.S. Department of Transportation / Federal Highway Administration, “President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Federal Role in Highway Safety – Photo Gallery,” DOT.gov.

Justin Martin, Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon, Perseus Publishing, 2002.

Patricia Cronin Marcello, Ralph Nader: A Biography, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.

Joseph R. Szczesny, “GM: Powerful – and Paranoid,” Time, Tuesday, June 2, 2009.

T. Rees Shapiro, “Stuart M. Speiser, Attorney for Ralph Nader in GM Lawsuit, Dies at 87,” Washington Post, Thursday, October 28, 2010.

David Booth, MSN Autos, “Ralph Nader May Be Anti-Car, But You Should Still Thank Him,” MSN.com, November 2010.

Sheila T. Harty, “Ethics of Citizenship From a Nader Raider,” 2011, 12pp.

Timothy Noah, “Nader and the Corvair,” TNR.com, October 4, 2011.

David Bollier, Citizen Action and Other Big Ideas: A History of Ralph Nader and the Modern Consumer Movement, Chapter 1, The Beginnings, Nader.org.

“Ralph Nader Biography,” American-Bud- dha.com.

Ronald Ahrens, “GM Squandered Our Good Will, Setting off Years of Licks for Corporate America,” Baggy Paragraphs, July 20, 2012.

Paul Ingrassia, “How the Corvair’s Rise and Fall Changed America Forever,” The Great Debate/Reuters, May 9, 2012.

Stephen Skrovan and Henriette Mantel, An Unreasonable Man: Ralph Nader: How Do You Define A Legacy?, A Documentary Film, Discussion Guide, 7pp.

 

____________________________________________

 

 

 

“Dinah Shore & Chevrolet”
1951-1963

Dinah  Shore, in prime time, on her ‘Chevy Show’ television studio set, probably sometime in the 1950s.
Dinah Shore, in prime time, on her ‘Chevy Show’ television studio set, probably sometime in the 1950s.
     Dinah Shore was one of the first television celebrities whose name became synonymous with a product – and not just any product.  For Dinah Shore was perhaps the one person in the 1950s and early 1960s most responsible for putting Chevrolet automobiles in the driveways and garages of millions of Americans.  In doing so she became the “queen of General Motors” in its heyday – a super-salesperson and more.  For in this role, Dinah Shore also became a 1950s’  cultural icon — and for millions, a much-admired and trusted personality. 

     But before she became “Ms. Chevrolet”, Dinah Shore  was a well-known singer and entertainer who worked hard at her craft; a person who had traveled from blues on the radio and entertaining the troops during WWII, to leading a nation to suburbia and the open highway.  In later years she also helped define the female talk show format with a genteel, kitchen-table style, presaging in some ways Oprah Winfrey’s show and “The View,” though without the sharp elbows in the latter case.


The Chevy Jingle

“See the USA in your Chevrolet,
America is asking you to call…
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA,
America’s the greatest land of all…”

                                                                      – Dinah Shore, singing.

     In her prime-time days as a 1950s TV show hostess and performer, Dinah Shore rose to the top of her craft and became a national celebrity.  With a likeable mixture of Southern charm, good looks, and friendly hospitality, she became one of America’s favorite TV personas of the era, making millions of viewers feel good about themselves and their country.  On her TV show for many years she sang “the Chevy jingle” at the show’s opening and closing.  The short song – which included the lines “See the USA in your Chevrolet… America’s the greatest land of all” – became something of an anthem for the era; a tune approaching patriotic status.  Her sweeping good-bye kiss thrown to the audience at the end of each show became her trademark gesture, and a genuine part of her hospitable style.

 

Tennessee Roots

The young Dinah Shore as a brunette, before she became the blonde TV host, shown here on a 2001 CD from RCA.
The young Dinah Shore as a brunette, before she became the blonde TV host, shown here on a 2001 CD from RCA.
     Born in March1917 to Solomon and Anna Stein Shore in the small town of Winchester, Tennessee, Dinah Shore was first named Frances Rose.  As a child she was called “Fanny Rose” or “Fannye” by nickname and sometimes teased at school.  She also did battle with polio in her right leg for six years, but with a regimen of tennis and swimming overcame it, leaving some damage to her right foot.  She began singing and performing at an early age. 

     “When I was four or five,” she would later recall, “my father had a general store in Winchester and I don’t think the farmers could ever leave on Saturday afternoon until I had been placed up on the counter to sing.” 

     Also encouraged by her mother who once had operatic ambitions, Dinah learned to play the ukelele, took voice lessons, and ventured out in amateur dramatics with a night-club appearance at age fourteen.  She went on the Vanderbilt University where she studied sociology.  While in college, she made her radio debut with a regular 15-minute program on the Nashville station WSM.  The radio theme song there, “Dinah,” a 1925 hit tune, later inspired her name change.  She used her radio earnings to help pay her college costs.

     By 1938, she was in New York, and bounced around some in auditions, radio work, and a big band singing.  Xavier Cugat hired her to sing with his band which played at the prestigious Waldorf-Astoria.  She recorded some hit songs with Cugat, “The Breeze And I” of 1940 among them.  About that time, Victor Records offered her a contract on their Bluebird label.  In 1942, “Blues in the Night” became her first million-selling record… She had also been singing on CBS Radio and became a house singer on NBC Radio’s Sunday afternoon jazz show that was “networked” coast-to-coast.  The music played there featured notables such as Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and the young Lena Horne.  As a vocalist on the show, Dinah Shore built a national following and by 1940 had become a well known on radio, recordings, and juke-boxes.  Through 1941 she also appeared regularly on Eddie Cantor’s radio show “Time To Smile.”  By 1942 she had her own networked radio show and her recording career had taken off by then, too.  “Blues in the Night” was her first million-selling record in1942 and two years later she had her first No. 1 hit with “I’ll Walk Alone,” a World War II song of longing.

Dinah Shore, a popular singer on the music charts of her day, traveled with USO tours in Europe to entertain the troops; 1943 or so.
Dinah Shore, a popular singer on the music charts of her day, traveled with USO tours in Europe to entertain the troops; 1943 or so.
     Dinah Shore was also a hit with the troops during World War II, making appearances in Normandy and other Allied bases in Europe.  She did one tour visiting hospitals and G.I.s in which she sang more than 150 songs in eleven straight hours.  She also made numerous appearances on the Armed Forces Radio’s live show, “Command Performance,” popular with the troops.  And on domestic radio, she also had her own half-hour show in 1943, “Call for Music,” sponsored by General Foods. In Hollywood, she had appeared in a few films, such as Belle of the Yukon, Up in Arms, and others, but acting was not her strong suit.  She also did several songs for Walt Disney productions, with her voice used in Disney animations.  Her recordings, meanwhile, continued to do well.  Through the 1940s she sold one million copies of “Yes, My Darling Daughter.”  Between 1940 and 1955, she would have some 75 hit records.  Among these were: “The Gypsy” (1946), “The Anniversary Song” (1947), “Buttons and Bows” (1948) and “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” (1949).  Her record sales were well over 6 million by the late 1940s.  That’s about when she began to venture into the new medium of television starting on the Ed Wynn Show.

 

TV & Chevrolet

This photo and one below from 1952 TV ad with Dinah Shore for the 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air model.
This photo and one below from 1952 TV ad with Dinah Shore for the 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air model.
The Chevrolet Bel Air model for 1953.
The Chevrolet Bel Air model for 1953.

     In 1950 she made a guest appearance on Bob Hope’s first NBC television special.  The following year, NBC gave her a quarter-hour show in the early evening which ran twice weekly.  It was called the Dinah Shore Show.  It was the first network show hosted by a woman.  GM’s Chevrolet division became her sponsor.  For some months prior to the show, talks had gone on with the sponsor. According to Bruce Cassidy in his book, Dinah!: “The Chevrolet Division of General Motors made no secret of it: they wanted to sell cars not only to men but to women as well.  Dinah Shore had already proved herself as a ‘seller’ with the servicemen in World War II.  Her image was that of the girl next door… The women [in her audience], it was hoped, would approve of having her in their homes.”  Chevy and GM joined Dinah Shore from the beginning of her TV career.  It also didn’t hurt that RCA and NBC corporate chief David Sarnoff liked Shore’s choice of music and her mainstream appeal.  The Dinah Shore Show, in its shorter-length, twice weekly format, would run through July 1957.  However, she would soon have a full hour on Sunday nights, reaching millions.  Some of her longer shows began as specials in 1956.  More on the longer show in a moment.

Dinah Shore in a print advertisement from the 1950s pitching a Chevrolet contest.
Dinah Shore in a print advertisement from the 1950s pitching a Chevrolet contest.
     General Motors by then, as other major companies, had begun to use television-show sponsorship and television advertising to push their product.  Chevrolet, in fact, even in the early 1950s, had the single largest advertising budget in the business, handled by the advertising agency Campbell-Ewald.  Some years later, Campbell-Ewald would take credit for “launching” Dinah on her November 1951 show where she began singing the Chevrolet song.  By the fall of 1952, Dinah Shore, in addition to singing the Chevy jingle on her new show, was also making TV commercials for Chevrolet.  She had made one “See the USA” TV commercial in 1952 featuring the Chevrolet song and Chevrolet cars traveling the roads of America.

Dinah Shore making TV ad for what appears to be a mid-1950s Chevrolet model.
Dinah Shore making TV ad for what appears to be a mid-1950s Chevrolet model.
     Another film short made for Chevrolet in the fall of 1952 features its new 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air model (earlier photos above right).  The 12-minute film, titled “A New Star,” opens on the set of television studio as Shore is filmed singing an entire song about spring.  After the song, she addresses her audience to talk about the beauty and various features of the new Chevy model, then heads to the dressing room for a wardrobe change for another song.  A salesmen then comes on with “actor consumers” as the filming “the ad” continues.  The salesmen makes his best Chevrolet pitch as the camera pans the new car.  Dinah, meanwhile, returns in a new outfit and sings the whole version of “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet.”  Throughout her career with Chevrolet as her sponsor, Dinah Shore would continue to make TV and print ads, auto show appearances, new dealer dedications, race track appearances, and other Chevrolet product endorsements and special appearances.


Dinah’s Chevy Show

Dinah Shore singing on her show with Mahalia Jackson.
Dinah Shore singing on her show with Mahalia Jackson.
     By 1956, Dinah’s show was expanded to a full one-hour – now named the Dinah Shore Chevy Show.  The hour-long show ran from October 1956 through 1963.  It marked a generally buoyant, time in America; the Eisenhower and Kennedy years; a time mostly of peace, prosperity, and optimism, though with the Cold War shadow.  Dinah’s show ran on weekend evenings, mostly Sundays, and included popular guests of the time such as Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Pearl Bailey, George Burns, Jack Lemmon, Mahalia Jackson, Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, Shirley Temple, Nat King Cole, and others.  Dinah would sometimes sing or dance with guests, or engage in comedy skits.  She was the perfect hostess; a cheerful personality who fit the times and set people at ease.  Dinah Shore became quite popular by the late 1950s, winning Emmy awards for her show and was named several times to lists of “most admired” woman.  But her show’s most enduring image was her signature “See-The-USA” song, as she beckoned an eager nation to the open road.

Opening frame from the set of ‘The Dinah Shore Chevy Show’.
Opening frame from the set of ‘The Dinah Shore Chevy Show’.
     Chevrolet, meanwhile, by December 1957, was paying weekly installments of $145,000 (in 1950s’ money) for each Dinah Shore Chevy Show.  Dinah’s show by then, although not the nation’s top show, still had an audience of about 44 million.  A GM spokesman told Time magazine in December 1957 that the company considered its link with Dinah to be “one of the most enduring love affairs in TV.”  Indeed, Dinah Shore was helping to make Chevrolet the most popular automobile brand in America.  In the 1950s, Chevy sales in the U.S. averaged one million or more cars and trucks every year.


TV Guide, June 1953.
TV Guide, June 1953.
TV Guide, March 1955.
TV Guide, March 1955.
TV Guide, Dec 1956.
TV Guide, Dec 1956.
TV Guide, Dec 1957.
TV Guide, Dec 1957.
TV Guide, April 1959.
TV Guide, April 1959.

 

 

GM’s Money & Models

     It wasn’t just Dinah Shore powering Chevrolet sales forward.  Chevrolet itself was spreading TV advertising dollars around liberally, as the company had been doing since the late 1940s and the days of radio.  By 1960, Chevrolet alone was spending something on the order of $100 million annually (in 1960s’ dollars) on TV ads and sponsorship.  Chevy was associated with a number of TV shows at various times during the 1950s, including: Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World”, Robert Trout’s “CBS News”, Lowell Thomas’ “High Adventure”, and various shows by Pat Boone, Garry Moore, and Milton Berle.  But the performer who would personify Chevy in that era was Dinah Shore.  By the early 1960s, her show was regarded as “a Sunday night staple.”  Advertising Age would later write that Dinah Shore “helped make Chevy the unchallenged leader in America and the Chevy jingle one of the most famous in TV history.”  But General Motors was doing its part, too, turning out the hardware.  By the mid-1950s, as GM became one of the most powerful companies in the world, attractive new Chevy models were hitting showrooms all across America.

     In October 1954, Chevrolet’s new line-up boasted a spiffy new model – the ’55 Chevy – with a 265 cubic inch V-8 engine that put out 160 horsepower.  It was the first mass-market car with a V-8 engine.  In earlier years, GM had put V-8s into its up-scale Cadillac line, but the high-revving, “small block” V-8s, as they came to be known, were the first to be put into everyday, “working-class” Chevys.  These models sold like crazy.  And the good times continued though the next few years with other Chevy models.

Dinah Shore & Pat Boone in TV ad for the 1958 Chevy Impala.
Dinah Shore & Pat Boone in TV ad for the 1958 Chevy Impala.
     By 1958, Chevy introduced its Impala model, a lower-end luxury car that also became wildly popular.  Dinah Shore appeared in TV ads and film shorts hyping the new Impala.  She and Pat Boone did one together in the fall of 1958, doing a little song and dance on a Chevrolet set to tout the new 1959 Impala.  By 1960, the Chevrolet Impala became the best-selling automobile in America.  Five years later, it would set an all-time industry annual sales record for an individual model, selling more than 1 million.

     When the Dinah Shore Chevy Show began in 1956 it started as a series of monthly specials broadcast for an hour on Friday nights.  From 1957-1961 it became the Sunday night staple, broadcast at 9 pm. In the fall of 1961, CBS came up with a new show – a western named Bonanza, destined to become one of the all-time TV powerhouse shows.  Bonanza then took the 9 pm time slot.  Dinah’s show then became the Dinah Shore Show, broadcast on Friday nights at 9:30pm.  In its last two seasons, The Dinah Shore Show went back to Sundays at 10 pm, broadcast on a rotating basis with assorted specials.  The last telecast was May 12, 1963.

     By 1962-63 – roughly coinciding with the final run of her show – Chevy sales alone were more than 2 million a year.  All GM models in those years accounted for fully half of all vehicles sold in the U.S.  Dinah Shore had certainly done her part for Chevrolet and beyond.  Even after her show went off the air, she continued to sing the Chevy song for the company in advertising for several more years.  Her name would remain associated with the Chevrolet brand for many years after her formal arrangement with the company had ended.

     “The Chevrolet brass were ecstatic,” wrote Bruce Cassiday in his biography of Dinah.  “For ten years, right up into the fall of 1961, when she began a reduced schedule, Chevy sponsored her and listened to the jangle of cash registers as American’s bought Chevrolet’s by the millions to the tune of Dinah’s voice singing ‘See the USA in Your Chevrolet…’.”

     By 1964, America had changed.  The cars were different and so was the music.  Ronny and the Daytonna’s 1965 hit song “Little GTO” came out shortly after a GM whiz-kid engineer/executive named John DeLorean put the actual GTO Pontiac, with its giant engine, on the street.  Wilson Pickett’s song “Mustang Sally “of 1966 told a story about Ford’s hot new Mustang model.  The muscle car era was in full swing.  Detroit’s automakers by this time were heading in a whole new direction – and not always for the better.

Smog, Safety & MPG

     As Dinah Shore was helping America enjoy its love affair with the automobile, there were some serious automotive downsides that started to become apparent nationwide at about that time.  Dinah, of course, had nothing to do with these.  But by the mid-1950s, a new dangerous kind of air pollution called smog had begun to form in Los Angeles, later connected nationwide to uncontrolled automobile tail-pipe exhausts and engine emissions. 

     Safety and auto accidents also became national concerns. Congress, in fact, had first attacked what was called the “horsepower race” in 1957, believing the rising horse-power in automobiles to be partly responsible for killing and maiming tens of thousands in speed-related accidents.  Automakers then pledged not to pitch their wares for speed and to stop using racing results in auto advertising.  But all of this was soon forgotten and pushed aside by 1962, as the muscle-car era dawned. 

     Pollution control in automobiles, meanwhile, remained minimal, even as a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit was initiated in 1969 against Detroit’s auto- makers alleging a 1954-to-1969 conspiracy to hold back pollution-control technology.  This suit was settled out of court, but the automakers continued to drag their feet on pollution control and automotive fuel economy for decades.  On the safety front, a consumer advocate named Ralph Nader, emerged in 1965 with book Unsafe at Any Speed, attacking the poor safety record of Detroit’s automakers, sparking a consumer movement and new auto safety laws.  By the mid-1970s, fuel economy became the major concern, with Detroit again faring poorly in the miles-per-gallon (MPG) competition as Japanese automakers engineered more efficient models.



Dinah Can’t Help

     Years later, in May 1999, Chevy tried to make an advertising comeback with Dinah Shore, even though she had passed on by then.  In a campaign aimed at resurrecting its Impala model, the company brought back Dinah’s “See the U-S-A- in-Your-Chevrolet” anthem and mounted a brief ad campaign with her appearing in some retro ads.  Using a bit of televised techno-wizardry, they had Dinah on-screen, appearing to chat with then Chevy General Manager, Kurt Ritter about Chevy’s greatness. 

     Off screen, Ritter explained that the old Chevy jingle scored well with Baby Boomers who fondly remembered the Eisenhower years.  Chevy also found that even GenX-ers who never knew Dinah Shore, were intrigued with the cheery message she offered, encouraging them to get in their car and hit the road.  Back in Impala’s heyday, Chevy had sold over a million of the full-size models annually.  But by 1999, Chevy had stiff competition from the Ford Taurus, Honda Accord, and the Toyota Camry.  They were hoping to sell 400,000 or so, but even that was optimistic.  And as it turned out, even Dinah Shore couldn’t help at that point.

     What had become clear by the 1990s, if not long before, was that Detroit’s Big Three automakers, led by GM in particular, had failed in the 1950s and 1960s to adopt the early technological advances in safety, pollution control, and fuel economy that would have kept them in a world leadership position through the 21st century. 

     Detroit’s Big Three automakers, for decades, became their own worst enemy, spending time and money opposing progressive public policy and technological change rather than leading it.  Opposition to improved automotive fuel economy from the 1980s through the early 2000s made matters worse.  Other poor decision-making, bad investments, ill-advised mergers and acquisitions, and an over-the top emphasis on SUV and light truck production all contributed to Detroit’s continuing problems, leading in part to their current economic woes.

 

Dinah the Icon

     Dinah Shore, meanwhile – after her variety show went off the air in 1963 – would fade from the public eye briefly.  But she would later continue her television career with a series of talk shows.  During the 1960s, she raised a family, occasionally made a few TV specials, continued singing, and was still listed in Gallup polls citing her among America’s most admired women. 

“See The USA…”

See the USA in your Chevrolet
America is asking you to call
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
America’s the greatest land of all

On a highway, or a road along the levy
Performance is sweeter, nothing can beat her
Life is completer in a Chevy

So make a date today to see the USA
And see it in your Chevrolet

Traveling East, Traveling West
Wherever you go Chevy service is best
Southward or North, near place or far
There’s a Chevrolet dealer for your Chevrolet car

See the USA in your Chevrolet
The Rocky’s way out west are calling you
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
Where fields of golden wheat pass in review

Whether traveling light or with a load that’s heavy
Performance is sweeter, nothing can beat her
Life is completer in a Chevy

So make a date today to see the USA
And see it in your Chevrolet.
______________________________
Dinah Shore singing “See-The-U.S.A…”, 1952.

     In 1970, she initiated her first talk show, Dinah’s Place (NBC, 1970-74), followed by Dinah! (1974-79),  and Dinah and Friends (1979-84) – the latter two, 90-minute daily shows syndicated on CBS stations.  A Conversation with Dinah (1989-91) was her final talk show series which ran on the Nashville Network cable channel.  During all of this, she became one of the most popular personalities on daytime TV and a pioneer for others who followed in that format.

     Divorced from former husbands George Montgomery, an actor, and Maurice F. Smith, a tennis player, Dinah Shore’s love life received some national tabloid attention when she became involved with a much younger Burt Reynolds for six years.

     Shore was also an avid golfer and a long- time supporter of women’s professional golf.  In 1972, she helped found the Colgate Dinah Shore golf tournament, which today is known as the Kraft Nabisco Champ- ionship.  The tournament is held each spring near Shore’s former home in Rancho Mirage, California.  The event remains one of the four major golf tournaments on the Ladies Professional Golfers Association Tour.  Shore also wrote series of cookbooks, including in 1971,the best- selling Someone’s in the Kitchen With Dinah.

Dinah Shore on 2009 commerative U.S. postage stamp honoring "The Golden Age of Television."
Dinah Shore on 2009 commerative U.S. postage stamp honoring "The Golden Age of Television."
     In 1993, she was diagnosed with cancer.  She passed away less then a year later in February 1994 at her home in Beverly Hills.  Today, in her childhood hometown of Winchester, Tennessee, there is a “Dinah Shore Blvd” that leads to the town square where her father once had his store.  In California, too, there is a road named after her  — “Dinah Shore Drive” –  a busy road that runs through the desert cities of Rancho Mirage and Cathedral City.  Her former husband, actor and sculptor George Montgomery,  produced a life-size statue of his former wife that stands near the 18th hole at the Mission Hills Country Club golf course in Rancho Mirage, California.  The statue, along with “Dinah’s Walk of Champions,” were dedicated formally by Nabisco in March 2000 with remarks by former president Gerald Ford.  In August 2009, she was one of twenty 1950s’ TV icons to appear in a commemorative U.S. postage stamp series honoring “the Golden Age of Television.”
Dinah Shore in her classic ‘throwing-a-kiss’ pose which often came at the end of her ‘See-The-USA’ song on her 1950s TV show.
Dinah Shore in her classic ‘throwing-a-kiss’ pose which often came at the end of her ‘See-The-USA’ song on her 1950s TV show.

 

50 Years Broadcasting

     Dinah Shore had a presence in broadcasting – and in the public eye – that spanned more than 50 years.  Hers was a career that began in late-1930s radio and continued with television until 1991.  And whether in radio, popular recording, or television, she made her mark.  She had 75 hit records between 1940 and 1955.  In television, her ten Emmy awards makes her the most honored female in the award’s history.  In 1992, she was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ TV Hall of Fame.  She  also won a Peabody Award and a Golden Globe.

     Still, in all of her career accomplishments, Dinah Shore is perhaps best remembered for burnishing the Chevrolet brand into the national psyche.  The 1951 through 1963 era framed a “feel good” time for most Americans, happy about their cars and the open roads they drove on.  It might well be called “the Dinah Shore era.”  It was certainly a golden era for Chevrolet and General Motors.  And Dinah Shore helped make it golden – at least for a time.

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Date Posted:  22 March 2009
Last Update:    4 November 2011
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Dinah Shore & Chevrolet, 1956-1963,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 22, 2009.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

2006 ‘Night in Rio’ CD showing a younger Dinah Shore.
2006 ‘Night in Rio’ CD showing a younger Dinah Shore.
Sample Dinah Shore recording from 1940s/WWII-era Armed Forces Radio Service.
Sample Dinah Shore recording from 1940s/WWII-era Armed Forces Radio Service.
‘Dinah Shore and Her TV Glad Rags,' says cover tag for this February 1, 1960 issue of ‘Life’ magazine.
‘Dinah Shore and Her TV Glad Rags,' says cover tag for this February 1, 1960 issue of ‘Life’ magazine.
Dinah Shore picking up Emmy award for 'best female singer', March 1956.
Dinah Shore picking up Emmy award for 'best female singer', March 1956.
‘Great Ladies of Song’ series (1995 CD) features Dinah Shore’s 1959-61 period with Capitol Records.
‘Great Ladies of Song’ series (1995 CD) features Dinah Shore’s 1959-61 period with Capitol Records.
Dinah Shore & Burt Reynolds, on the cover of ‘People’ magazine, October 28, 1974.
Dinah Shore & Burt Reynolds, on the cover of ‘People’ magazine, October 28, 1974.

“Dinah Shore With Troops Abroad,” New York Times, Wednesday, August 2, 1944, Business, p. 32.

“Dinah Shore Stirs 7,000 at Stadium; Radio and Film Star Shares Honors With Goodman in Philharmonic Program,” New York Times, Wednesday, July 4, 1945, Amusements, p. 10.

“Dinah Shore in London; Singer Wins Ovation in Show at Palladium Theatre,” New York Times, Tuesday, August 31, 1948, Amusements, p. 15.

George Gallup, “Dinah Shore Favorite in Vocalist Poll,” Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1951, p. 17.

The Dinah Shore Show (sample, 15-minute show). Dinah sings “Getting to Know You,” “Stardust,” and others, November 29, 1951. In the NBC Collection of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Jack Gould, Radio & Television, “Dinah Shore Scores in Her New N.B.C. Video Series…,” New York Times, Monday, December 3, 1951, Business, p. 37.

“Dinah Shore’s TV Art.” Look, December 15, 1953.

Val Adams, “N. B.C. Still Seeks Spot for 2 Stars; Cuts in Sunday Drama Shows Urged to Open TV Time for Dinah Shore and Bob Hope…,”New York Times, Tuesday, July 24, 1956, p. 53.

“Television: Is There Anyone Finah?,” Time, Monday, December16, 1957.

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Val Adams, “Dinah Shore, Hope Named for Prizes; To Receive Peabody Awards Here Today…”, New York Times, Wednesday, April 2, 1958, p. 63.

“‘Chevy Show’ Is Set for Tv All Summer,” New York Times, Wednesday, April 2, 1958, p. 63.

The Dinah Shore Chevy Show ( sample, 60-minute show). Cast: Gwen Verdon, Art Carney, Louis Jourdan, October 5, 1958. In the NBC Collection of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

“Dinah Shore and Her TV Glad Rags,” Life (cover story), February 1, 1960.

“Dinah Shore Is Award Winner,” Washington Post-Times Herald, August 27, 1960, p. D-7.

George Eells, “Dinah Shore: How She grew, How She lives, How She Dresses, How She Drives Herself,” Look (cover story), December 6, 1960. In-depth article with photos. Dinah Shore cover photo by Bob Vose.

Dinah Shore Renews Pact for ’60′-61 Season,” Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1960, p. A-9.

“Dinah Shore, Chevrolet To Part After 10 Years,” Washington Post-Times Herald, February 17, 1961, p. C-8.

Dorothy Kilgallen, “Dinah Shore to Plug Peace Corps,” Washington Post-Times Herald, December 8, 1964, p. B-12.

Bruce Cassiday, Dinah! A Biography, New York: Franklin Watts, 1979.

Jack Lloyd, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, “Bubbly Dinah Shore Does a Really Live Show,” Chicago Tribune, August 28, 1986, p. 10.

Ken Gross, “Impala: It’s Not A Great Car,” Automotive Industries, May 1999.

Jack Doyle, Taken for A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and The Politics of Pollution, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, June 2000.

Stephen Holden, “Dinah Shore, Homey Singer And Star of TV, Dies at 76,” New York Times, February 25, 1994.

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“Biography for Dinah Shore,” TCM.com, accessed March 2009.

PBS, “MWAH!: The Best of The Dinah Shore Show 1956-1963,” March 2003. This hour-long, PBS TV special includes videotape footage of Dinah doing duets with guests Ella Fitzgerald, Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Pearl Bailey, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Peggy Lee, and Mahalia Jackson.

Tim Brooks and Earle March, The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present, Eighth Edition, 2003.

Video. “A Great New Star,” is a 1952 video produced by the Handy (Jam) Organization for the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Corp., featuring Dinah Shore as hostess, who sings two songs, including the Chevy jingle, in an extended promotion piece for the new 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air model. This piece is set around the making of an advertisement, providing the viewer a behind the scenes look at studio process and actors, along with Dinah’s singing. You Tube offers the clip in two parts, each running about 6 minutes.

Dinah Shore, Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, August 1971.

Dinah Shore, The Dinah Shore American Kitchen, 1990.

Douglas Gomery, “Dinah Shore: U.S. Musical Performer,” The Museum of Broadcast Communications, accessed March 2009.

Henry B. Aldridge “The Dinah Shore Show,” The Museum of Broadcast Communications, accessed March 2009.


 

 

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