Tag Archives: auto industry history

“Smog Conspiracy”
DOJ vs. Detroit Automakers

Famous “Earthrise” photo, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft then circling the moon, beamed to Earth on Christmas Eve, 1968.
Famous “Earthrise” photo, taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft then circling the moon, beamed to Earth on Christmas Eve, 1968.
The year 1969 was a memorable time in America for technological accomplishment, especially in the space program, as the nation’s Apollo Program to put a man on the moon, was then at full throttle.

Down on earth, however, technological progress was another story. More on that in a moment.

But on January 10th that year, a ticker tape parade was held in New York City to honor the Apollo 8 astronauts – James Lovell, Frank Borman and William Anders – who had recently returned from the first ever space flight to circle the moon, a prelude to the lunar landing later that summer.

The New York Times, reporting on the celebration in its January 11th edition, featured a front-page story with two photos, one with Mayor John Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller congratulating the astronauts.

Apollo 8 was also the flight from which the famous “Earthrise” photograph was taken. That historic photo had captured the lone, beautiful, blue-ball object that is the home planet, floating singularly in the black void of space, suggesting this was, possibly, the only life-sustaining planet out there, and that we, its occupants, ought to take care of it. Yet on that same fragile, blue ball, the record of mankind’s earth keeping had not been very good to that point.

January 11, 1969 front-page New York Times story reports on a Justice Department lawsuit alleging an automaker conspiracy on anti-pollution technology for automobiles.
January 11, 1969 front-page New York Times story reports on a Justice Department lawsuit alleging an automaker conspiracy on anti-pollution technology for automobiles.
In fact, on the same January 11th front page of the New York Times another story appeared just below the photos of the Apollo 8 celebration.

That story, with a Washington D.C. dateline, reported that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had brought an anti-trust lawsuit against American automobile companies for conspiring to hold back and delay the use of pollution-control devices for motor vehicles.

The suit would come to be called the “smog conspiracy” case, as it alleged that Detroit’s then “Big Four” automakers – American Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, along with their trade group, the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) – had conspired for sixteen years (1953-1969) to prevent and delay the manufacture and use of pollution-control devices for automobiles.

The DOJ lawsuit made front-page news all across America, and potentially was a very major federal action against some of the world’s most powerful corporations. At stake, was nothing less than clean air and public health.

Chicago Tribune story on the smog conspiracy lawsuit, January 11, 1969.
Chicago Tribune story on the smog conspiracy lawsuit, January 11, 1969.
The lawsuit alleged the automakers purposely agreed among themselves for more than a decade not to compete on pollution-control technology; that no one auto company would go forward with a new pollution-control innovation unless agreed upon by the others. And that vehicles equipped with such devices, would only be brought to market at an agreed-upon time. They also moved to buy up patents on new pollution-control devices by outside firms in order to keep those innovations from being applied, according to DOJ. There were also technologies and technological fixes that were known to the automobile producers capable of reducing pollution from existing internal combustion engines, but that these were also held back and/or delayed in application.

In other words, if the DOJ charges were correct, during the 1953-1969 period, millions of motor vehicles were produced without known pollution-control devices and/or known pollution-control fixes. This meant that millions of tons of auto pollutants were being dumped into urban and rural environments for more than a decade – pollution that could have been prevented – thereby harming public health and causing crop and property damage. Or looked at another way, the “breathable common” was subsidizing auto production.

The Detroit automakers and their trade association vigorously denied DOJ’s allegations. Much of the lawsuit hinged on a 1953 cooperative agreement made among the automakers to jointly research auto pollution and pollution-control technologies – with subsequent and ongoing joint auto company and AMA committee meetings under that agreement during the 1953-1969 period.

However, what DOJ billed as a conspiracy to hold back technology, the automakers claimed was industry cooperation and joint research to ensure technological advance.

Yet for some, the proof was in the pudding, as they say, since few technological advances in automobile pollution control had actually made their way to new vehicles during the 1953-1969 period. More on the legal battle and outcome after a bit of background.


L.A. Smog

The 1969 smog conspiracy case had its origins in Los Angeles, California, a city that had been choking on smog since the early 1940s – though its residents and officials then knew little about what smog really was or how it formed.

Yet this smog – a word formed by a contraction of “smoke” and “fog” – was new and different. There were days when a “pall of haze” would form over the city, as residents noticed that its peculiar yellowish-brown color was different and not benign. The soup would burn the eyes and sear the lungs. One of the first “smog days” came in the summer 1943, when visibility in some places dropped to three blocks, and hospital emergency rooms had visits from those suffering with burning eyes and lungs.

Early 1940s photo of highway leading into downtown Los Angeles, with smog forming over the city there, showing the tall landmark L.A. City Hall building at center in the distance.
Early 1940s photo of highway leading into downtown Los Angeles, with smog forming over the city there, showing the tall landmark L.A. City Hall building at center in the distance.

Then came an episode of September 8, 1943, called a “daylight dimout” when even sunlight was diminished. “Everywhere the smog went that day,” reported the Los Angeles Times, “it left a group of irate citizens. . . Public complaints reverberated in the press. . . . Elective officials were petitioned.” Indeed they were, and some actions followed. A spate of laws and commissions came into being.

The Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District, established in 1947, was the first of its kind anywhere in the nation. By 1948, L.A. had targeted smokestack industries like oil refineries, foundries and mills, and later, backyard incinerators. But the smog persisted. Autos, for the most part, were not obvious smoke-belching contributors, with exhausts that were mostly invisible and thought to play only a minor role in the smog problem.

January 5, 1948.  Smog formed in downtown Los Angeles, with City Hall building to the left. UCLA photo.
January 5, 1948. Smog formed in downtown Los Angeles, with City Hall building to the left. UCLA photo.

Then, in the fall of 1949, there was an event that occurred hundreds of miles north of L.A., at a University of California-vs-Washington State football game in Berkeley that offered some fairly convincing “cause-and-effect” clues. There, a fairly intense pollution event occurred at the stadium, which later led state legislators to investigate.

On the day of the game that fall, thousands of fans drove into Berkeley with resulting traffic congestion. Later that day, during the game, after the soup had formed, the pollution became so bad that “many thousands of persons attending . . . experienced intense eye irritation.” Game-day pollution at a 1949 Berkeley football game implicated autos – later seen as a microcosm of L.A. smog. Later, in the California General Assembly, the Committee on Air and Water Pollution investigated the incident, noting that the only unusual occurrence that day “was the concentration of automobiles at the football game in Berkeley, accentuated by the idling of motors, starting and stopping, which occurs in such a traffic jam.” There was no other industrial or other source in the area. It could only be concluded, the committee said, “that the cause of this particular eye irritation was in some way directly related to automobile exhaust.” In fact, the committee suggested that the pollution in Berkeley that afternoon was really quite similar–“very striking” in their words–to what was occurring in Los Angeles on a daily basis. The game-day traffic in the stadium area, they suggested, was actually a microcosm of what was happening over a much larger area in Los Angeles, where “the crowding of existing freeways leading to the downtown area results in daily traffic jams as the flood of cars enters the city in the morning, with resulting accentuation of the exhaust problem by idling, stopping, and starting.” Although there was little hard science to verify their hunch, they believed that vehicle exhaust, from auto combustion engines, was certainly contributing to the LA pollution problem.

Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit, discovered that the sun “cooked” certain auto pollutants in a photochemical reaction  to make ground-level “ozone,” an unhealthy pollutant.
Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit, discovered that the sun “cooked” certain auto pollutants in a photochemical reaction to make ground-level “ozone,” an unhealthy pollutant.
Ozone Man

Meanwhile, back in L.A., one inquisitive scientist, Dr. Arie J. Haagen-Smit, a professor of biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, had begun researching the region’s air pollution. Haagen-Smit, initially working on how air pollution was damaging crops, began in 1950 researching how smog actually formed.

Haagen-Smit made an important discovery – that unburned hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, coming primarily from automobile exhaust and some industrial sources, were “cooked” by sunlight in a photochemical reaction to form ground-level ozone, later revealed as a respiratory irritant.

Breathing ground-level ozone can trigger chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. It can also reduce lung function and inflame the lining of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.

As Haagen-Smit’s ozone findings emerged, there was some finger-pointing initially among those in the auto and oil industries, as to whose sources were the bigger culprits. But it soon became clear that the region’s burgeoning auto population was central to the smog problem. By 1954, L.A.’s two million cars were racking up 50 million miles of travel every day. Episodes of dense smog in the L.A. area continued. On one occasion in 1954, the smog was so bad that it reduced visibility to the point where some 2,000 auto accidents occurred in a single day. Life magazine, the popular American weekly of that era, did a brief November 1954 story on L.A. smog titled, “Blight on the Land of Sunshine,” with photos of the city shrouded in smog and citizens in protest clamoring for action.

1956. Traffic on the Pasadena Freeway, which connects L.A. with Pasadena, captures the growing population of motor vehicles then in the L.A. region, where “vehicle miles of travel” for its then 2 million-plus vehicles, was exceeding 50 million miles every day.
1956. Traffic on the Pasadena Freeway, which connects L.A. with Pasadena, captures the growing population of motor vehicles then in the L.A. region, where “vehicle miles of travel” for its then 2 million-plus vehicles, was exceeding 50 million miles every day.

By the mid-1950s, Dr. Haagen-Smit’s findings on the connection between automobiles and smog in Los Angeles became widely accepted in scientific circles – but not in most auto industry circles, at least not publicly.

In fact, as Los Angeles authorities began closing in on the automobile as major smog contributor, the auto industry doubled down and began its “denial-and-delay” campaign that would continue in one form or another for the next 50 years – not only in LA., but nationally as well. But it was in L.A., where the automakers made their earliest stands of denial and obfuscation.

1956 photo of smog in downtown Los Angeles, with the City Hall building at center.
1956 photo of smog in downtown Los Angeles, with the City Hall building at center.

First, the industry insisted on definitive proof that autos were the cause of L.A. smog. General Motors had already written in March 1953, for example, that while Los Angeles studies indicated that exhaust gases “may be contributing factor to the smog,” other cities did not appear to have the same problem. Thus, for GM, “some other factors,” peculiar to Los Angeles, “may be contributing to this problem.” Ford officials, also writing in March 1953, had taken the view that exhaust vapors from automobiles “dissipated in the atmosphere quickly and do not represent an air pollution problem.” Ford officials contended that the need for a device “to more effectively reduce exhaust vapors had not been established.”

Next, after the automakers conceded in 1954 that the automobile was the largest single source of hydrocarbons in Los Angeles, and that auto exhausts were capable of forming ozone, industry officials wanted further work to substantiate the exact cause-and-effect relationship between auto pollutants and smog. In 1955, the automakers held that the evidence did not prove auto pollutants produced smog and its harmful effects, such as eye irritation and crop damage, etc.

September 1955. Front-page New York Times story on Los Angeles smog showing four people reacting to the pollution who were walking near the L.A. Civic Center. The city was then experiencing one of its worst bouts of smog on record.
September 1955. Front-page New York Times story on Los Angeles smog showing four people reacting to the pollution who were walking near the L.A. Civic Center. The city was then experiencing one of its worst bouts of smog on record.

In 1957 when definitive proof was found that the automobile was the primary cause of photochemical air pollution, the automakers reverted to an earlier held position that the smog problem was peculiar to Los Angeles. It continued to espouse this view for three more years.

By 1959 the state legislature passed laws, making California the first to establish air quality standards based on the public health effects of smog. But progress was slow. “Eye irritation” that year was reported in Los Angeles on 187 days; by 1962 it was 212 days.

Headline from Sept 1958 L.A. Times story on a smog alert, a headline that would become all too common in the region during the 1950s-1960s period – and beyond.
Headline from Sept 1958 L.A. Times story on a smog alert, a headline that would become all too common in the region during the 1950s-1960s period – and beyond.
The auto industry, meanwhile, was still bobbing and weaving. In a late February 1960 statement before Congress, the AMA’s Karl M. Richards conceded that Los Angeles’ smog may well come from automobiles, but the aggravating quality was not due to anything in the automotive gases per se, but rather, was caused by the unique nature of the Los Angeles Basin’s topography and meteorology.

Photochemical smog, Richards explained, was only caused when the unique combination of all the L.A. factors came into play: persistent temperature inversion, encircling mountains, very light wind movement, and intense sunlight. Further, photochemical smog, he said, “is not likely to occur anywhere else on earth with the frequency and intensity found in this area.” Richards added that the auto industry would not consider controls on its vehicles in other parts of the country until it was demonstrated that hydrocarbons presented a problem elsewhere.

Yet automobile-fed air pollution was occurring in other cities across America. “Los Angles-type smog” was being reported in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities by the late 1950s, also spreading to rural areas in some locations. Commercial airline pilots in the 1950s and 1960s reported seeing the skies over broad regions of the U.S. becoming less and less clear — and not just over urban areas.


“They Have a Responsibility”
Ken Hahn’s Letters
1953–1967

In February 1953, Kenneth Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, wrote a letter to Henry Ford II to ask what Ford’s company knew about automobile pollution and what the company’s research plans were. Mr. Ford replied, through his staff, that there was really no problem, and therefore, no need for research. “The Ford engineering staff, although mindful that automobile engines produce gases, feels that these waste vapors are dissipated in the atmosphere quickly and do not present an air pollution problem,” replied Ford’s public affairs manager, Dan J. Chabak. “Therefore, our research department has not conducted any experimental work aimed at totally eliminating these gases.” Hahn was later assured by Detroit that an industry wide study of the exhaust problem had begun. Mr. Hahn, however, kept writing, pushing for action.

Ken Hahn, L.A. official.
Ken Hahn, L.A. official.
In 1955 he was told in one reply, “We will soon be in a position to make recommendations which should point the way to reduction of hydrocarbons in automotive exhaust gases.” Nearly two years passed. Hahn again inquired about exhaust controls. Will they be ready for 1957 models? “We have . . . established the 1958 model year as the goal for the production of deceleration devices.” Still, there was little progress. Finally, in October 1960, the president of General Motors replying to Hahn, wrote, “I am gratified to report that positive crankcase ventilation is available on all 1961 General Motors passenger cars being delivered to California. We believe that this relatively inexpensive device will perform a major job of reducing air pollution.” Positive crankcase ventilation (see later below) – based on a technique known to industry since the 1930s – took care of gases in the engine proper, but only about 25 percent of hydrocarbon exhaust. Hahn wrote back to express his disappointment.

In January 1964, when Hahn testified before two U.S. Senate committees, he handed out a little booklet of the collected correspondence he had made with the automakers, explaining to the senators:

. . . I have tried to tell [the auto executives]. . . that they have a responsibility on air pollution and they have not met it. . . .

. . . [T]hey know about the problem. . . .They have been here; there are devices manufactured that have been proven. . . . [A]nd it is strange why they have not put it on all their cars. . . .

. . . Now they have had ten years of warning, all documented with answers back from their own officials saying they are studying the problem and researching it. They can research this to death; in the meantime we haven’t licked the problem. . .

It would not be until 1966–thirteen years after Mr. Hahn began his inquiries of the automakers–that exhaust controls would be required on new California cars. And even then, it would only be by force of law. Meanwhile, Ken Hahn’s 1953-1967 correspondence with the automakers leaves behind a record as good as any on the industry’s attitudes on pollution control at the time.


Birth of Lawsuit

1959 photo, S. Smith Griswold, L.A. County
1959 photo, S. Smith Griswold, L.A. County
The seeds of a possible auto industry conspiracy lawsuit had been planted by L.A. officials who had been questioning the car makers regularly about their efforts to control emissions since the early 1950s. As noted in the Ken Hahn sidebar above, regular inquiries of the industry – and their runaround replies – had been made since 1953.

Another L.A. official, S. Smith Griswold, the Chief Air Pollution Control Officer for the L.A. Air Pollution Control District since 1954, had been quite critical of the auto industry’s lack of progress on pollution. “Patent data,” Griswold once said, “shows that automobile pollution controls were available as far back as 1909.”

But in June 1964, Griswold, by then L.A. County Pollution Control Board executive, gave a speech at the annual meeting of the Air Pollution Control Association. Griswold recalled that in 1953 the automakers had made a joint cooperative agreement with one another, supposedly to pool their research on air pollution and come up with a solution.

The automakers said they would make progress jointly and even set up cross-licensing agreements to insure that progress by one would be progress by all. But a skeptical Griswold wondered what they had actually come up with.

Ralph Nader helped L.A. officials see  legal action against the auto-industry.
Ralph Nader helped L.A. officials see legal action against the auto-industry.
“What has the industry accomplished in the last ten years?” he asked in his speech. “How has this [joint agreement] worked out?” Then he burrowed in with a more stinging observation. “Apparently, it has served to guarantee that no manufacturer would break ranks and bring into this field of air pollution control the same kind of competitive stimulus that spokesmen for the industry frequently pay homage to. . . .”

Griswold had hit upon a possible antitrust issue that was later driven home to him by Washington, D.C. attorney Ralph Nader, who was then beginning his career as a leading consumer advocate. In addition to alerting Griswold of the possible auto industry collusion, Nader also briefed Justice Department officials on what he thought was the basis for a major antitrust suit.

Griswold then drafted a resolution for the LA County Board of Supervisors citing the auto industry’s lack of progress on pollution-control technology.

The resolution, adopted in January 1965, specifically requested the U.S. Attorney General to initiate an investigation and take legal action to prevent the automakers from engaging in “further collusive obstruction.” By this time, the Justice Department had already subpoenaed records from the industry, and a formal investigation was underway. But the full pursuit of the case would take several years

During 1967-68, as the DOJ case moved forward, an eighteen-month grand jury investigation was convened in Los Angeles. The smog in L.A., meanwhile, had not abated, and was a continuing problem.

January 1967.  Time magazine featured a cover photo of a smog-shrouded Los Angeles, around the time the DOJ grand jury investigation began in the automaker conspiracy case.
January 1967. Time magazine featured a cover photo of a smog-shrouded Los Angeles, around the time the DOJ grand jury investigation began in the automaker conspiracy case.
As Time magazine reported in January 1967 – with L.A. smog depicted on its cover:

“Instead of disappearing… Los Angeles’ characteristic whisky-brown smog has actually grown worse. The culprits are Los Angeles County’s 3.75 million autos, which produce 12,420 of the 13,730 tons of contaminants released in to the air over the county every day [emphasis added]… In addition to nearly 10,000 tons of carbon monoxide, autos exhaust 2,000 tons of hydrocarbons and 530 tons of nitrogen oxides daily, enough to form a substantial brew of irritating smog.”

Back inside the Justice Department, attorneys handling the conspiracy case had initially sought a criminal indictment, but “higher ups” hedged and delayed action. As the case evolved, there was debate over whether the grand jury should seek a criminal or civil indictment. The civil route won out.

Four federal judges who might receive the case were strongly opposed to criminal sanctions in antitrust cases. In addition, it had been long-standing Justice Department policy to reserve the criminal route for price-fixing and other traditional cases in which there was
no question of blatantly illegal conduct.

However, this auto pollution case was not traditional. Some, like Ralph Nader, argued for “product fixing;” that restraint of technology was restraint of trade, preventing competition. This, however, was a very novel approach at the time, especially in the conservative world of antitrust litigation.

D.C. attorney, Lloyd Cutler, post-1960s photo, represented auto industry in smog case and helped negotiate DOJ consent decree.
D.C. attorney, Lloyd Cutler, post-1960s photo, represented auto industry in smog case and helped negotiate DOJ consent decree.
But finally, in January 1969, as noted at the top of this story, a civil suit was filed against the automakers. Yet the filing came at an awkward time, just as the Johnson Administration was leaving office, then handing the case off to the Nixon Administration’s new attorney general, John Mitchell. The auto industry, meanwhile, was in very competent legal hands.

Lloyd Cutler, then a well-known and respected 51 year-old attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering, was representing the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA).

Cutler, in fact, had been in and out of meetings at the Justice Department for weeks during 1969 on the smog conspiracy case, negotiating on behalf of his clients. By late summer 1969, there came rumor of a deal on the smog conspiracy case.

Sure enough, on September 11th, 1969 – nine months after the case was filed – the Justice Department announced that the case would be settled by consent decree. In the legal trade, consent decrees are viewed as a way to save face, save cost, and not drag all the parties through a public display of charge and countercharge. For the automakers, that was good news. There would also be no findings or admissions of illegal activity.


Fight The Decree

September 1969 New York Times story on proposed consent decree.
September 1969 New York Times story on proposed consent decree.
Others supporting the DOJ lawsuit, however, were furious. They viewed the consent decree as a clear victory for the auto industry, a way to avoid a public airing of the case, essentially escaping more than fifteen years of illegal activity. Ralph Nader wrote to DOJ’s antitrust chief, Richard W. McLaren, asserting that criminal wrongdoing was uncovered by the grand jury, that the consent decree was weak by comparison, contained insufficient enforcement procedures, and that key provisions of the decree would expire after ten years. Nader and others asked Justice to rescind the decree and bring the matter to trial.

A key issue became the evidence compiled by the grand jury investigation. Under the consent decree, that evidence would be sealed forever. However, if the case were brought to trial, and the defendants found guilty of conspiracy, under the antitrust laws, any injured parties could then bring their own suits to recover three times the damages suffered. Triple damages are designed to serve as a deterrent to future violations, and in this case, future conspiracies against the public good.

Earlier on Capitol Hill, as rumors swirled about a settlement, a group of nineteen congressmen, led by Reps. George Brown (D-CA) and Bob Eckhart (D-TX), sent a letter to Attorney General Mitchell expressing their concern that a full trial was needed to show the public that corporate law breaking was no different than any other violation of law. The Justice Department, nevertheless, proceeded with its agreement.

In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Supervisor Kenneth Hahn told the press that Los Angeles County would demand the unsealing of “a roomful of federal grand jury evidence” gathered by the grand jury. According to Hahn, the foreman of the grand jury, Martin Walshbren, was quite angry over the Justice Department’s consent agreement. In fact, when asked by a Los Angeles Times reporter if there was more to the case than the consent decree suggested, Mr. Walshbren said, “Yes,” there was, “a great deal more.” Walshbren also believed an indictment of some kind would have been brought by the grand jury if DOJ had sought one.

L.A.’s Kenneth Hahn wanted a trial. “The presidents of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler should be brought to trial right here in Los Angeles. . . . The big manufacturers all conspired. If one wouldn’t put the devices on, the others wouldn’t either. . . . This case is the most important legal battle in the history of the air pollution fight. If we lose it, we will go back twenty years.” California attorney general, Thomas Lynch, planned to file a separate antitrust action against the auto companies, but said he too was being hampered by the seal on the grand jury records. He was unable to question key grand jury witnesses.

“The presidents of General Motors, Ford, and Chrys-ler should be brought to trial right here in Los Angeles. . . The big manufacturers all conspired.”
– Kenneth Hahn
Still, there was one last chance for those opposing the settlement, as the consent decree had to be approved by a federal judge. A brief but intense campaign to prevent the approval of the decree followed. Thousands of individuals, scores of congressmen, and numerous municipalities petitioned Federal District Court Judge Jesse W. Curtis not to approve the decree. Other related developments at the time included the following:

> the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors asked the federal courts to allow them to intervene in the original suit and to sue the manufacturers for $100 million in damages. At the time, other municipalities were also being asked to join Los Angeles in the intervention. With other parties joining the case, it was thought that the court might be reluctant to agree to the settlement before holding an open trial.

> members of the Judiciary Committees in both Houses of Congress were asked to sign a letter urging the Justice Department to review its whole policy towards the use of consent decrees in antitrust cases.

> Rep. George Brown (D-CA) started a statewide petition drive requesting the Justice Department to withdraw the settlement, and he also introduced a four-part resolution in the House, part of which requested the full transcript of the 1966-67 grand jury investigation, including subpoenaed documents.

October 1969 NY Times story on the smog decree’s final approval.
October 1969 NY Times story on the smog decree’s final approval.
On October 28, 1969, the two sides came before the judge at the US District Court in the Central District of California. Lloyd Cutler rose on behalf of his clients.”. . . [This] is the first case I am aware of that has ever been brought against an industry for cooperating in the exchange of technology in order to solve a public health problem. . . .” A few hours later, Judge Curtis approved the decree; the auto industry had its deal. Yet, the public only had a fleeting glimpse of what this case was all about, and more importantly, what the auto industry had done – or not done – to deserve this level of federal action.

Following the consent decree’s approval, there was a flurry of legal actions related to the DOJ case that continued through mid-1973. Some twenty-eight states and another ten cities and counties brought private actions against the automakers after the federal case was settled. These actions, modeled on DOJ’s antitrust case, sought damages for automotive air pollution. Later consolidated into one case in California, the suits sought a variety of remedies, asking, for example, that auto companies be ordered to take steps to eliminate smog, make contributions toward the establishment of mass transit systems, and provide free emissions testing of automobiles.

In June 1973, the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that the plaintiffs could not sue for damages in the case but they could seek equitable protection under the antitrust law. However, in October 1973, Federal Judge Manuel Real dismissed thirty-four of the thirty-eight cases saying that the antitrust laws did not give him the power to force the automakers to find a solution to the pollution problem. The automakers argued that antitrust laws were reserved for the regulation of business conduct and the adjudication of business damage. The cases brought, they argued, were not about business damage in the strictest sense of antitrust tradition, as in price-fixing. Judge Real agreed. He explained, this was “not the result of any conspiracy or combination in restraint of trade.” The antitrust laws, he explained, “are not intended–nor do they purport to be–a panacea to cure all the ills that befall our citizenry by the accident that some damage or injury may have been caused by a business enterprise.” The suits had asked the judge to depart from traditional antitrust law to “find a solution to this most perplexing social problem.” Some later speculated that the states might have fared better had they pursued a public nuisance argument rather than mimicking the federal government’s antitrust case.


Phil Burton’s Disclosure

In 1971, U.S. Rep. Phil Burton revealed DOJ memo from the “smog conspiracy” case.
In 1971, U.S. Rep. Phil Burton revealed DOJ memo from the “smog conspiracy” case.
In any event, more details from the DOJ conspiracy case did emerge courtesy of California congressman, Phil Burton, Democrat from San Francisco In May 1971, nearly two years after the DOJ case was settled, Burton obtained a copy of the original Justice Department memorandum on the case and submitted it to the Congressional Record. According to Burton, the memo–which had been kept under wraps since it was written in 1968–contained “previously undisclosed evidence” not available when the case was settled. It revealed, among other things, that a criminal proceeding was recommended rather than the civil case that DOJ finally did bring. It also provided some detail on the auto industry’s delay tactics and technological foot-dragging on auto emission controls.

“The disclosures are especially painful in light of the settlement of the government’s civil case . . . ,” said Burton, submitting the DOJ memo to the public record on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was immune from prosecution for revealing court-sealed documents. The settlement, in Burton’s view, “deprived the public of an open trial on all the issues;” a trial that he believed would deter the auto industry from technological collusion at the public’s expense. Burton urged Attorney General John Mitchell to reopen the case, conduct both a Justice Department investigation and convene a new grand jury to consider a conspiracy indictment–none of which ultimately occurred. Yet Burton was especially interested in an investigation to determine whether the alleged conspiracy was continuing. “All indications since the consent decree was approved point to the dismaying fact that nothing has changed,” Burton said. “The automobile companies continue their carefully orchestrated united front — claiming in every public, hearing and in every public docket that they can’t meet the deadlines for anti-smog devices.” (By then, in fact, the 1970 Clean Air Act had been passed by Congress with set auto emissions deadlines that the auto industry also fought).

Yet, Burton’s disclosure of the DOJ memo brought new evidence to the public record, showing how the auto industry and its trade association dealt with the growing auto pollution problem during the 1953-1967 period; how they maneuvered to hold back and delay pollution control technologies even while assuring public officials they were going all out to develop those technologies. Some of the technological delay the DOJ memo reveled follows below.


Crankcase Pollution

Bluster on Blow-By

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, three parts of the automobile were seen as the primary targets for addressing pollution: the crankcase, the carburetor/fuel tank, and the exhaust system. At the time, experts estimated that 25 percent of the pollutants came from the crankcase, 15-to-25 percent from evaporation losses at the carburetor and fuel tank; and 50-to-60 percent the engine’s exhaust.

Generalized graphic showing three major areas of auto pollution - crankcase, carburetor/fuel tank & exhaust system.
Generalized graphic showing three major areas of auto pollution - crankcase, carburetor/fuel tank & exhaust system.
The first part of the automobile to receive pollution control attention – courtesy of pressure from California officials – was the crankcase, the engine compartment directly below the combustion chamber in which firing pistons located in sleeve-like cylinders above, connect to and turn a crankshaft that brings drive power to the vehicle. Some unburned gases from the internal combustion engine – known in the industry as “blow-by” since they escaped around the pistons during combustion – went into the crankcase. The gases, however, did not go into the exhaust system, but rather, were vented out of the crankcase and into the atmosphere. In fact, for decades prior, these crankcase pollutants were simply released from the bottom of the engine through a vent pipe opening to the road below. There were no controls– or at least none in use for most vehicles. But there was a simple fix — something called “positive crankcase ventilation” – that took the blow-by gases back into the engine’s intake manifold where they were consumed, at least partially, in the combustion process. GM later patented the Positive Crankcase Ventilation Valve (also known as the PCV valve) in 1959 and was credited with “discovering” that the PCV valve was effective in helping eliminate crankcase gases.

Engine graphic at left shows crankcase pollutants being recirculated for recombustion. Yet for decades prior, crankcase pollutants were simply released from the bottom of the engine through a vent pipe to the road below and into the atmosphere. There were no controls – or at least none in use for most vehicles.
Engine graphic at left shows crankcase pollutants being recirculated for recombustion. Yet for decades prior, crankcase pollutants were simply released from the bottom of the engine through a vent pipe to the road below and into the atmosphere. There were no controls – or at least none in use for most vehicles.

Neither “positive crankcase ventilation,” nor the PCV valve itself, were new concepts or technological breakthroughs. PCV valve was known about since the 1940s – and the principle of vacuuming off the gases from the crankcase back to the carburetor or intake manifold for recombustion – long before that. Howe Hopkins, an industry old-timer, former federal emissions official, and long-standing member of the American Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), offered this account in 1969:

“. . . From 1921-1923, Ludlow Clayton of the Sun Oil Company wrote numerous papers for the SAE Journal on drawing crankcase gases out by creating a small vacuum. Back in about 1936, I went down to the Studebaker plant to meet W.S. James, the company engineer who demonstrated for me a simple tube attachment from the crankcase to the intake manifold to recirculate and recombust the crankcase gases. They were offering a conversion kit for this which was essentially only a length of copper tubing. . . .”

Although certainly by the early 1950s there was sufficient understanding of crankcase blowby, some in the industry would portray crankcase ventilation as a new development. Almost magically, 1959 had become the year industry “discovered” what to do with crankcase pollutants. “In 1959, through a truly extraordinary stroke of good fortune,” reported one account from the AMA “–the crankcase was discovered to be a more important source of emissions than had been suggested by prior government and other studies.”

Auto industry officials, then eyeing possible statewide regulation in California with strong pressure from local officials in Los Angeles, soon began to see that installing the relatively simple PCV device on California cars might be a way to forestall even tougher regulation by the state.


Exhaust Devices

Catalytic Reaction

As early as December 1959 ??,(earlier??) California had signaled its intent to the auto industry that exhaust-treating devices might be required. The automakers, however, were known to be less than excited by such a prospect. “They [the Big Three] are not . . . interested in making or selling devices. . . ,” wrote Dr. Donald Diggs, a technical manager at Du Pont, in an April 21, 1959 report. “[B]ut are working solely to protect themselves against poor public relations and the time when exhaust control devices may be required by law.”

Graphic showing placement of catalytic converter in the exhaust system to treat engine pollutants, exiting tail pipe.
Graphic showing placement of catalytic converter in the exhaust system to treat engine pollutants, exiting tail pipe.
Cut-away drawing of  later-developed catalytic converter, in this case converting engine pollutants HC, CO, and NOx to water and CO2 after passing through a treatment medium.
Cut-away drawing of later-developed catalytic converter, in this case converting engine pollutants HC, CO, and NOx to water and CO2 after passing through a treatment medium.

In May 1959, Ford’s James Chandler took the position that the smog problem “is not bad enough to warrant the enormous cost and administrative problems of installing three million afterburners.” Chandler, in fact, believed that one of the functions of the AMA working group was to “contain” the smog problem.

J.D. Ullman, another Du Pont technical expert working on auto-related issues noted in April 1960: “We gathered that the automobile industry will continue to do whatever it can within the scope of California legislation and of political pressure to postpone installation of exhaust control devices. . . .” An official of the Maremont Automotive Products Co., also doing business with Detroit, confided to a Du Pont colleague in May 1960 that the automakers “were keeping up a good front, but were not pushing as rapidly as they could toward a solution of the smog abatement problem.”

What the automakers feared most, however, was that some outside interest might begin to meddle in the core of their business in a way that could affect control over what was produced. This fear surfaced as a new group of businesses began working on catalytic devices to be installed in exhaust systems to treat and reduce auto pollution.

Catalysts are substances used to facilitate a chemical reaction without themselves being consumed in the reaction. By the time catalysts were being considered for pollution control in the auto industry, they had been used for years in various industrial processes. Catalysts applied as a remedy to the exhaust fumes of gasoline engines were first used in the coal mining industry to deal with the carbon monoxide problem in enclosed spaces. In the 1920s, researchers at Johns Hopkins and the U.S. Bureau of Mines produced a substance called “hopcalite” to control CO. Separately, in fact, Johns Hopkins researchers had applied the substance to automobiles about the same time and published a research report about the attempt.

June 1955 Popular Science story highlighting some of the early catalytic converter research of Eugene Houdry.
June 1955 Popular Science story highlighting some of the early catalytic converter research of Eugene Houdry.
Eugene Houdry, a French engineer, who came to America in the late 1930s, devised techniques for catalytic cracking of petroleum that helped oil companies make higher grade gasoline and aviation fuels. Following WWII, Houdry also used catalysts to treat various kinds of exhausts from engine-driven forklifts, mining equipment, and warehouse machinery.

Later concerned with possible health risks of automobile and industrial air pollution, Houdry started the Oxy-Catalyst Company, and would build early, generic catalytic converters capable of reducing carbon monoxide and unburned hydrocarbons from auto exhaust.

A June 1955 Popular Science story, shown at right, highlighted Houdry’s work with catalysts to control pollution, suggesting they would soon come to automobiles. In 1956 Huodry received a U.S. patent for his early automobile catalytic converter design.

Detroit, however, was never keen on catalytic devices, especially those made by outside firms. The automakers would do all in their power to delay the day such devices would be required.

True, in 1957 Ford Motor had tested and bragged about its vanadium pentoxide device to the press – (a move that brought Ford a rebuke from its co-conspirators for violating the industry agreement of a united front). Ford’s device, in any case, was an early, crude version of a catalytic converter; so big and cumbersome that some speculated it was purposely put forward to show that such exhaust-treatment devices wouldn’t work.

August 13, 1964 NY Times story.
August 13, 1964 NY Times story.
As California had made it clear that exhaust devices of some sort were going to be required on what amounted to about 10 percent of the nation’s cars, a fairly sizeable market, several non-automobile companies began investigating the catalytic converter in earnest as a business opportunity. Among them, each later teaming up with muffler manufacturers, were American Machine & Foundry Co./Chromalloy; Universal Oil Products/Arvin Industries; W.R. Grace/Norris-Thermador Corp.; American Cyanamid/ Walker Manufacturing; and Engelhard Industries.

The operative “trigger” for setting in motion the state’s requirement for installing exhaust controls was state certification of any two new devices. One year following such certification, automobiles then sold in California would have to be equipped with one or the other device. By the end of 1963 and early 1964, it was clear that two devices being produced by non-auto manufacturers would be certified, thereby triggering the law, and requiring their installation on all 1966 models. At the AMA, meanwhile, a March 1964 memorandum from William Sherman, offered a strategy for how the automakers might gain a one-year delay. Ford was also maneuvering at the time to say it could only meet a 1967 model-year goal.

California, however, did not blink in the face of industry’s delay gambits. The MVPCB notified the automakers that the state was testing four exhaust control devices on an accelerated basis. MVPCB’s chairman, J. B. Askew indicated the board was hopeful industry “would work with us to achieve exhaust controls for 1966 models.” In June 1964, the board approved four exhaust devices manufactured by nonautomotive manufacturers. In July, it requested Detroit’s plans for meeting the 1966 model-year requirement. On August 12, 1964, the automakers formally presented their intentions to comply with the 1966 model-year deadline.

As it turned out, however, none of the automakers used the approved catalytic devices developed by the outside manufacturers. What emerged in place of the catalytic devices was a “combustion control” approach Chrysler had known about since 1957 – something called the “Clean Air Package.” (The catalytic converter debate would resume once the federal 1970 Clean Air Act was passed by Congress, as converters were eventually used to help meet those standards).


Engine Tinkering

Clean Air Package

The Clean Air Package was criticized in the Nader Task Force book, “Vanishing Air.” Click for copy.
The Clean Air Package was criticized in the Nader Task Force book, “Vanishing Air.” Click for copy.
However, Chrysler’s Clean Air Package (also billed as “The Cleaner Air Package” in some accounts), was not exactly rocket science. The “system” for controlling exhaust emissions had two essential elements: more complete combustion and retarding the spark. These fixes were accomplished by adjusting the fuel/air ratio reducing the amount of gasoline burned, thereby reducing the amount of unburned, polluting gases; and adjusting the timing of the spark at the combustion chamber, which had the net effect of making the engine run at higher temperatures, thereby burning up some of the exhaust gases outside the combustion chamber. This, however, was not new technology.

“The technological breakthrough that is the Clean Air Package,” concluded Ralph Nader’s Task Force in Vanishing Air, “consists generally of . . . [a] different rubber hood seal, different cylinder gaskets, reduced production tolerances, and a different manifold heat valve. The carburetor and distributor employ very simple control valves.”

Auto industry veteran, Howe Hopkins, would explain of the long-known engine adjustments: “I knew about the effect of retarding timing on combustion efficiency in 1925,” he said. “But of course, others knew about it before that. The Model-T Ford had a manual device so that the owner could advance or retard the spark. . . .”

All told, concluded the Nader Task Force, “the Clean Air Package can hardly be heralded as a breakthrough in the annals of automotive history.”

It also became apparent that the adjustments in engine timing and spark used as a pollution-control strategy in the Clean Air Package were highly dependent upon regular maintenance and adjustment to local driving conditions to consistently reduce pollution.The Clean Air Package was not new technology; it consisted of engine adjustments known since the 1920s and deteriorated with use. Chrysler’s “package” deteriorated with use and would not cut pollution in 50 to 80 percent of operating vehicles. Engine adjustments made for cars in Los Angeles weren’t necessarily appropriate for stop-and-go driving in major cities of the northeast. The CAP and CAP-like systems also caused the engine to produce higher temperatures by combusting excess gases in the engine compartment, and with that, other pollutants began to form, and most notably, nitrogen oxides (NOx), a chief component of photochemical oxidants, or smog. NOx was then not regulated, so for industry, it did not figure into the pollution control fix at the time. Still, industry knew about the NOx problem at this juncture and knew it would be a problem going forward, but proceeded essentially to engineer around it. But for the auto industry, the CAP was a masterpiece of strategy; it was a low-cost, Band-Aid application when something more like a tourniquet was needed

In any case, GM, Ford, and American Motors eventually adopted the Chrysler CAP, or approaches similar to it, for their 1966 model year cars as well. As for the emerging catalytic converter industry, once it was learned that Chrysler’s Clean Air Package would be certified by California in 1964, most of the outside companies engaged in making catalytic devices either stopped or shelved their programs. CAP-like systems would also be used nationwide and would continue to be the primary “technology” used to control auto pollution, though quite poorly, through the early 1970s.

1968 General Motors print ad. “Air Pollution? They Never Heard of It.”  Once basic pollution control devices and simple engine adjustments began to be used, GM sought to publicly tout its role in reducing pollution, although also, as in this ad, instructing drivers on their maintenance role.
1968 General Motors print ad. “Air Pollution? They Never Heard of It.” Once basic pollution control devices and simple engine adjustments began to be used, GM sought to publicly tout its role in reducing pollution, although also, as in this ad, instructing drivers on their maintenance role.


Much Longer Story

The revealed 1950s-1960s technological foot-dragging by the auto industry, and the travail of the failed DOJ smog conspiracy case, are only a small part of the much longer story of automaker maneuvering and recalcitrance on auto pollution, fuel economy, safety, and alternative engine technology. It’s a story that continued through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and beyond — and in fact, continues to this day in the current climate debate.

Brock Yates’ 1983 book on big-car myopia & other failings. Click for copy.
Brock Yates’ 1983 book on big-car myopia & other failings. Click for copy.
Following the smog conspiracy case, the automakers discovered they didn’t need to conspire to hold back technological improvements. Rather, their lobbying, political muscle, economic leverage, legal firepower, and public relations campaigns were typically sufficient to thwart the needed technology, whether for pollution-control, fuel economy, or alternative engine development. This is evident from the now 60-year record of their participation in the public policy arena, in which they were able, repeatedly, to water down, extend, delay, and/or subvert emissions and fuel economy standards and deadlines. Indeed, one GM official would later boast that in terms of the original 1970 Clean Air Act’s auto emission goals, “ninety-three [1993] was the first model year we ever built a model certified to seventy-five [1975] standards.”

But it wasn’t just the Clean Air Act they battled – which they fought from its inception in 1970 through subsequent amendment and into the late 1990s when new “smog & soot” provisions were sought. They also won rollbacks on fuel economy standards, learned how to game fleet accounting under the CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) program, and also threatened to use “foreign content” or move plants abroad to skirt MPG goals. When California moved to encourage electric vehicle development with tighter emissions standards, they worked to scuttle that program. And when Northeast states sought to adopt tighter California emissions standards, they fought that as well. They sometimes used front groups and fake grass roots names to oppose new actions in Congress. And they spared no expense in lobbying and PR campaigns to oppose updates to the clean air and fuel economy laws.

David Halberstam’s 1986 book on Ford & Nissan provides period context & perceptive historical analysis. Click for copy.
David Halberstam’s 1986 book on Ford & Nissan provides period context & perceptive historical analysis. Click for copy.
For years, the Detroit automakers were fixated on big car profits, expressed disdain for smaller European and Japanese cars, and were reluctant to make capital plant investments to change product lineups. When their own smaller cars were first produced, they were often poorly engineered, losing market share to European and Japanese competitors.

And although American automakers had studied or knew about improvements such as front-wheel drive, fuel injection, improved transmissions, and multi-valve engines (some, as early as the 1950s, and again in the early 1970s) – all technologies that would improve fuel efficiency and more – they ignored them or were slow to install them, lagging behind their competitors by years in some cases.

When sales went flat on the heels of energy crises, they typically asked Congress for help and regulatory relief. In periods of high profits, they spent their proceeds poorly, some on mergers and acquisitions rather than improved engineering of cars and trucks.

When the “quality revolution” arrived to make them better competitors, environmental and energy elements were not incorporated into the capital goods calculus. All in all, there were missed opportunities in the 1950s-1990s time frame that could have made the outcomes much different.

Maryann Keller’s 1989 book on GM is also good period history. Click for copy.
Maryann Keller’s 1989 book on GM is also good period history. Click for copy.
Most puzzling to those who studied and knew the industry, including any number of engineers inside Detroit, was the fact that the industry clearly had the technical capability to be energy and environmental leaders. Afterall, this was the industry that became the “Arsenal of Democracy” in WWII, converting their plants overnight to turn out a staggering array of fighter planes, tanks, and technologically complex weapons and other munitions. In more recent years, they have helped NASA. So why the decades-long histrionics over energy and environmental improvements?

To be sure, the air in America today is cleaner than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, as the energy and environmental performance of Detroit-made motor vehicles is much improved, no question. But as the annual reports of the American Lung Association typically show, there are too many metro areas in America (and around the world) having bad ozone days. And while “end-of-combustion-engine” deadlines and surging electric vehicle development now hold promise for further reducing the motor vehicle share of bad air and greenhouse gases, we are clearly not out of the woods yet.

Much more detail on the auto industry’s economic and environmental history is found in any number of the books and reports cited in this story and in the “Sources” section below. Additional stories at this website with auto industry content include the following: “The DeLorean Saga” (about John DeLorean’s rise and fall at GM and his bid to build the DeLorean Motor Car); “G.M. & Ralph Nader” (covering Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed and GM’s attempt to discredit him); and “Dinah Shore & Chevrolet” (about the popular 1950s TV personality who helped sell Chevrolets).

Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research, writing and continued publication of this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 22 May 2021
Last Update: 22 May 2021
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Smog Conspiracy: DOJ vs. Detroit
Automakers,” PopHistoryDig.com, May 22, 2021.

____________________________________



Sources, Links & Additional Information

Jack Doyle's, “Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and The Politics of Pollution,” covers the 50-year clean car fight. Click for copy. (some book excerpts used in the foregoing story.).
Jack Doyle's, “Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and The Politics of Pollution,” covers the 50-year clean car fight. Click for copy. (some book excerpts used in the foregoing story.).
Chip Jacobs & William J Kelly’s 2008 book, “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” Abrams Press; updated 2015, 400 pp. Click for copy.
Chip Jacobs & William J Kelly’s 2008 book, “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” Abrams Press; updated 2015, 400 pp. Click for copy.
Dave Cooke’s 2017 report, “Time for a U-Turn: Automakers’ History of Intransigence and an Opportunity for Change,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 56 pp. Click for PDF.
Dave Cooke’s 2017 report, “Time for a U-Turn: Automakers’ History of Intransigence and an Opportunity for Change,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 56 pp. Click for PDF.
James J. Flink’s cultural, economic and political history, “The Automobile Age,” described as “a virtual encyclopedia of automotive history.” MIT 1990 paperback, 472pp, Click for copy.
James J. Flink’s cultural, economic and political history, “The Automobile Age,” described as “a virtual encyclopedia of automotive history.” MIT 1990 paperback, 472pp, Click for copy.
Karen R. Merrill’s book, “The Oil Crisis of 1973-1974: A Brief History with Documents,” Bedford/St. Martin's; 1st edition, 2007, 192pp. Click for copy.
Karen R. Merrill’s book, “The Oil Crisis of 1973-1974: A Brief History with Documents,” Bedford/St. Martin's; 1st edition, 2007, 192pp. Click for copy.
Margo T. Oge’s 2015 book, “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars,” Arcade. 368pp.  Click for copy.
Margo T. Oge’s 2015 book, “Driving the Future: Combating Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars,” Arcade. 368pp. Click for copy.
Bill Vlasic’s 2011 book, “Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers--GM, Ford, and Chrysler,” William Morrow;  400 pp.  Click for copy.
Bill Vlasic’s 2011 book, “Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America's Big Three Automakers--GM, Ford, and Chrysler,” William Morrow; 400 pp. Click for copy.
Michael Shnayerson’s 1996 book, “The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle,” an inside account of the EV-1, before its demise.  Random House, 295pp. Click for copy.
Michael Shnayerson’s 1996 book, “The Car That Could: The Inside Story of GM's Revolutionary Electric Vehicle,” an inside account of the EV-1, before its demise. Random House, 295pp. Click for copy.
2006 documentary film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (Chris Paine, director, Martin Sheen, narrator). Tells the story of GM’s EV-1, with historical context, through its demise (1 hr, 32 min), and asks the question: “A Lack of Consumer Confidence...Or Conspiracy?”. Click for DVD or video.
2006 documentary film, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (Chris Paine, director, Martin Sheen, narrator). Tells the story of GM’s EV-1, with historical context, through its demise (1 hr, 32 min), and asks the question: “A Lack of Consumer Confidence...Or Conspiracy?”. Click for DVD or video.
Vitaliy Katsenelson’s short book, “Tesla, Elon Musk, and the EV Revolution: An In-Depth Analysis of What’s in Store for the Company, The Man, and The Industry by a Value Investor and Newly-Minted Tesla Owner,” October 2020. Click for copy.
Vitaliy Katsenelson’s short book, “Tesla, Elon Musk, and the EV Revolution: An In-Depth Analysis of What’s in Store for the Company, The Man, and The Industry by a Value Investor and Newly-Minted Tesla Owner,” October 2020. Click for copy.
Steven Rattner’s 2010 book, “Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry,” Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp.  Click for copy.
Steven Rattner’s 2010 book, “Overhaul: An Insider's Account of the Obama Administration's Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry,” Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp. Click for copy.
Jack Ewing’s 2017 book, “Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal” – VW installed emissions-cheating software on 11 million cars. W. W. Norton, 352 pp. Click for copy.
Jack Ewing’s 2017 book, “Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal” – VW installed emissions-cheating software on 11 million cars. W. W. Norton, 352 pp. Click for copy.

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Kenneth F. Hahn, Smog: A Factual Record of Correspondence Between Kenneth Hahn and Automobile Companies, Los Angeles, 1970.

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Senator Ed Muskie, “Clean Air,” Letter to the Editor, Life, May 7, 1971, p. 25.

Associated Press, “Auto Makers Win Ruling on Pollution,” New York Times, Nov. 27, 1973.

Agis Salpukas, “Los Angeles Officials Insist the Air is Getting Cleaner,” New York Times, August 7, 1972.

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “A Review and Analysis of The Good Faith of The Automobile Industry in Attempting to Comply with The Statutory 0.4 NOx Standard,” A Report to the Senate Public Works Committee, U.S. Congress, 1975, 120 pp.

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____________________________



“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). Click for copy.
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). Click for copy.
     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, a broad investigation of auto safety failings generally, was 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. Click for hardback edition.
November 1965: Cover & spine of 1st edition hardback copy of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed,” published by Grossman Publishers, New York, NY. Click for hardback edition.
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.” 

Hardback edition back panel, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
Hardback edition back panel, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
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.

    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.

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 The Hill

Senate Showdown

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…”  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.“They have put you through the mill, and they haven’t found a damn thing wrong with you.”
++ –Sen. Ribicoff to Ralph Nader

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 publication of Unsafe at Any Speed.  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.

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.
June 1971: Esquire magazine published Gore Vidal’s piece, “Ralph Nader Can Be The Next President of the United States.” Click for copy.
June 1971: Esquire magazine published Gore Vidal’s piece, “Ralph Nader Can Be The Next President of the United States.” Click for copy.

 

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,” wrote Time, “Nader, at 35, has become something of a folk hero, a symbol of constructive protest against the status quo.” 

And by the early 1970s, given his rising national following, Nader was being touted by some as a possible presidential candidate, as Gore Vidal would propose in an June 1971 Esquire piece shown at left. But Nader in the 1970s and beyond would 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).

Nader has been named to lists of the “100 Most Influential Americans” by Life, Time, and The Atlantic magazines, among others. In 2016, he was inducted in to the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Through the 2010s, Ralph Nader continued 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 & Culture” category page, and on business and the environment, the “Environmental History” page.  Thanks for visiting — and if you like what you find here, please help support the research and writing at this website with a donation. Thank you. – Jack Doyle

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Date Posted: 31 March 2013
Last Update: 9 December 2018
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. Click for copy.
Cover of Charles McCarry’s “Citizen Nader” book, 1972, hardback edition, Saturday Review Press. Click for copy.
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. Click for copy.
Thomas Whiteside's 1972 book on the GM investigation of Ralph Nader. Click for copy.
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. Click for copy.
“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. Click for copy.
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. St. Martin’s Press. Click for copy.
“Crashing The Party” of 2002 tells the story of Nader's 2000 presidential bid. St. Martin’s Press. Click for copy.
August 1976: Democratic Presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, talk with reporters outside of Carter’s home in Plains, Georgia.
August 1976: Democratic Presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter, and consumer advocate Ralph Nader, talk with reporters outside of Carter’s home in Plains, Georgia.
February 24, 2008:  Ralph Nader on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, in Washington, DC where  he announced he would run for President in 2008 as an independent.
February 24, 2008: Ralph Nader on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, in Washington, DC where he announced he would run for President in 2008 as an independent.

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