A couple of weeks ago, I devoted this space to complaining about the notion that somehow Democrats are obliged to vote for the likes of Al Gore, whether they like him or not, because casting a ballot for Green party nominee Ralph Nader will result in a victory for George W. Bush, and we all know what that means. The fact is, we don't know what that means; in his capacity as governor of Texas, W. hasn't done a whole lot, mostly because the Texas constitution makes sure that he can't. (Aside to Gore operatives: If Bush can't claim credit for much, he certainly can't be tagged with a great deal of blame either — not that I expect you to pay any attention to this minor detail.)

From the amount of verbiage I devoted to extolling the need to get Nader on the ballot in Soonerland, you might assume I'm anxious to see the guy in the White House or something. And you'd be wrong. While I generally applaud Nader's anti-corporate stance — where I break with the small-l libertarians is in their insistence that private-sector predators are inherently morally superior to government predators — Ralph Nader's blind spots are no particular secret, and his vision may be poorest when he turns his rage upon the automobile.

Cars, of course, made Ralph Nader; his campaign against General Motors' swing-axle rear-suspension design in the Chevrolet Corvair, detailed in his book Unsafe at Any Speed, got him off to a tremendous start as a crusader for consumers. And, as it happens, Nader was wrong; the Corvair, while not a great handler in its first generation, was no worse than most American barges of the early Sixties, and by the time Nader's charges (given even greater amplification by a really stupid GM attempt at revenge) became common knowledge, GM had already upgraded the Corvair to where it was actually superior to most other US cars. Finally, in 1972, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave the Corvair a clean bill of health, declaring:

"The handling and stability performance of the 1960-1963 Corvair does not result in an abnormal potential for loss of control or rollover and it is at least as good as the performance of some contemporary vehicles both foreign and domestic."

The prognosis was good; unfortunately, the patient had died in 1969, a victim not so much of bad publicity, but of declining interest in econoboxes in general. The muscle-car era was in full swing, only to be brought down a couple of years later by an unholy alliance of government meddlers and insurance weasels.

Now Ralph Nader has signed onto the Sierra Club's crusade to push Corporate Average Fuel Economy from 27.5 mpg now to 45 mpg by 2010, as a step towards reducing the threat from global warming. I've read over their recommendations, and some of them are sort of sensible — reducing the weight of motor vehicles, despite a lot of yammering by safety obsessives and SUV buffs, is clearly a Good Thing — and some of them are absolutely sidesplitting. An example of the latter:

"Electronically controlled gear shifting, automatic transmissions with five speeds rather than three or four speeds, and continuously variable transmissions, such as those in Subaru's Justy and Nissan's AP-X concert car, enable cars to operate at optimal efficiency more of the time. Taken together, they could increase the average by 3 to 4 miles per gallon."

Then again, a manual transmission could increase the average by 4 to 5 miles per gallon while conceivably reducing the price of the automobile. (I drive a Mazda 626, for which an automatic costs an extra $800 unless you order the base engine and the higher trim level.) Can Ralph Nader drive a stick? Or is the American public considered too dense to stir its own gears? (Granted, there have been times on the Centennial Expressway when I've wondered this myself.)

And yet again:

"Ford is testing highly efficient two-stroke engines which not only improve fuel economy by as much 30%, but cost up to 25% less to produce than conventional engines."

Two-stroke engines can do all that? So how come every time the powers that be declare an ozone alert, we're asked not to operate two-stroke machinery, period?

All this baggage comes with a Nader presidency — and, likely, with a Gore presidency as well. Reason enough, I submit, for anyone who actually enjoys driving to spurn them both in November.

The Vent

15 September 2000

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 Copyright © 2000 by Charles G. Hill