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Veteran Of The Car Safety Wars Speaks Out

The Toyota safety and quality fiasco is an enigma.

by on Feb.22, 2010

Nader's polemic, Unsafe At Any Speed, a clear exaggeration, led to significant safety reforms.

Even as a grizzled veteran of the car safety wars that began with the publication of Ralph Nader’s Unsafe At Any Speed in the mid-1960s, I find it hard to fathom how Toyota has fallen into the mess it finds itself in.

Toyota has benefited from a carefully nurtured reputation for quality and reliability over the last three decades. Unlike domestic manufacturers, Toyota was one of the first to go to longer warranties as the Detroit Three – claiming equivalent quality – stuck with far shorter ones that were less expensive for them, but not their customers.

Toyota also went the extra mile for its customers, quietly fixing out-of-warranty complaints. Critics called these “secret warranties” – although Toyota never was caught at it – and indeed, they were, but they helped build Toyota’s reputation and enviable,money-making owner loyalty.

In Detroit, lawyers and quarterly-finance-report-driven bean counters ruled the roost, rigidly enforcing warranty limits, blithely enduring the wrath of owners who, feeling short-changed, fell into the arms of auto companies backing their products for the longer term.


This is not just speculation. My bride of 20 years ago owned a new Camry, an otherwise fine car that, however, eventually suffered from rusting quarter panels and failing $500 exhaust systems. We learned that Toyota had beyond-warranty “customer satisfaction” programs that covered these flaws. In the case of the exhaust system, we did not find this out until the second set of pipes and mufflers failed.

Well Publicized Safety Issues of the Past

Nevertheless, what about the big safety issues of those past decades? As noted, the first was Nader’s attack on the rear-engine Chevrolet Corvair introduced in 1959. His legal argument was that the car handled differently than front-engine cars, therefore typical American drivers were unsafe driving them. Of course, VW, Renault and Porsche also were rear-engine, but at the time their manufacturers were far away, their pockets shallow and their numbers few.

Along with most other auto writers then, I loved the Corvair’s neat handling and fascinating features.   (more…)