It was the red 1963 Corvair that roused me. There it was on a pedestal, as shiny as when it sat in a showroom. The car is the centerpiece of Ralph Nader’s Tort Museum in Winsted, Connecticut, just over ten miles from my home. In my brief visit there, I absorbed more about the relationship between personal injury suits and corporate indifference than at any time since my first year in law school over four decades ago. Nevertheless, what struck me most were the memories of my father that unexpectedly and vividly flooded my mind as I wandered through the museum. It was eerie how keenly I felt his presence though I don’t think Dad had ever been to Winsted. He’s been dead several years and is buried over 3,000 miles away.
Dad never met Ralph Nader, and his Corvair was a 1960 model in gray, bought used. It wouldn’t shine no matter how vigorously he polished it. And while Nader’s landmark book Unsafe at Any Speed lambasted the vehicle for “the sudden onset of the critical point at which the vehicle goes out of control and frequently flips over,” Dad’s car never wound up on its side or roof. Instead, it caught fire. Burned to a crisp.
Dad was an FDR Democrat and constitutionally inclined to root for underdogs. He never voted for Nader. The Nader inspired guards and switches that appeared on his lawnmower in later years annoyed him. Regardless, whenever he remembered that night his car suddenly burst into flames, he echoed the consumer crusader’s words in somewhat more salty language involving an anatomical impossibility. “The Corvair,” Nader wrote, “was a tragedy, not a blunder. The tragedy was overwhelmingly the fault of cutting corners to shave costs.”
Dad would have delighted in the irony of the Tort Museum’s building. Dedicated to little guys beating the moneyed corporate system, it’s paradoxically located in an abandoned bank where the heavy steel vault is now permanently open and bereft of cash, corporate or otherwise. Dad would have called a museum dedicated to an abstract legal concept “chutzpah to the max.” But the colorful, cartoonish signboards and eye-catching objects, including dangerous toys that have been subject to litigation, would have appealed to a guy whose childhood memories brought him back to the colorful honky-tonk of Coney Island.
Yes, our Corvair caught fire when I was about ten years old. Late at night after Dad got out of work, we were driving north along New York’s dark, winding Taconic Parkway on a visit to my grandmother. As usual, I was awake while my Mom and two sisters snoozed. “What’s that bright light behind us,” I innocently asked when flames suddenly leapt out of the rear mounted, air-cooled engine. The car instantly lurched to the shoulder as Dad let out a string of expletives that would have made Lenny Bruce blush. In a trice, we were out of the car watching it burn from a distance. It was great fun for us kids. We loved bonfires. There were police sirens, fire trucks, and colorful strobe lights. It was high adventure to stay in a motel that night. Located in Ichabod Crane country, I think it was called the Sleepy Hollow Inn.
Average people using the courts to beat a system rigged in favor of big corporations who care more about dollars than humanity, that’s what my father would have loved about Ralph Nader’s museum. Flammable pajamas, children choking on toys, asbestos, superheated coffee, exploding gas tanks, and medical devices that impaired rather than healed were all evidence of profits over people. Of course, my eyes kept returning to that shiny Corvair. Truly unsafe at any speed, it had found its highest and best use as a static exhibit whose tires would never again hit the road. Dad would have been pleased, though “it was a fun car to drive.”
As long as that red Corvair inhabits the Tort museum, I’ll find a piece of my father there. It’s puzzling, almost mysterious how the personal can bond to the universal. I’m fascinated, though perplexed at the way in which disparate places and times can coincide in our consciousness and enlarge everyday experience. We have more connections than we know. The most ordinary place can engage us in an intimate way. We just have to open ourselves to the opportunities. I found one at Ralph Nader’s museum.