Corvair Machinations

Corvair Machinations and The Value of Human Life

– Inventor, Pete Sumaruck’s father, Paul Sumaruck burns to death in a Chevy Corvair.

Rear view - Chevy Corvair

Rear view – Chevy Corvair

For over 55 years, the Chevrolet Corvair has been synonymous with death behind the wheel. This all began in 1960 when the Corvair was introduced to the driving public. Before Corvair, most American-made cars were bulky and heavy, but Corvair offered lightness, and a sense of freedom of the road. This new design seemed loose and splashy like a Fellini movie, beckoning a European roadtrip with this family-friendly sports car.

The time was post-World WarII, and GM chief design engineer Ed Cole, read the minds of the American driving public; people wanted to put an ugly war behind them; they wanted to be liberated … and have a sense of “fun” in their cars. Maybe the expression in those days was, “sold like hotcakes.” From 1960 to 1965, Corvair design remained mostly the same – GM had a winner so why make changes when you are making money.

Ed Cole, ignored the calls for car safety and was rewarded with the Presidency of General Motors. Irony struck 10 years later when Cole, alone in his own plane, in bad weather, flew UFR, smash-crashed after suffering “spatial disorientation.” He was given a “teacup” burial – only enough remains to fit in a cup.

Structural flaws in Corvair design – Early on, the bubbles burst in this perfect sales phenomenon – brought to light by the plethora of driver and passenger fatalities. Note the top pic of the rear view of a red Corvair; the engine is in the rear and had a swing-axel suspension, both resulting in many fatal fires, rollovers and cornering issues like a wheel coming off, or the engine alone shooting off down the road.

Long ago, but to this day, a particular highway in Arizona, #87, is spoken of as“Corvair Curve.” … and .. *** Corvair Curve

In 1962, Jan. 13, actor comedian, Ernie Kovacs made a quick turn and slammed into a post, dying almost instantly, his signature cigar “lay unlit on the pavement just inches from his outstretched arm.””


Ernie Kovacs died here in 1962Ernie Kovacs died here in 1962. Termed as “the classic Corvair accident” – a quick left turn, coupled with  a GM advertising claim – you have “boosted traction in wet weather,” Kovacs had both.

Attorney, James E. Butler Jr., “still carries a walking stick and vivid memories from his injuries as a teen-ager in a 1968 crash of a family Chevrolet Corvair. Butler denies a vendetta against GM for the wreck 25 years ago.”  Butler is, “one of the most successful personal litigators in the South, (and) … makes no secret of his contempt for the managers of the world’s largest industrial corporation.” … “I’ve seen in my own life the effects of General Motors’ disinformation, manipulation and refusal to take responsibility, so it makes me sensitive,” Butler said in an interview with the LA Times. …

“Unsafe at any Speed” – The numbers of Corvair fatalities was mounting, but car manufacturers were not yet open to the concept of safety. Ralph Nader’s 1965 book brought these dangers to the public eye. His book and notoriety led to the first federal car safety legislation and seatbelts.

"Unsafe at any Speed" by Ralph Nader “Unsafe at any Speed” by Ralph Nader

Nadar was asked to testify to a Congressional sub-committee on car safety – the beginning of Ralph Nadar’s fame and his brand of activism, but this also generated fear and anger toward General Motors management and products. And GM was afraid of Ralph Nader.

Nadar found out that GM hired a firm of private investigators, founded by a former FBI agent, to shadow Nadar, places he went, people he knew – they hoped for scandal and ruination, but Nadar sued GM for $26 million, GM offered $12. Ralph won, but the exact amount of the award is publicly unclear.

In a Free Society – When details of GM’s corporate spying became public, members of the Congressional Sub-Committee on car safety, Abraham Ribicoff and Gaylord Nelson were outraged and on the trail, calling for a Department of Justice investigation. “No citizen of this country should be forced to endure the kind of clumsy harassment to which Mr. Nader has apparently been subjected since the publication of his book,” said Senator Ribicoff. And, “Anonymous phone calls in the middle of the night have no place in a free society.”

A day later, General Motors admitted, yes, they had spied on Ralph Nader. When Senator Ribicoff refered to the corporate shenanigans of GM as, citizens “forced to endure this kind of clumsy harassment” – what today would be termed “fuckery afoot” – the Senator had no idea what would be committed toward regular citizens.

Death by Corvair strikes an ordinary family – Paul Sumaruck was on his way to the Oscar Meyer manufacturing plant in Dallas, for his first day at his new job – $250 thousand a year (a huge sum for 1965). Mr. Sumaruck lived in Waco, Texas with his wife and four children, and had managed the H. and B. meat packing plant in Waco for several years.

The bio for Oscar Meyer says they have been in business since 1883 – a compatible mix with the things they appreciated about Paul Sumaruck: his managerial skills and his tradition of fine Austrian sausage making. Paul and his wife, and infant daughter immigrated from Austria in 1951, where Paul had been a hero in the Resistance in World  War II.

It was 1965. Paul had purchased his Corvair, new, in 1960, and it was in good shape – he loved his Corvair. It was a symbol of the good life he embraced in the United States.

Corvair meets MackCorvair meets Mack

It was 4:55 in the morning, the usual time Paul started out for work. He was on the old Dallas highway, the new freeway not yet completed. He was full of energy and expectation for his new job, as he came up over a hill and a curve … when the tie rods broke, forcing Paul to the left lane, head on into a speeding Mack truck. The engine was in the rear in the Corvair, but the gas tank was in front, placed right under the driver’s nose. After the investigation, the tie rods were found to be defective. The Mack truck driver had a bottle of Jack Daniels in his lap and was high on speed.

Paul Sumaruck burned to death; the coffin would be closed because of the horrific condition of his body.

The Sumaruck family attorney suggested they sue for $25 million – General Motors did not agree.

Two lawyers for GM showed up at the Sumaruck front door – a very nice home in the best Waco  neighborhood. The lawyers carried those leather expando briefcases, wore suits and ties, very corporate 1965. The family was assembled in the living room – French furniture – mother and father were European before they became American citizens – the Sumarucks were not country people.

The attorneys presented their offer to the family for the loss of their spouse and father. $1,500.00 – fifteen hundred dollars, that was it; they were firm. The family’s attorney was not present because the visit was a surprise. Mrs. Sumaruck loved her husband deeply; how could this car company and her newly adopted country betray her; she had four children to raise – screams, yelling, more tears – as if they hadn’t shed enough tears. The family was devastated. Mrs. Sumaruck fainted.

“No” … the family said “no”; they refused.

The lead lawyer turned to the wife, “You will agree to this, and if you don’t, the same thing will happen to you,” he looked at her deeply, forcefully … “and each of your children; they will all die a fiery death, just like your husband.” More screaming, more tears.

The second oldest, Peter, age 14, jumped up and ran into the kitchen. We remember Mr. Sumaruck as a master butcher and sausage-maker, appropriately his home kitchen had the best restaurant-grade, sharpest knives available. Peter pulled out the drawer, grabbed a big knife, and ran into the living room.

Haven’t you always wanted to do this to a lawyer – Pete did it. The lawyers saw him coming; they saw the shine of the blade; they could feel its heaviness. They put up their briefcases as shields, just as if Pete had been Achilles in battle. He slashed at them – now they were the ones screaming.

They jumped around the room yelling, Peter in pursuit, slashing at those briefcases. They ran for the door; out into the yard, they made it to their car, rolled up their windows … and got away.

I asked what happened next, “We went to court,” he told me. No witnesses allowed, just the judge and our family. The judge had releases for each of us to sign not to sue; he screamed threats at us. He wouldn’t let us leave until we signed. Mother was hysterical. I said to my sister, we aren’t of age. Doesn’t matter if we sign, the paper is worthless.”

As a sidebar, it should be mentioned here, that on July 22, 2012, Pete Sumaruck was moving back to California from Texas, then as an inventor, he commuted between the two states on several occasions and knew the road very well.  He was driving his Dodge Laramie Hemi truck and pulling his 30 foot travel trailer.

Pete standing next to the generator he built for the US Army.Pete standing next to the generator he designed and built for the US Army.

Near Flagstaff, it was nighttime, but he loved to drive and knew the road – he never goes over the speed limit. When he got to the top of a hill, he realized his trailer brakes were not working. He rolled 8 times, counted by the depressions in the meridian.  None of his 17 airbags inflated. Read the details: … This could easily have been another “wrongful death,” and strangely enough, it happened on the exact day of Pete’s father’s birthday, only a half hour different from Mr. Sumaruck’s death, 4:30 AM. But here, Pete miraculously survived.