Horseshoe Nails, The Rhythm of History, and General Motors

John Marks
by John Marks

Decades after the events in question, Marina Oswald claimed that on the night of Thursday, November 21, 1963, her husband Lee Harvey Oswald suggested that they end their estrangement by having make-up sex (although I believe that term was unknown in 1963).

She claimed that while she was resigned to having sexual relations with Lee again, she wanted him to stew in his own juices one more day by making him wait for the weekend. However, she didn’t dangle a promise (or even a possibility) in front of him.

Marina claimed to be morally certain that this sexual rejection was what pushed “lone nut” Lee Harvey Oswald over the edge and made him impulsively bring his WWII-era Italian military rifle to work with him the next morning. Oswald’s life being a total mess (and finding no comfort on the home front), he decided to go out in a blaze of Marxist-Leninist glory.

That’s Marina’s story, and she’s sticking with it.

If you can accept the possibility that there was no conspiracy (and so, JFK’s death was a cosmic or Kafkaesque joke), Marina’s story has the ring of near-truth to it. (However, political operative and Nixon confidante Roger Stone’s recent book makes a compelling case that Richard Nixon—rightly or wrongly—believed that LBJ had orchestrated JFK’s death.)

With Slavic fatalism, Marina told a researcher, “It all came down to the turn of a card.”

“The turn of a card”—another way to express the reasoning behind what is often called the “Horseshoe Nail” theory of history. That’s the idea that seemingly trivial or limited decisions trigger a cascade of unforeseeable events that in some cases lead to major consequences. “For the want of a horseshoe nail, the kingdom was lost.”

In 1959, General Motors’ bean-counting, cynical, and hubristic corporate culture set in motion a truly remarkable series of horseshoe-nail event cascades. Due to mission creep on one hand and cost cutting on the other (replacing aluminum with steel), the load on the Corvair’s swing-axle rear suspension turned out to be 140 pounds more than anticipated and designed for. That extra load tipped the car’s weight distribution to 38% front/62% rear, guaranteeing dangerously unpredictable handling.

Chevrolet’s engineers and even some managers such as John Z. Delorean (who was a competent engineer with several patents to his name, some of which he had earned while trying to rescue Packard) knew that the Corvair would have beastly handling. They recommended a $5 anti-sway bar that would transfer force from one front wheel to the other, lowering rear wheel slip angles and the tendency to break loose that made the car spin and at times roll over.

(When Ford finally obtained a Corvair to test, Ford test driver and future Le Mans winner Carroll Shelby got the Corvair to roll over at a speed under 30 miles an hour. Shelby and his Ford colleagues had a good laugh. The Falcon might have been the result of unimaginative engineering, but it did not roll over easily.)

Rather than spend $5 per car on a front anti-sway bar, GM decided to specify (but to not publicize) a major imbalance in recommended tire pressures. Reportedly, rear tire pressure was to be 30 psi while the front pressure was recommended to be 18 psi, in an effort to make the front tires “grippier.” However, if the kid at the gas station helpfully filled your tires to 30 psi all around, the Corvair would handle in a truly evil manner.

Here’s the “Horseshoe Nail’s Big Consequence”: One can easily argue that GM’s decision not to spend $5 per Corvair on a foolproof engineering fix of handling they knew to be dangerous, directly led to George W. Bush’s being elected President in 2000.

In 1959, a bookish young lawyer named Ralph Nader wrote a magazine article about the automobile industry’s disregard of safety. A publisher recommended that Nader turn his article into a book. Nader’s book, published in 1965, focused its first chapter on the Corvair. Thus, the “consumer movement” was born, and Nader became a household name.

Nader was the Green Party’s candidate for President in 2000, and he was on the Florida ballot. Nader received 97,421 votes in Florida, whereas Bush’s official margin of victory was fewer than 600 votes. Had Nader not been on the Florida ballot, Al Gore surely would have won Florida and the Presidency (which still rankles many Democrats).

Nader was on the Florida ballot in large part because he was famous and well regarded for having exposed GM’s fecklessness. Had GM decided in 1959 to sacrifice $5 in profits rather than sacrifice human lives (and keep in mind that several Corvair fatalities were family members of Chevrolet dealers), today Ralph Nader might be an obscure lawyer, Al Gore a former President, and George Bush a gentleman rancher who paints pictures.

Mark Twain observed that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

From the Corvair’s troubled handling in 1959 to today’s troubles with ignition lock cylinders, GM’s corporate culture does not seem to have learned much. One might say, that’s the nature of the beast: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

The only law that never gets broken is the law of unintended consequences. And GM has a genius for setting in motion horseshoe-nail event cascades.

So, my friends: How do you think “Corvair 2.0” will eventually play out?

(Personally, I’d love to see GM convicted of Bankruptcy fraud and its Chapter 11 discharge unwound, but a voice from under the bed says, “Forget it, John—It’s Chinatown.”)

Record producer John Marks is a columnist for Stereophile magazine.

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  • Jeff S Jeff S on Aug 04, 2014

    @DC Bruce--I wasn't stating that it is wrong to make cost cutting measures to a product. My point is that when there is a known safety issue and it is known within the company for a number of years and it is deliberately ignored then that is inexcusable. Do you know for a fact that the Pinto gas tanks were safe? True the Mustang tanks were typical of cars made then but they were still not safe. Would manufacturers be allowed to make a gas tank like that today? Any manufacturer can have a defect in a product and sometimes that defect can make it an unsafe product. The point is when a corporation deliberately ignores a defect that is unsafe? Do you approve of ignoring known safety issues?

  • HyperionKnight HyperionKnight on Dec 18, 2020

    Great article - look forward to many more! I once attended a six-hour lecture about the Kennedy assassination. The speaker meticulously outlined how it was clear Oswald had acted alone, and that his overtures to communist leaders like Castro were brushed off - they just weren't interested in knowing him. At the end, the first questioner raised his hand and asked: "how do you explain Jack Ruby?" The speaker answered: "I don't know."

  • Lou_BC I've I spent the past few days in what we refer to as "the lower mainland". I see Tesla's everywhere and virtually every other brand of EV. I was in downtown Vancouver along side a Rivian R1T. A Rivian R1S came off as side street and was following it. I saw one other R1S. 18% of new vehicles in BC are EV'S. It tends to match what I saw out my windshield. I only saw 2 fullsized pickups. One was a cool '91 3/4 ton regular cab. I ran across 2 Tacoma's. Not many Jeeps. There were plenty of Porches, Mercedes, and BMW's. I saw 2 Aston Martin DBX707's. It's been fun car watching other than the stress of driving in big city urban traffic. I'd rather dodge 146,000 pound 9 axle logging trucks on one lane roads.
  • IBx1 Never got the appeal of these; it looks like there was a Soviet mandate to create a car with two doors and a roof that could be configured in different ways.
  • CAMeyer Considering how many voters will be voting for Trump because they remember that gas prices were low in 2020–never mind the pandemic—this seems like a wise move.
  • The Oracle Been out on the boat on Lake James (NC) and cooking up some hella good food here with friends at the lake place.
  • ToolGuy Also on to-do list: Read the latest Steve S. fiction work on TTAC (May 20 Junkyard Find)