The Ultimate Fix

“Slechter here.” Al Slechter answered the phone at the Ford office in Washington.

“Is Robert Smith there, please?” Smith is Ford’s legislative lobbyist. Slechter is in charge of combating regulations.

“No, he’s up on the Hill.”

“Oh, is there safety legislation pending?”

“No, the Clean Air Act’s in committee. Clean Air act is killing us.”

“I guess between clean air and safety they’re keeping you pretty busy?”

“Damn right,” he said, “and Adams is holding an airbag hearing next Wednesday.” Brock Adams, Carter’s Transportation Secretary, has now reopened what Henry Ford II had hoped was a closed issue—airbags.

However, according to Ford, airbags will add anywhere from $100 to $400 to the cost of every auto. The company argues, probably correctly, that the auto buyers would prefer to pay less and take their chances. But the vehemently anti-airbag Ford wasn’t willing to take its chances with the Department of Transportation even when it was loaded with pro-auto Republicans. So Ford introduced a crafty little system called the ignition interlock. The ignition interlock will not allow a driver to start the car until the front seat passengers are buckled up. The ignition interlock was a sensible compromise. The rationale was that if drivers were forced to use seat belts there would be no need for airbags, which is true enough. In late 1970, Henry Ford II sold Chrysler president Lynn Townsend on the idea and convinced him they could sell it together in Washington.

A Nixon aide set up a meeting between Ford, Chrysler’s Townsend and Nixon to discuss “matters related to the automotive industry.” A few days after the meeting, John Ehrlichman called a meeting with Transportation Secretary John Volpe. After the meeting Volpe was heard to remark “The airbag’s in trouble.” Soon after, Henry Ford II contributed nearly $50,000 toward Nixon’s re-election campaign.

After many of the delays that auto-makers love, on August 15, 1973, Department of Transportation officials finally issued a new regulation requiring ignition interlocks on all new cars. There was now no need for airbags, so they dropped from the picture. During this two-year delay, however, Congress member Louis Wyman (R-N.H.) was preparing an amendment to the Motor Vehicle and School Bus Safety Act of 1974, which said, “Federal safety standards may not require that any vehicles be equipped with a safety belt interlock system.” Some Hill staffers say Ford actually wrote the amendment. With a well-timed push from auto lobbyists, the amendment passed. The airbag and the ignition interlock were now both dead, victims of one of the most brilliantly executed double fixes in the history of lobbying.

Now that airbags are back on the agenda again, keep your eye on Ford.


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