All the world’s a stage …

… And all the people, critics

VW&Porsche magazine
March 1987, page 6

I was going through the files the other day and came across the April 1960 issue of MOTOR LIFE Magazine, at that time edited by Don Werner, who is now Argus Publishers Chairman of the Board. Among the pictures of fins and chrome there were two articles that mentioned the Corvair. The first, a comparison test of five 6-cylinder cars, said the Corvair handles well and driving the car debunks many criticisms leveled at rear-engine cars. The second, an article covering Daytona Speed Week said the Corvair displayed fine handling, later mentioning that in an economy run the Corvair had managed 39.882 mpg.

The glimpse of our pre-Nader (nadir?) society provided a fine benchmark against which to view the Audi 5000 runaway acceleration issue, as we are again confronted with a situation in which an automobile manufacturer is being pilloried not in the name of truth, but for other reasons entirely.

Like many of my peers, I was incredulous when I heard the runaway acceleration charges against Audi. I’ve driven Audis for over ten years now and feel I know them as well as anybody, and I just couldn’t picture any combination of events that could lead to this occurring without the driver having his foot firmly on the accelerator. Let’s consider a few points:

  • Few modern cars, and certainly no street Audi, can develop enough power to overcome the holding force of their brakes. And, Audi’s four-wheel discs can develop an incredible amount of friction.
  • The Audi 5000 brakes are so much more powerful than the engine that they will bring the car to a complete stop from 50 mph even if the accelerator pedal is fully depressed at the same time.
  • The idle stabilizer circuit (cited as a possible culprit in this matter) affects only the spark advance, and has no way of admitting additional air into the motor. Even at full advance, the car will not make very much horsepower when the throttle is closed.
  • The auxiliary air circuit (another victim of finger-pointing), even when fully open, admits only a small fraction of the air the motor needs to make any serious horsepower.
  • In the event the idle stabilizer and auxiliary air circuit failed simultaneously, the worst consequence would be an unpleasantly high idle.

Given these facts, how is it possible that Audi now finds itself struggling to free itself from charges of manufacturing voodoo machines, like some prehistoric animal straining to free itself from a tar pit? The unhappy fact is negative publicity can still be a much more powerful force than positive, and the effects of negative press seem to linger longer, too. To hark back to the example of the Corvair, even though it was eventually cleared (three years later) of charges it was an unsafe car, the dark cloud still lingers. It’s hard to imagine anything that could ever change that.

You are not going to read too much more about the runaway or unintended acceleration claims and counterclaims here in VW & Porsche, and it’s not because we’re trying to cover up for anybody. It’s because Audi builds damn fine cars. I was fortunate enough to be driving a 5000CS Turbo when the 60 Minutes show aired, and I can tell you that there is a substantial difference between what I saw on TV and what I experienced firsthand.

No matter what comes of this, Audi will be the worse for it, as was the Corvair before them. If there is any good to be salvaged from this situation, it is that we can all realize that even though the effects of negative publicity are not always this serious or this important, they can still be influential.