When 83-year-old Marion Dove walked into the parking lot of her Columbia home two weeks ago and noticed that her car had been stolen, shewondered: Was it taken away by the consumer advocates?
Perhaps, she thought, Ralph Nader had hot-wired her 1961 Chevrolet Corvair, stealing it as revenge for its 30 years of faithful service to her.
"I didn't really think he'd go that far," she said with a laugh. "But then again, we still don't know who took it, do we?"
The thief, whoever he was, ran out of gas outside Stafford, Va., and had to abandon his mission. Police returned the car Tuesday, with only the ignition damaged.
"It would have been terrible if I had never seen it again," said Dove, who reported the car stolen on Aug. 4. "I would have missed it so. But we always have managed to stay together."
And such has been the story for Dove and the faded-silver Corvair, whohave been together for three decades and endured not only car thieves, but national controversy.
She bought the car hot off the assembly line in 1961, when she was the naive age of 53 and working as a receptionist at Loving Chevrolet in Silver Spring. Soon after, "everyone started telling me I was going to die in it," she recalled.
"I got sick to death of hearing about how dangerous that car was, and howthe wheels were going to fly off while I was driving," said Dove, who now lives in Columbia's Shalom Square elderly apartment complex.
"I just needed it for grocery shopping, mostly. It was a great car, I could never understand what Mr. Nader had against it," she said.
Nader, then a young consumer-advocate lawyer, used the Corvair as the basis of his now-famous 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed: the designed-in dangers of the American automobile," which labeled the rear-engine car as a disaster on wheels.
Many of the sporty Corvairs, which Nader argued had numerous life-threatening flaws, were recalled in the mid-1960s, although many returned to the road and to this day remain sought-after collector's items.
One of the chief criticisms Nader raised was that the Corvair, due to lack of proper steering joints, had a tendency to flip over during turns.
Another flaw, Nader argued, was that the car's heating system was apt to fill the interiorwith poisonous carbon monoxide.
"My best advice to anyone still driving around in a Corvair is to make sure all the windows are rolleddown," said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of Nader's Washington-based Center for Auto Safety consumer group.
"They're a reasonable collector's item, since I'd doubt there's more than a couple thousand left on the road," Ditlow said. "But I wouldn't want to driveone."
But Dove said she was never frightened of her car.
"I always kept the windows rolled down, anyway, because it's always so hotaround here," she explained. And she admits to being a proverbial Sunday driver, evidenced by the mere 62,510 miles she has put on the car. She has made few trips longer than a typical grocery-store jaunt. Twice she drove it to visit family in New York City, both smooth trips.
Her life has been simple and stationary, explains Dove. She grew up around the Washington area and worked as a telephone operator for 30 years, before changing jobs to work at Loving Chevy.
She remained there for 18 years before retiring and moving to Columbia in 1981. Other than an occasional trip to the Columbia Mall and a plane ride to see her son in Oklahoma, "I don't do many exciting things," she said.
Dove said that over the years, when she had to have the car repaired, mechanics would always open the hood of the rear-engine caronly to find an empty trunk.
"They'd say, 'My God, where's the engine?' " she said.
The car also pre-dates safety belt laws and hasno seat belts.
Occasionally, recounts one ofher friends at the elderly housing complex, a passing motorist will pull up alongside the Corvair and make an offer on the car.
"But I never wanted to sell," Dove said.
But now that she is approaching her mid-80s, she saidshe is considering giving up driving altogether.
"There's too many kids driving wild on the road nowadays. I'm too old for it," she said.
As a result, she may have to sell the Corvair, after all.
She hopes to find an auto collector who would give her "at least what I paid for the car -- $2,000. I'd like to at least break even on it,"she said.