The Mechanics of an Absurd Crash: Why Driver Error, Not the KGB, Killed Camus

The wreck of Michel Gallimard’s Facel Vega near the town of Villeblevin, France. Still from Il y a 60 ans, Albert Camus perdait la vie dans un accident dans l’Yonne. France 3.

In his most recent column, CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair noted the resurrection of an old theory that the KGB had a hand in the death of the French writer Albert Camus. Here’s why that’s unlikely.

1. “The Rebel” is a great book.

2. I don’t like Sartre, he did nothing for the Resistance (Camus did much), and nothing worthwhile against postwar Stalinism (Camus did much), and his gal-pal was a sexual predator.

3. I could easily believe Stalin putting a hit on Camus, but not Khrushchev (key point).

4. The Facel Vega model car Camus was killed in was:

– heavy (1.75 tons, 3500 lb),

– had drum brakes (which “fade” – lose stopping ability because of friction heating during heavy use – significantly more than disc brakes, which were first adopted by Jaguar in 1955, following airplane practice, and increasingly by others thereafter),

– was nose heavy, because of its big Chrysler V8 front engine, and which leads to “oversteering” – swinging wider than intended by the angle of the steering wheel (meaning you have to “understeer” as you go into a turn at speed, to go where you want) – which is why race car manufacturers (the best ones) increasingly went to mid-engine configurations after 1960-1963,

– had an “ox cart” rear suspension (live axle with semi elliptic leaf springs), the rear configuration least adept for precise “handling” (response to road surface conditions/bumpiness, response for precise directionality of the vehicle), but the front suspension (independent) was pretty good,

– fast because despite its high weight, it had lots of horsepower (250hp, thus 14lb/hp), up to to 120-128mph top speed,

– does not appear to have had any seat belts (and air bags were ~20 years in the future).

An experienced driver (like a race driver) of the day would know how far to go in balancing:

– speed,

– steering wheel angle,

– progressive and anticipatory braking (to avoid brake fade from a last-second panic-braking stomp, something now done by ABS: automatic braking systems WITH disc brakes), and

– control sliding (which is highly dependent on road surface, dust-dirt and especially water and ice cover making sliding much more dangerous and very easily uncontrollable).

So I think that:

– Camus’ publisher and the owner of the car was unlikely to have had driving skill as refined as a competition driver of the 1950s,

– that a wealthy and self-satisfied “hot” luxury car owner could easily drive in a manner beyond his skill level (this remains routine),

– that the car in question had a much lower threshold of uncontrollability than cars of subsequent years, and especially of even the most modest of budget cars today,

– and that this type of car lacked all of the safety improvement that have been developed since “Unsafe At Any Speed.”

So my estimation is that Camus died as a result of car crash in a powerful fast heavy slow-braking poor-handling no-safety-equipment luxury car driven too fast for the skill level of its wealthy owner-driver. In brief: DRIVER ERROR.


Manuel Garcia Jr, once a physicist, is now a lazy househusband who writes out his analyses of physical or societal problems or interactions. He can be reached at mangogarcia@att.net