Thank goodness they don’t make cars like they used to

When I was in college in the 1980s, I knew someone who owned a 1962 Chevy Impala. He took a bunch of us to a drive-in movie in it once. We sat on the car to watch the movie, with several guys on the hood and a couple of us on the roof. The sheet metal easliy supported our collective weight. We talked about how “they used to make cars out of real steel, not this paper-thin stuff they use today.” If we had tried to sit all over my 1983 Renault Alliance or a friend’s 1985 Honda Civic, the cars would have had to visit a body shop afterward. How, we all wondered, could our modern cars possibly be safer than this rock-solid old Chevy?

1962 Chevrolet Impala SS a
1962 Chevrolet Impala

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in honor of its 50th year, has forever answered that question by deliberately crashing a 1959 Chevy Bel Air into a 2009 Chevy Malibu. If you’ve ever doubted the safety of today’s cars over yesterday’s, watch this video.

If you’re a classic car lover as I am, first you will need to get over the shock of watching this vintage automobile being destroyed. Breathe, just breathe.

Then compare what happens in the cabins of these two cars. In the old Bel Air, the dash buckles in and the steering column becomes a battering ram to the crash-test dummy’s face. The seat even pops loose, sending the dummy flying up toward the roof. In the new Malibu, there was no intruding dashboard, no projectile steering column, no dislodged seats. The cockpit remained intact, as it was designed to do, while the rest of the car absorbed much of the blow. The airbag shielded the dummy from smacking into the steering wheel.

The IIHS says that if a real person had been driving the Bel Air, he would have died instantly. A real person driving the Malibu would have suffered a knee injury.

You may recall that my car was totaled in an accident in April. As the other car struck us I watched my right front fender peel off and twist like so much aluminum foil. When we got out of the car, we found the rear passenger door and the frame around it crumpled if it were a discarded Coke can. My youngest son sat inches from the worst impact, yet he had not a scratch on him; he didn’t even understand that we’d been in an accident until we got out of the car and saw the damage. We all walked away, thanks to the safety engineering designed into the car.


11 responses to “Thank goodness they don’t make cars like they used to”

  1. Michael Avatar

    I’d like to see how one of those tiny Smart cars would fare against an SUV. :) That was an interesting video. It focused too much on the Bel Air, but I suppose that was their point.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I saw a crash video where a Smart car hit a barrier head on at 30 mph. The car literally bounced off it, flying briefly through the air.

  2. Lone Primate Avatar

    Wow, Jim, thank you; that’s phenomenal! Honestly, I would never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. My instinct would be that the Bel Air would have creamed a latter day Malibu simply by the transference of inertia from a much heavier, sturdier object to a lighter one. All due praise to the modern designers of crumple zones, airbags, etc.

    I’m no aficionado of classic cars — I tell a Mustang from a Beetle, but not much more — but even I could barely believe they were doing that to such a scarce car. Still, I guess they wanted to see if their work amounted to anything concrete. This is one test you’d want to get right the first time! :)

    When I was a kid they used to show us this film in school just about annually called “The Human Collision”, and it was aimed at getting us to wear seat belts, which wasn’t a legal requirement at the time. We always did in my family. I vaguely remember when shoulder belts came in for the front seats… everyone looked like an astronaut. :)

    Other people learned in other ways… I have a friend who’s roughly a generation older than me who used to work in a photo development shop, and the local highway cops used to have him develop the rolls of accident investigations. He saw stuff in late 60s and 70s he’ll never forget. He’s said to me he’s half sure the Big Three designed the do-dads in the cockpit to do you in in the case of an accident, and I think I remember reading something like that by John DeLorean to the effect that the cynical thinking at the time was the less likely someone was to survive a crash, the less likely [company name here] was to get sued. Dead people don’t require months or years of expensive hospitalization… just a box and a hole. :(

    Nice to see some attitudes have changed. Thanks for this. :)

    1. Jim Avatar

      I wonder now whether the ’59 might have had more damage because of the ’09’s stiffer cabin!

      I was also surprised that the ’09, while 19.1 inches shorter and 19.9 inches narrower, weighs only 263 pounds less.

      1959: 3,678 lbs, 210.9 in long, 56 in high, 79.9 in wide
      2009: 3,415 lbs, 191.8 in long, 57.1 in high, 60 in wide

      1. Lone Primate Avatar

        The minimal weight difference IS surprising. The only thing I can think of is that today’s cars have a lot more glass. I’m amazed it’s only 3/4 as wide, though. How did anyone ever park one of those things and open the doors?

        1. Jim Avatar

          Cars are heavier in large part because of all the safety equipment — side braces, airbags, etc. And in the old days, parking spaces were wider! I remember in the 80s when parking spaces started to be repainted narrower.

        2. Jim Avatar

          Oh, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the ’09 has as much interior room as the ’59. (I couldn’t quickly find info online about it.)

      2. Michael Avatar

        Wow, that’s a huge difference in dimensional specs. The Malibu must fare so well in the crash because it’s denser! :) No wonder Paul Ford mentioned not liking the National Road – it WAS dangerous to drive on such narrow roads with such wide cars.

        1. Jim Avatar

          I goofed – the Malibu is 70.3 in. wide — the 60-inch figure is tread width. Still, the ’59 is almost a foot wider. My old car, which was 69.9 in. wide, took up a whole lot of the National Road in Illinois…

          Abandoned National Road

  3. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    What a video Jim, glad I never put in for that crash test dummy job back a few years ago !!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Well, just know that if you ever do take that job, you want to be the one in the ’09 Malibu, not the ’59 Bel Air!

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