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

Originally published 12 October 2009. 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.

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

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    The technology involved in both the addition of “crush zones” that absorb a lot of the impact in an accident, as well as making the cars more aerodynamic resulting in fuel savings, also unfortunately ends up making cars look fairly similar. We’re unlikely to ever again see some of what we used to consider the beauty of older designs, including “stabby” fins, and wild knob designs in the cabin.

    To add insult to injury, I used to know a person associated with an old car club when I lived in Zionsville, and she mentioned the seemingly shared memory of the rock-solid dependability of 50’s and 60’s American cars is somewhat fiction. It wasn’t unusual in the era for people to ride mass trans like the trolley or bus, to work, and use their cars on the weekend alone for family outings. In addition, most people had not joined the exodus to the suburbs until maybe the late 60’s, and if they did drive to work, maybe drove a few miles. This resulted in very low mileage counts for a years use, compared to my 20’s to 50’s, when i easily could clock 100k in four years! She told me that the fifties era cars her family owned, if they put any “modern” mileage on them, were under constant repair, with a constant search for NOS parts, or hopefully remanufactured parts using more modern materials and methods.

    I always lusted after my Dads old 66 Plymouth Fury, especially a convertible if I could find one, but for daily use, I say thank the gods of innovation for fuel injection, disc brakes and electronic ignition! I remember my teens with complicated and “stumble” carburetors, that may or may not start on a cold day, or any day for that matter!

    1. tbm3fan Avatar

      Actually I find my 65 F100, 68 Cougar, and 68 Mustang to be very reliable when you do your maintenance which many don’t.The Cougar in 55 years has never let me down nor the Mustang in 35 years. Of course I was the owner which was the difference. Outside of a power steering pump, alternator, A/C compressor there isn’t much to go wrong in the engine compartment. Wiring simple with no ECU, sensor, or miles of wire which can be the downfall of today’s cars. Mileage, handling and their safety are great so don’t get me wrong however I don’t think you’ll see a 2020 car on the road in 2070 like my Cougar.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        I remember my dad’s 60s and 70s cars needing minor repairs far more often than any car I’ve owned , ever. However when my modern cars do break down, they don’t play around and suddenly I’m out a grand.

      2. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Sorry TBM, this is one of my bug-a-boos about American car people: “…outside of a steering pump, alternator, and A/C compressor….” . Three Toyotas, 200,000 miles each…and nothing, nothing, except tires, tune-ups, brakes, belts, battery (not even hoses). They’re always telling me about how dependable their American cars are, and that the only thing that goes wrong is the “usual”…but that’s every car, right? And then they give me a list of the “usual”, none of which has ever gone wrong on those three Toyotas. Sure, my last Toyota, not so hot, they seemed to lose their mojo with the cheaper cars they make. I’ll match my ‘87 and ‘93 against any thing for dependability, tho…

        1. tbm3fan Avatar

          American car people? I think not. I am a car guy and know cars quite well. Their good points and their bad points whether foreign or domestic. You were the one to knock American cars in general and I needed to correct. Now you knock me concerning foreign cars when there have been many foreign cars in my family. Need to correct you there also.The Japanese cars were all fine except my first 1980 Civic. The Audi and BMW were a big pain in the ass maintenance wise and cost wise. One could say that I am equivalent to a gardener with the green thumb when it comes to cars since mine always last. As for 100000 miles I’ll note my Park Lane is now having its original engine rebuilt… at 154,000 miles.

          1. Andy Umbo Avatar
            Andy Umbo

            Never rebuilt any car engine, and had my Japanese cars until 200,000. You are correct about German cars as well, never saw one that wasn’t constantly under some sort of repair, altho early Bugs were cheap to do. You are also correct about my dislike for american cars. The American car industry philosophy has gone from building OK cars, to building junk, to building stuff that is relatively trouble free through the first lease period. I am proudly NOT a car guy, and hence do not gloss over problematic stuff. I used to build motorcycles into cafe racers in the 70’s, and I used to work on my Triumph TR-4 and GT 6 Mk3 in the 70’s as well, but consider picking up a wrench, unless I’m doing something like restoring a vintage Jaguar, a bore.

            You assume a personal attack on my part, which says a lot as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know you, and couldn’t care less about your car habits at all. I certainly wouldn’t attack you personally about anything. I am describing the anti-Japanese arguments I’ve had since the mid 70’s growing up in primarily blue collar town, with people who wouldn’t accurately describe their problems with American cars. People who didn’t think you were a man unless you worked on your own car, and I would see laying out under their American cars in a snow bank on ten degree days, trying to get the thing started, or the brakes to work, while I motored by. I’m just describing the highly defensive, and highly inaccurate psyche of those people, and how they refused to admit, or glossed over, all the small to large problems they’ve had over the years with American cars. Toyota and Honda didn’t get where they are today being similar to American car offerings. They got there being markedly better than American offerings. My Dad was shot to smithereens fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal, and vowed never to own a Japanese car, and passed away owning a Toyota Corolla.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember as a kid that at 100000 miles, a car was spent. Even here in Indiana where there is no good public transport, we didn’t drive nearly as much then as now.

  2. Doug Anderson Avatar

    Wow! A real eve opener. Thanks for posting.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Quite something, isn’t it!

  3. Jon Franklin Avatar
    Jon Franklin

    Wow! Makes you think! My other car is 1967 Ford galaxy. After watching this, makes me think twice about highway driving.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Lonely two-lane highways are your friend!!

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Stay away from those three lane “suicide” highways, tho! Still some around….

  4. Warren W Jenkins Avatar
    Warren W Jenkins

    As far as my family was concerned, “Unsafe at any Speed” by Ralph Nader was no joke!
    In June, 1969, my family was in our just-obtained 1966 Plymouth Fury station wagon, headed west on old RT40 (National Road), in Clarysville, Md. This is about 2 miles east of Frostburg, mountainous Allegany County.
    My mother was at the wheel, with 10 yr.old me riding shotgun, no seatbelts. Speed was about 50mph.
    A Chevy Corvair coming east lost control, crossed the center line, and hit us head-on. All I remember seeing in the evening twi-light was a pair of headlights coming straight at us.
    The Corvair bounced off our car and slammed sideways into the guardrail behind us.
    2 MD. State troopers responded to a call, 1 was on scene almost immediately, the other came lights/siren. The 55 yr. old woman driving the Corvair was injured severely. There were no local rescue squads operating in that area at that time, no ambulances were available, either from local funeral homes or a private service 12 miles away. A volunteer fire company 1,000 ft. away did not respond.
    The 2 troopers and several bystanders (there was lots) carried the woman to a cruiser, and she was taken to a hospital 10 miles away.
    The trooper remaining on scene did a quick investigation, and conferred with tow truck operators when they arrived.
    He then loaded the 5 of us into his cruiser and we were taken to our family doctor’s office in Frostburg, who had office hours that evening.
    I was diagnosed with a concussion (hit head on dash), my mother had chest bruises (steering wheel impact).My father and 2 brothers in rear seat were essentially unhurt.
    After seeing our totalled Fury, we were all thankful that things were not worse. Seatbelts would have helped, but nobody wore them in 1969.
    Today in MD. an accident like this would bring a full response of Fire, police, and EMS, my mother, myself, and the other driver would likely be in a trauma center.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Wow, that’s quite a harrowing story. EMS really was different in those days – not as available or comprehensive.

  5. brandib1977 Avatar

    My grandpa was killed by a drunk driver in 19&4. I don’t know what model his station was but I believe it to be about a 79 or 80 Ford. I was only about six at the time but I heard the adults talk about this head-on collision (adults say all kinds of things around an only child because they forget you’re a kid). They said the steering column when through his chest and he died on impact.

    As much as I love my old classics and would love to own one, the realities of cost of ownership and safety will likely always prevent that from happening.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That had to be one hell of a hard hit for the steering wheel to do that. I’m sorry you lost your grandfather that way. :-(

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        I know. I heard a lot as I
        My was growing up and as insurance lawsuits dragged on for a decade or longer.

        The other car was a bunch of young men- drunk and high- on their way home from a rock concert. Ironically, my grandpa was a minister who was on his way home from preaching a service.

        The commission occurred on a small rise and I am told that neither vehicle saw it coming. The impact was heard (but not seen) by a coworker friend of mine. He said the sound and the aftermath were horrific.

  6. Simon Hollander Avatar
    Simon Hollander

    As much as I hate to say it, I’m secretly glad that I don’t have room for a classic car. I love to see them and photograph them at car shows and admire their sweeping, sheet metal flanks, chrome wheels and whitewall tires plus the fact that they didn’t all look alike. They oozed class. The little foreign cars jitterbugged down the road and provided their own type of excitement. But do I really want to spend the rest of my life polishing chrome, trying to synchronize carburetors, or, depending on the car, endlessly searching the web for parts made of unobtanium? No, I don’t. Plus, many, especially the little foreign ones, came without the one accessory that I cannot live without: air conditioning.

    So, rather than owning a classic and watching frustration take the bloom off the rose, I’ll smile as I recall my adventures with classic cars during their era, including, for example, being stopped for speeding while driving my friend’s girlfriend’s 1967 Pontiac GTO. I miraculously talked my way out of a ticket but sat, frightened, through a loud warning.

    And there were fond moments, too. During the mid 1960s and beyond, NYC Sunday night radio tended toward news, current affairs, and Howard Cosell, who invited you to call in and give him the opportunity to listen to himself pontificate. To a dyed-in-the-wool, street corner acapella-singing doowop fan this wouldn’t do. So, with my girl at my side (if I was lucky), I would gently rub the thumb, forefinger and middle finger of my right hand to gather and, like a safecracker, gently turn the tuning dial, slowly moving the tuner along the AM band (the FM band was unheard of) searching for CKLW (Windsor, Ontario) or WKBW (Buffalo, NY), the only stations within reach that could be counted on to play the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons, the Temptations, Randy and the Rainbows, and more of that ilk on a Sunday night. Singing along, I blasted eastward then back on the Long Island Expressway, congratulating myself on once again scheduling my Monday classes at Queens College so that they began no earlier than noon. It was bliss.

    Like Howard Cosell, I guess I like to pontificate also, but I hope, in so doing, that I’ve stirred up some fond classic car memories for you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Maintenance is a major reason I haven’t bought a classic. I want it to be as reliable as my daily driver, and that’s not realistic.

      I can’t believe at least one NYC station didn’t counterprogram music on Sunday nights! They could have owned the airways.

      1. Simon Hollander Avatar
        Simon Hollander

        As I recall, by 1965 two of the four major rock and roll stations in NYC had changed format, so that took them out of the equation. I also seem to remember some govt. regulation requiring current affairs type broadcasting on Sunday nights. How this was deemed more important than rock and roll is beyond me.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          Things might have been different in the mid 60s, but when I was on the radio in the 80s and 90s you had to do public affairs programming, but could schedule it whenever you wanted. Sunday early morning became very popular.

          1. Simon Hollander Avatar
            Simon Hollander

            Some stations did, indeed, perform their civic responsibilities very late on Sunday night. I doubt, however, that Howard Cosell’s ego would have been ok with his show airing when few were listening. Plus he probably had such an expensive contract that station management wanted to inflict him on as many listeners as possible. Requiescat In Pace, Howard, and your toupee.

  7. J P Avatar

    I see the occasional story about someone who has an accident in a vintage car. The photos are scary and the injuries are significant. I drove many thousands of miles in pre-1970s cars and was fortunate to have never been in a crash with one.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You were fortunate indeed.

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