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?
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.