Bigger Isn’t Always Better

“They sure don’t make them like they used to.” How many times have you heard that about vintage cars? According to those that believe in the “good old days,” cars were simpler and more solid years ago. And those old road-locomotives could take a hit. There was so much metal in the cars of the 50s and 60s cars that the driver and passengers were basically surrounded in a metal cage -in complete safety. Problem was: it’s not true.

Sure, today’s cars are lighter and smaller than the cars of yesteryear but the two are very different animals. As our technical consultant at Mr. Ed of Phoenix, AZ explained to us, today’s cars are designed to protect the occupants with dozens and dozens of technology features. For example, today’s cars are designed with complex “crumple-zones” that allow the force of an impact to be absorbed during collisions. Engines are designed with breakaway motor-mounts that allow the engine to be pushed under the car in the event of an accident (not into the passenger apartment.) And of course, air bags instantly deploy all around car’s today to protect passengers during collisions. Still, with all that safety technology in place today, you will find many people who will still insist that a big, old heavy car is the best protection.

Enter the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS.) The IIHS is an independent, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to reducing the losses (deaths, injuries and property damage) from automobile crashes. IIHS research focuses on three main areas: human factors (changing driver behavior); vehicle factors (optimizing vehicle design); and external factors (changing roadway design, signs, and signals.) The results of IIHS research is freely shared with anyone interested such as the Federal Government, car manufacturers and state and local agencies.

So, back to vintage car safety. As it turns out we have a wonderful case study of new car vs big, old vintage car. In 2009, in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of it’s founding, the IIHS decided to test the safety of a 1950s car. The hypothesis was that despite the size and weight advantage of an old car, that a new car would be safer in a head-on collision. To test this hypothesis, two cars were selected: a brand new (at the time) 2009 Chevrolet 4-door Malibu and a fully operational 1959 Chevy BelAir 4-door sedan.

On Sept 9th, 2009, in a professional crash testing lab, the 1959 BelAir and 2009 Malibu were outfitted with crash dummies and sensors. The two were then accelerated to 40mph and smashed directly into each other. The results were quite striking.

“It was night and day, the difference in occupant protection,” says Institute president Adrian Lund. On the 1959 BelAir, the windshield dislodges, the driver’s door opens and the front half of the Bel Air goes through something between crumbling as the dummy in the driver’s gets it’s legs smashed up against its chest. Conversely, the front end of the 2009 Chevy Malibu gets smashed up good but the passenger compartment is completely intact. It looks like the driver and passengers would be capable of walking away.

So, the conclusion of this new vs old crash is quite clear cut. Today’s cars are light-years ahead of the “good old days.” It may not seem obvious but see what happens in a collision such as the one performed by the IIHS and you can see for yourself.