Are old cars safe?

By Wade O'Leary on 02 April 2015
2 old cars crash
Old Cars Safety
It’s one of the most persistent myths in motoring: old cars are as solid as rocks and can crush new cars like beer cans.

The misconception arises from the recent development of the crumple zone, where designated parts of modern cars lose their shape under even minor impacts.

But what appears to be a weakness is actually a strength – crumple zones absorb energy and effectively sacrifice themselves for the sake of the passenger compartment, the safety and rigidity of which is constantly increasing with every new model.

It’s one of the fundamental design principles promoted by organisations like ANCAP and its international car safety partners, including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) in the United States.

But despite decades of innovation and improvement through rigorous testing, the myth of the tough old car persisted – so the IIHS created this truly shocking video to disprove it:
The vehicles involved are a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu (sold in Australia by Holden since 2013) and a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air, an iconic sedan featured locally in the original Mad Max movie.

The cars are crashed into each other in a 40 per cent offset collision at 64km/h, which is what ANCAP’s frontal offset collision test seeks to replicate – most recently and notoriously when the new Kia Carnival was scored only four stars.

The Malibu, which was rated five stars by ANCAP in 2013, behaves as you’d expect with the front of the car being crushed while the passenger compartment remains intact.

By comparison, what happens to the Bel Air is nothing short of terrifying. Even the dryly technical IIHS description of the impact captures the gut-wrenching terror of what would surely be the driver’s final seconds of life:

Dummy movement wasn’t well controlled, and there was far too much upward and rearward movement of the steering wheel. The dummy’s head struck the steering wheel rim and hub and then the roof and unpadded metal instrument panel to the left of the steering wheel.

During rebound, the dummy’s head remained in contact with the roof and slid rearward and somewhat inward. The windshield was completely dislodged from the car and the driver door opened during the crash, both presenting a risk of ejection. In addition, the front bench seat was torn away from the floor on the driver side.

In other words, it’s hard to say whether the driver would’ve been killed first by brain damage, a broken neck, multiple organ failure or blood loss from leg amputation.

In terms of the car’s structure, the impact pushes the engine into the footwells while the A-frame and chassis rail simply disintegrate back beyond the line of the roof.

“The Bel Air collapsed,” said David Zuby, the senior vice president for the IIHS’s vehicle research centre.

“The area in which the driver was sitting collapsed completely around him.”

The test was to mark the 50th anniversary in 2009 of the IIHS, a group funded by the US insurance industry.

The idea was to show how much automotive safety had progressed in five decades, particularly since the IIHS – in partnership with ANCAP and other national road safety bodies – started crash testing in earnest in 1992.

And while the test is now six years old, its message is as pressing as ever: buy the newest, safest car that you can afford and drive as carefully as you can.