There is a common perception that old cars from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were built tougher and stronger than modern cars. Some people believe that modern cars crumple more easily in crashes while old cars held up better due to their sturdy steel construction. But is this actually true? Do old cars have stronger frames and bodies than new cars? Or are modern cars actually safer thanks to advanced engineering and materials?
Materials used in old vs new cars
Old cars from the 50s through the 80s were typically built using steel frames and bodies. High strength and thick gauge sheet metal was used to construct the chassis, body panels, bumpers and other components. This made old cars very heavy but also very durable in crashes. However, steel has some disadvantages: it can bend and deform on impact, it can corrode over time, and it adds a lot of weight to the vehicle.
Modern cars today increasingly use lighter and stronger materials like high strength steel, aluminum alloys, magnesium alloys, carbon fiber, and plastics and composites. High strength steel has greater tensile strength which allows car makers to use thinner and lighter gauges while maintaining strength. Aluminum is also lightweight while having good impact absorption properties. Carbon fiber is an ultra lightweight but very strong material used in exotic sports cars. Plastics and fiber reinforced polymers are lightweight and resistant to cracking and deformation.
The mix of materials in modern cars results in lighter and more fuel efficient vehicles. But there are tradeoffs – plastics and thinner metals will never be as rugged as the thick steel used in old cars. Next we’ll look at how these different material properties affect real-world safety and crashworthiness.
Crash test comparisons
There have been a number of studies and crash tests done comparing old cars versus newer cars in collisions:
IIHS 50th anniversary crash test study
In 2009, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted a series of crash tests pitting old cars versus new cars. They tested collision performance on cars from the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1990s and 2000s. The video of the crash test is dramatic – in a head-on collision at 40 mph, the 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air crumples in a rear-end collision while the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu maintains its structural integrity.
The results showed that compared to the older cars, newer cars had much stronger occupant compartments that held up very well in crashes. The front and rear crush zones collapsed and absorbed energy as designed, while the occupant compartment remained intact. According to the IIHS, death rates in late model cars have fallen by more than 50% compared to vehicles from the late 80s and earlier.
North Carolina study on vehicle age and driver fatalities
A study by North Carolina State University looked at decades of vehicle registrations and traffic fatalities. They found a steady decrease in driver deaths from vehicles made in later model years:
|Vehicle year||Driver deaths per million registered vehicles|
The rate of driver fatalities per million registered vehicles decreased by 41% from 1979 to 1996 model years. This shows a clear improvement in vehicle safety over time as automakers incorporated new technologies and design improvements.
frontal offset crash tests
In 1995, the IIHS began conducting a brutal frontal offset crash test which impacts just 40% of the driver side of the car. This kind of impact is very common in the real world but was not part of earlier crash testing. When put through these tests, many older car models sustained considerable intrusion into the occupant compartment. In some cases the steering wheel or dashboard collapsed directly into the driver seat area – which would likely result in serious injury or death.
Safety features – old vs new
Beyond basic structural design, modern cars also have vastly improved safety features compared to old cars:
While airbags first appeared in the 1970s, they only really became widespread in the 90s. Today’s cars contain multiple front, side and curtain airbags to protect passengers in a crash. Old cars had little or no airbag protection.
ABS and stability control
Anti-lock brakes help drivers maintain steering control under heavy braking. Electronic stability control uses automatic braking to prevent dangerous skids. These technologies first appeared in the 90s and 2000s and have prevented countless accidents and saved lives. Old cars lacked any sort of electronic braking aids.
Handling and traction
Advances in suspension design, tire technology and weight distribution lead to better handling and traction in modern cars. Features like anti-roll bars, rack and pinion steering and low profile tires greatly improve road grip and make cars safer to maneuver at high speeds. Old car designs lacked many of these features and were more prone to loss of control.
While seat belts first appeared in the 1950s, earlier designs were very basic compared the modern 3-point seat belt which became widespread in the 1970s. Old cars often lacked head restraints and proper mounting points for shoulder belts. Modern 3-point belts with pre-tensioners and force limiters provide much more effective restraint in a crash.
Safety cage design
Modern cars have “safety cage” construction designed to channel impact forces around the passenger compartment. They have collapse zones in front and rear to absorb energy. Old cars lacked proper crumple zones and the occupant area was not as strongly reinforced.
Why did old cars seem stronger?
Given the evidence, why do many people still believe old cars were so much sturdier and safer? Some possible factors:
Nostalgia and perception
People may remember old cars from their youth with fondness and exaggerate their durability. Seeing an old car still on the road 50 years later creates the impressing it is solidly built.
Heavy steel construction gave older cars a very rigid, solid feel compared to light, nimble modern cars. This can be perceived as being stronger.
Style of crashes
In high speed crashes, old cars tended to stay intact with severe front or rear deformation. Modern cars are designed to collapse in a controlled, energy absorbing way across the entire front or rear. This difference in visual damage can give the impression that old cars held up better.
Since only the surviving old cars are still around today, we tend to overlook the many weaker cars that have been sent to the scrap yard after accidents or due to corrosion. We simply don’t see all the old cars that were totaled and crushed decades ago.
Are old cars actually stronger?
Looking at the evidence, old cars are clearly NOT stronger or safer overall compared to modern cars. While they may “look” stronger due to their heavy steel construction, they lack the advanced engineering and materials that improve collision protection in modern cars. Features like safety cages, crumple zones and high strength steel provide much better protection in crashes. Advanced handling, braking and control systems also make modern cars far less likely to get into serious crashes in the first place.
Crash data confirms that driver fatality rates have dramatically decreased with newer model year cars. Modern safety features like airbags, ABS and stability control have also saved countless lives over the years. While old cars may bring back fond memories, the reality is that new cars provide a much safer driving experience thanks to modern engineering and technology.
Old cars built in the 1950s through 1980s used heavy steel construction and lacked modern safety features like airbags, ABS, crumple zones and advanced chassis design. While they seemed very sturdy, old cars perform poorly in crash tests compared to new cars. Data shows huge declines in traffic fatalities as automakers adopted new technologies over time. Although many people perceive old cars as being stronger, the reality is that modern cars are vastly safer thanks to advanced engineering, design and materials. While old cars may hold nostalgic value, modern cars truly embody “safety first” thanks to decades of research, testing and improvement.