Old Car Safety
The O Pine

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© 2002 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

The Bronze Age, yep, those were the days.
There's a certain breed of car person who always seems to pine for the old days. You know the guy; he's the one who claims carburetors are better than electronic fuel injection because they're easy to work on -- conveniently overlooking the fact that carburetors need to be adjusted a couple of times a year to run optimally, whereas a good EFI system will need to be adjusted... well, never.

This automotive Luddite is also likely to say something along the lines of "If I'm ever in an accident, I'd much rather be in some old tank than in one of these modern tin cans." Press for details and he'll get defensive, with a line like "Hey, if a Honda gets hit by a 1968 Chrysler Newport, which do you think is gonna come out better?"

The underlying assumption here, outside of the hyperbole, is that today's cars are featherweights compared to their peers of thirty years ago. However, there is little evidence to support that assumption. To find out the truth, three drivers put four cars on the same scale. Each car had a full tank of gas; after weighing the car, the drivers deducted their own weight and the weight of the gas to arrive at a "dry weight" of just the car with nobody in it and no fuel on board.

The 1998 Pontiac Firebird Formula checked in at 3,345 lbs.; the 1995 Ford Mustang GT checked in at 3,325 lbs.; the 1992 Eagle Talon TSi AWD saw 3,265 lbs.; and the 1970 Dodge Charger saw 3,485 lbs. There's only 140 extra pounds in the Charger compared to the Firebird, despite the Charger's extra inch and a half of height, two inches of width, and fifteen inches of length! Old cars may be large, but they're also hollow.

Another way to look at it is to compare curb weights of vehicles that served the same purpose then and now. The curb weight of a 2002 Chevy Camaro Z28 is 3,439 lbs.; the curb weight of a 350-powered 1967 Camaro was 3,384 lbs. -- the two cars weigh nearly the same. A 1964 Chevy Impala weighed 3,450 lbs.; today's Impala weighs 3,466 lbs. -- again, nearly identical. A 1962 Mini weighs 1,400 lbs.; a 2002 Mini weighs 2,500 lbs. -- darn close to double, which suggests that smaller cars have seen the greatest weight gain. The Beetle faces a similar girth problem, going from 1,720 lbs. in the 1960s to 3,005 lbs. today.

So where are these modern tin cans?

Then there's the question of technology. There's a lot of stuff going on under the skin of today's cars than there was 30 years ago, which helps explain why today's cars are so heavy. This chart points out many of the differences between two cars with relatively similar purposes:

1998 Pontiac Firebird Formula

1970 Dodge Charger
Brakes:Four-wheel power-assist disc brakes with twin-piston calipers and vented discs up front; ABS standard; traction control optional.Four-wheel manual drum brakes. Power assist, and front-only discs, optional. In rain, be sure to check adjacent lanes before using brakes.
Tires:245/50ZR16 high-performance radial tires mounted to 16x8 wheels.Bias-ply tires mounted to 15x5.5 wheels. Roughly equivalent to 195/70R15. Check for mailboxes before cornering.
Body:5-mph bumpers with impact-absorbing crush zones; crumple zones to keep the engine off the occupants; side-impact door beams.Er, two big metal bars: one front, one rear.
Interior:Padded dashboard, dual airbags, headrests for all passengers, and three-point inertia-reel seatbelts for all passengers.Padded dashboard and lap belts. Aren't steering wheels yummy.

Clearly, the late-model car is superior both for surviving an accident and -- perhaps most importantly -- for avoiding one to begin with. Add these features to the myth of the old-car weight advantage, and it's hard to imagine why anyone would prefer to be in an accident with an old car.

Usually, such assertions use a grossly outmatched "victim" car, such as a 1966 Cadillac Sedan de Ville against a 1990 Plymouth Duster, which makes the choice obvious. But the analogy can be just as easily turned around: which car is going to come out ahead in a collision betwen a 1971 Ford Pinto and a 1995 Lincoln Town Car?

Compare vehicles of similar purpose, and see which one is the obvious choice:

  • How will it feel to suffer a rollover in a 2001 Land Rover, as compared to a rollover in a 1961 Land Rover?
  • If a 2002 Camaro and a 1967 Camaro both go into a corner too fast, which has a better chance of staying on the pavement?
  • If a driver is forced off the road and hits a telephone pole, is he more likely to survive in a Mini built in the 1960s or in a Mini built in the 2000s?

Old cars are great fun, but it's important to recognize their limitations. And collision safety is definitely a limitation.