They Don’t Make ’em Like They Used To

The 1959 Chevy Bel Air, while not quite the iconic classic of its 1955-1957 forebears, is nonetheless a large, muscular vehicle from the Golden Age of the American automobile.  The 2009 Chevy Malibu, by contrast, is a wimpy, nondescript midsize sedan that provides basic transportation but not much more.  

Which would you rather crash in?  Right you are:

As Robert Farago summarizes:

This is a sick way for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) to “celebrate” its 50th anniversary, but we do love us some crash test video. Apparently, “the driver of the 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air would have been killed instantly while the 2009 Chevrolet Malibu’s driver would walk away with a minor knee injury.”

Via Glenn Reynolds

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. odograph says:

    I’m really sorry to hijack … it is a hijack even though I could claim a tenuous “safety” connection.

    Please James, cover this:

    Lack of insurance causes more than 44,000 U.S. deaths annually, study says

    At Scientific American no less.

  2. Furhead says:

    You could send James an e-mail, you know.

    Anyway, this video was a great idea. It shows that you don’t necessarily need just a big chunk of iron around you to keep your family safe (in fact a big SUV tends to be just as dangerous because of the rollover factor).

    If we can keep bringing down the cost of carbon fiber and start using it more for the survival cell, we’ll be both safer and use less oil.

  3. odograph says:

    Sometimes I skirt social convention …

  4. floyd says:


    Well maybe it’s “fenderskirting” social convention but,
    “The study(link below) found that an estimated 98,000 people die from preventable medical errors each year. How many is that? To put it in perspective, the article noted that:

    More Americans die each month of preventable medical errors than died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

    Or, as Dennis Quaid put it, it’s the equivalent of a full 747 crashing every day.

    Or, as those of us that are football fans might think of, it’s the equivalent of a full Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium being killed.

    And to make it worse, in addition to those 98,000 dead, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that an additional 99,000 people a year die from infections acquired from hospitals. That’s almost 200,000 people a year killed by medical malpractice”….
    Maybe the uninsured are on the right side of the wager??

  5. odograph says:

    There is some 2000 year old graffiti in Rome, I think I’ve given the Latin here before, but it translates (in the more polite form, if you can imagine) as “shit well, avoid doctors.”

  6. Gustopher says:

    And I think we can all thank Ralph Nader for really pushing consumer safety, back in the day.

    And, of course, the nanny state.

  7. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, I think even in modern cars the “safety” of big cars is tremendously overrated. Even setting aside vehicles that don’t have to meet the car crash survival and avoidance standards because they are classified as trucks, the statistics given are usually in terms of surviving crashes once you are in them. But a few years ago the insurance industry published statistics on the likelihood of being in an accident in the first place and the bigger vehicles were much, much more likely (please don’t ask me for the reference – I’ve got to get some actual work done today:-) It certainly jibes with my experience in my Mini Cooper. I once rounded a corner on a twisting mountain highway to find a SUV’er making a three point turn – in the middle of an S curve blind from both directions. The stopping distance of that small car, plus ABS, stopped me about ten feet shy of the drivers door. A big SUV wouldn’t have stopped for another 70 feet.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    MarkedMan – For decades I’ve seen occasional statements that small vehicles are no more dangerous because of lower accident rates. Usually the articles include a lot of speculation about why, but I suspect it’s nothing more complicated than better avoidance capability, as you point out, and being a smaller target. Also, and I wish I remembered who to credit for this observation, people don’t buy SUVs because they’re confident in their driving skills.

  9. Drew says:

    Although the cars of yesteryear were large and employed thicker gage steels in skin panels than used today, they did not have the benefit of the advanced structural designs or the advanced materials in those structures used today.

    These frame components are now made of high strength, low alloy (HSLA) steels that have yield points measured at 60-80 ksi, rather than 30 ksi in normal low carbon AK sheet steels used in the 50’s. (with sufficient ductility to absorb much more energy in a collision)

    HSLA steels were commercialized in the late 80’s and it was quite a process engineering trick to control the steel making and then the cooling characteristics of hot strip mills and galvanizing lines to get the desired precipitation hardening effect from columbium and vanadium carbides and nitrides (the “low alloy”).

    But the practices were worked out and cars and their passengers are so much safer for it.

    Endeth the process metallurgy lesson.

    Oh, and you are welcome.

  10. Trumwill says:

    How in the world is this “sick”? This is a crash safety test. The kind of things that we would expect the IIHS to do! Obviously, this was advertising, but I think it illustrated a point quite well. I remember how much sturdier I felt in my old 1976 Chevy Caprice compared to my current 1998 Ford Escort. This is a pleasant reminder that I’m likely safer in the car that I drive.

    It’s a shame (although not “sick”) to ruin such a classic, though. Then again, the government has recently decided that classics are clunkers.

  11. Wayne says:

    I am a big fan of the crash engineering of today’s vehicle and believe they are safer than many of old vehicles. However I have problems with the video test. One I didn’t see the engine during the crash. How much did the strip down? Two it hit center line of the new vehicle and not the old. How would they fair and a straight head on or even off center impact of the new vehicle?

    Yes smaller vehicles may have less accidents but what is the comparisons when they do?

  12. Furhead says:

    Well if you got the original YouTube, the guy who posts it insists repeatedly that the Bel Air has its engine. It’s doubtful that it fills up the bay as modern cars tend to.

    It’s true that smaller vehicles tend to fair worse in accidents (again, assuming that the bigger vehicle doesn’t roll over) – you can’t defy physics after all. More material to deform plus a larger crumple zone is obviously going to mean less energy imparted on the occupants.

    But there’s a cost/benefit analysis – we could all be fairly safe driving around in tanks, but it would cost a ton and look stupid. Of course, Hummer drivers don’t seem to mind those drawbacks.

  13. Wayne says:

    Quite possible on the engine, most were pretty small back in 59.

    One of the post from the link I agree with.
    “IIRC, those 59-60 GM cars with the X frames were always horrible in collisions. As much as I would hate to lose the cars, I would love to see that same crash tried with a Ford or Plymouth with a ladder frame.”

    Just to throw this out for fun, riding around in tanks would results in many more busted teeth and bones. There are plusses and minuses in everything. I just get annoyed when someone states something is the ultimate and won’t acknowledge its negatives.

  14. sam says:

    I would rather hit a fireplug in a 57 Chevy than in a 09 whatever…of course, only on condition that in was 1957 and I was 16 again.

  15. Wayne says:

    Input of a little personal experience. We hit a corner fence post while driving at a good clip through weeds in a 59 International pick up that doesn’t have power steering. Hurt like hell but didn’t do much damage to the pickup. Do that with a new pickup and we would have total it. Like I say, everything is a trade-off. If we were seriously hurt the today pickup would have been a better choice. In “this case” the old one was.

  16. sam says:

    It’s true that smaller vehicles tend to fair worse in accidents

    During the last gas “crisis”, a lot of folks where I live bought “Smart Cars”–ever see one of those things? Jeeeezus!

  17. odograph says:

    I remember giving you guys the NHSA study before, safety varies with design more than weight. A camry isn’t 5 stars because it’s the biggest.

  18. odograph says:

    Another way to put it would be that you buy a car that “feels” safe, that’s what you get.

  19. Here in Southern California we have quite a few 1950’s and early 60’s era cars still on the road. I drive a 2008 Audi A6.

    I am going to tear through those bitches like a knife through butter. Yeah, baby, bring it!

  20. Drew says:

    You need to see somebody, Michael.

  21. Drew says:

    Leaving seat belts aside…

    Go look at the frame that surrounds the driver of an Indianapolis style racing car today. Observe the energy absorbing design features.

    Go go do the same in a modern passenger automobile and compare with older cars.

    Rethink your desire to crash in a 57 Chevy.