One of the most common things I hear when talking to people who have no particular interest in cars is, “They don’t make them like they used to.” The comment usually follows a crash involving a new car and an old one. A crash that’s resulted in a huge amount of damage to the front of a new car, yet has created only minor dents in the rear of the old one.

The crash has usually been a small one, probably with at a speed of under 15 km/h. A typical suburban bingle, usually caused by inattention and driving too close to the car in front. One that will cost thousands of dollars to repair in the newer car and possibly only a quarter as much for the older one.

On the face of it the new car shapes up very badly. So it comes as a surprise to non-car people to learn that teams of engineers have spent tens of millions of dollars to ensure their car crumples as much as possible in a collision. Which is done to ensure people now survive crashes that previously would have caused death or serious injury.

The longer a crash can be prolonged and the more damage is spread across the front of the car the better the chances of the occupants getting out with minimal injury.

Indeed, I’ve been known to point out to the complainer that they are talking to me from their home or office – not from the hospital bed where they expect to spend the next few months of their lives…

The latest occupant protection technology can be complex and fascinating. In some of the latest designs, cars are built to collapse in stages. In a carpark-type ding only the bumpers are damaged. In a bigger crash components called ‘crash-cans’ are fitted behind the bumpers, and are sacrificed to absorb collision energy. These cans are reasonably easy to replace, usually being bolted on rather than being welded into place.

In really big smashes the only thing that matters is saving the driver and passengers, body repair cost is irrelevant, of the car is a write off, then so be it.

The design of the car is such that maximum damage is done to the non-passenger areas and the interior of the cabin is protected as much as possible.

The trouble is that in the vast majority of cases, crashes are at low speeds and the crumpling of the front is largely unnecessary. The damage adds to repair costs and to your insurance premiums.

If only car makers had an accurate crystal ball so they knew which cars were going to be in big smashes they could trim a lot of the expense out of their products and save us all a fortune.

Makers of reliable crystal balls are more than welcome to contact me!

About Ewan Kennedy

Ewan Kennedy, a long-time car enthusiast, was Technical Research Librarian with the NRMA from 1970 until 1985. He worked part-time as a freelance motoring journalist from 1977 until 1985, when he took a full-time position as Technical Editor with Modern Motor magazine. Late in 1987 he left to set up a full-time business as a freelance motoring journalist. Ewan is an associate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers - International. An economy driving expert, he set the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance travelled in a standard road vehicle on a single fuel fill. He lists his hobbies as stage acting, travelling, boating and reading.
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