Home » Carmakers Once Cared About Damage From Minor Crashes And Now They Couldn’t Give A Damn

Carmakers Once Cared About Damage From Minor Crashes And Now They Couldn’t Give A Damn

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You know what I think is important for cars, but seems to be wildly uninteresting to the big companies that actually make cars? Forgiveness. Yes, dammit, forgiveness! Specifically cars that are forgiving of our all-too-human propensity to smack into things, sometimes. Really, it’s a wonder we don’t do it a hell of a lot more with our cars – they’re big things that move fast and there’s lots of them and the world is absolutely jam-packed with pylons and bollards and trees and buffalo and big, jagged rocks and all kinds of things you don’t want to drive into. And the consequences of driving into such things, in a modern car, are quite dear. Modern cars, safe as they are, are incredibly expensive to repair when it comes to minor damage.

This wasn’t always the way! Carmakers once prided themselves on how much abuse a car could just shrug off! Those days are long gone, but, at least to me, not forgotten. I really do believe forgiveness is an important factor in mechanical systems! Humans are fallible, and you can either pretend not to notice that or design things from the very start that accepts this extremely true aspect of the human condition.

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Assuming that humans are your target market (and, frankly, they should be, as my own calculations suggest that humans and human-operated organizations control well over 70% of the fungible currency on the planet) then it would only stand to reason that you’d build things that understand the peculiarities of being human. In the case of cars, that includes sometimes driving into things.

 

I’m not talking about catastrophic wrecks, I mean backing into a hydrant or tapping the bumper of the car in front of you in traffic, stuff like that. Little, common errors. The sorts of things that, really, you shouldn’t have to pay so dearly for. And yet, with modern cars, you absolutely do pay dearly. Sometimes very dearly.

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So, why is that? Why are car body repairs about 20% (in 2023) than the year before, and why are they continuing to be so expensive? A lot of it is because modern, advanced components like headlamps are now specialized units designed for one model only, and can not only cost around $1,000 (look, here’s a mass-market 10-year-old car that has $700 headlights) but are also positioned often right at the car’s corners, where they are very vulnerable even in minor incidents.

There’s also the fact that the extremities of modern cars are now filled with cameras and sensors and radar emitters – all kinds of expensive stuff, right there, on the bumper, the part designed to take the brunt of any impact. Look at this diagram of expensive and fragile electronic parts from a major OEM:

Sensorsoncar2

Look at that! three radars, a camera, and parking sensors, all in that front bumper. It’s nuts. Have you ever seen someone with an expensive DSLR camera running around with arms extended, the camera held out in front of them, and when you ask them what they’re doing, they say “oh, I hold this expensive camera out way in front of me just in case I run into any walls or poles or something, the camera will take the brunt of the impact?” My guess is that, no, you haven’t seen that, because that’s nuts, and yet that’s exactly what modern cars do.

This wasn’t always the case! There was a time when carmakers gave not just a shit about this sort of thing, but gave a very big, robust, rich, healthy shit about it, designing cars that were – yes, here it comes – forgiving of minor wrecks and shunts, and they accomplished this in a variety of clever ways. Why, look at what GM alone managed to do, how many different approaches they had to the same fundamental problem: how can a car smack into something and come out undamaged?

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This was a whole commercial about bumpers! Look at all these different approaches: urethane-rubber front ends, huge energy-absorbing, self-restoring shock-mounted bumpers, hinged grilles, sliding grilles – and these things actually worked!

Of course, this wasn’t really all because GM was so altruistic – there were federal laws that went into effect in 1973-1974 that mandated that cars needed bumper systems that can absorb five mph impacts with no damage at all. All carmakers selling cars in America had to have them, but GM really got into it, making multiple commercials featuring them:

And, it’s worth noting, they didn’t just settle for big chromed diving board bumpers; look at that GTO in that ad. It has that big owl-like beak in the center, which was what they called their Endura bumper. The GTO got it first, but the concept soon spread to other GM cars like Camaros and Trans Ams and Chevelles, with cars getting full-face urethane masks that concealed steel bumper components, and the whole thing could deform and reset itself after minor impacts.

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It wasn’t just GM doing this, of course. Hinged grilles and full-rubber faces could be seen on cars from the rest of the Big Three, like the Dodge Charger/Rampage:

Dodges

…and Ford, on a number of cars, including the oft-overlooked EXP:

Exp

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All these cars had deformable faces that you could whack into the corner of a brick steakhouse at five mph and just back away and pretend nothing happened. I bet that happened pretty often, even. And if you broke a headlight there, all these headlights were standard sealed beams that fit pretty much any car, across make and model, and were cheap, plentiful, and could be found pretty much anywhere you could buy motor oil.

Of course, carmakers being the cheap bastards they are, this wonderful period of forgiveness didn’t last, and eventually the carmaker lobbyists convinced the right people, and in the early Reagan era the bumper standards were rolled back, starting with the 1983 model year, to 2.5 mph impact speeds, front and rear, and the acceptable damage was reduced from Phase II standards (pretty much zero damage post-impact) to Phase I standards (no damage to safety-related parts and exterior surfaces not involving the bumper system – lamps, fuel, exhaust, and cooling systems).

Oh, and the best part is that the justification for this significant reduction of standards was that carmakers said the extra weight saved by having less robust bumpers would help with fuel economy. It didn’t, really. I don’t think the carmakers actually really believed it would, but that’s just me, cynically speculating.

It’s all so frustrating. Minor collisions can be brutally expensive to repair, and I have no idea why the insurance industry is fine about this. I’m sure there’s complex and even more frustrating reasons far beyond my limited understanding. But I don’t care, because it doesn’t matter if there’s some convoluted financial reason, the point is that car owners would be happier if minor wrecks could just be shrugged off.

And yet, this seems to be precisely nobody’s priority now. Safety is, sure, and that’s great, and I get that cars are wildly safer than ever before. A lot of that has to do with how energy is absorbed in impacts, about crumple zones and that kind of thing. But the idea that any of that disqualifies a car from being more forgiving in the far more common, far more minor sort of wreck is absurd. Cars could be designed with forgiveness in mind. Sensors and lights could be placed in less vulnerable places.

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I’m not saying it’d be easy, but I am saying it’d be worth it, to not be looking at a bill of thousands of dollars every time a mailbox is backed into or a decorative lawn anvil is driven over. And I know is it can be done because it was done, about five decades ago.

I just want a car as forgiving of my failings as a 50-year-old GTO. Is that too much to ask?

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Shooting Brake
Shooting Brake
3 months ago

Insurance companies would generally prefer to total a car than repair it so they probably don’t mind the increased repair costs.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
3 months ago
Reply to  Shooting Brake

Insurance companies couldn’t care less about an individual car or process, only what makes more money when you lump all of the policies nationwide (no pun intended) together. But I suspect people are more likely to pay for higher coverage if the repairs cost thousands, leading to an increase in revenue.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago

Great article Torch and a great design idea for the bishop. Design a car from any/all auto manufacturers bins. You have leeway but since it is just already designed parts, cheap, put them together in a design to make a decent car even cheaper.
Bonus points for using just one auto manufacturers multiple lines. So every thing in Stellantis is usable. Must be close to achievable

Alpine 911
Alpine 911
3 months ago

Personal hypothesis is that automakers are just inflating sales by making replacement parts so expensive. Easy cash and increasing insurance premiums is „not their problem“. On another note, would have expected a deer mention in the introduction. But brilliant as always.

Marlin May
Marlin May
3 months ago

Could this be yet another reason we seem to be at peak auto – https://www.autoline.tv/after-hours/aah-681-peak-auto-and-the-problems-that-presents/ – ??

Daniel MacDonald
Daniel MacDonald
3 months ago

Interesting-I was under the mistaken impression that the 2.5 mph rule was still in effect and they had just gotten better at integrating them so they weren’t so ugly.

This is also driving another issue that’s frustrating-anecdotally (and some reporting I’ve read) indicate that more and more cars are being totaled out by insurance and I feel like I’m seeing more rebuilt title cars for sale than ever. I’m sure some of this is due to higher used resale values making it more justifiable to fix wrecked cars but I also can’t help but think the cost of sensors and components is making it a lot easier to have a cars reach overall repair costs where they’re considered totaled out. Which becomes a problem because not everyone who has a car totaled is at fault but it massively hurts resale value. Now I’m as wary of buying a salvage title car as anyone because the problem is there’s no good way to verify if it’s been properly fixed. But as article points out crunch the front bumper and headlights and on a lot of modern cars you’re easily already from a minor bumper bender at a $5K bill, add in a fender a radiator, some ancillary parts and labor and on a low end car that might already be considered totaled even though nothing structural was damaged. Not sure what the solution is-probably some combination of low speed impact mandates as Jason suggests and maybe there needs to be a finer legal gradation on salvage vs level of work? Or am I misreading this and anything with a rebuilt title probably did have a big ol wreck and the law is doing what it should?

JumboG
JumboG
3 months ago

I’d actually say it’s consumers who don’t care. Because it’s consumers who buy cars, and they have chosen to purchase cars that don’t have huge bumpers because of looks.

DadBod
DadBod
3 months ago
Reply to  JumboG

That would be true if consumers had a choice, but we don’t. You can’t buy a car with a 5mph bumper anymore.

Lotsofchops
Lotsofchops
3 months ago
Reply to  DadBod

While true, I still agree with JumboG. It’s just like we enthusiasts wring out hands over a lack of cheap, de-contented vehicles, that just ain’t the average consumer. They want to feel or appear like they’re not an entry-level person. So if you gave them a choice between a tougher vehicle that looks budget, and a sleeker one that is stupidly expensive to fix, I’m putting it all on the latter.

RataTejas
RataTejas
3 months ago

How does the Deer Lobby feel about this Torch? They’re demanding catch cages on all Pao’s.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  RataTejas

Well the safer cars are built for humans the safer they are for deer. I appreciate 85 pounds of venison when my car is totalled.

Charles Kaneb
Charles Kaneb
3 months ago

No. We need the exact opposite – something that’s instantly contact evident, and preferably disabling – so that if you knock over a bicycle, motorcyclist, or pedestrian it’s obvious that you’ve had a collision.

Ecsta C3PO
Ecsta C3PO
3 months ago
Reply to  Charles Kaneb

*Backs into lightpost*

Display on screen: “Collision detected. Immediately park the vehicle out of harms way while local authorities and your nearest service center is automatically contacted for your convenience and safety. Speed is limited to 5mph for 5 minutes, after which the vehicle will be disabled until unlocked by an authorized service technician.”

Charles Kaneb
Charles Kaneb
3 months ago
Reply to  Ecsta C3PO

Exactly.

How much of an impact is needed to knock down a pedestrian (possibly fatally, even at 1 mph)?

How much force does it take to push a Ducati off its kickstand (several thousand dollars in damage)?

That’s how sensitive it needs to be.

Ecsta C3PO
Ecsta C3PO
3 months ago
Reply to  Charles Kaneb

I’d rather walk and risk getting hit than put up with that

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  Ecsta C3PO

Thank you big brother. A piece of road debris is hit and you are stuck for 4 hours while every emergency group is contacted and conducts an investigation.

Tom T
Tom T
3 months ago

I just had a minor accident in 2019 Fusion where I slid into someone in the snow.
Damage: one headlight cracked, bumper cover scratched and bruised, corner of grille insert cracked, 1″x 6″ edge of hood bent slightly, fender misaligned but otherwise not damaged or creased or even paint damaged. Repair bill: $10,000 CAD. I wish I could show the picture as you would be shocked at how little damage there is. Granted I have new car replacement coverage where they mandate NEW parts only. Just one new LED headlight from Ford is over $2,000. Insane.

Torque
Torque
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom T

One new headlight for a 2019 Fusion is $2000; Is it made out of gold, that is lunacy

RataTejas
RataTejas
3 months ago
Reply to  Torque

I had a C-Max that was written off because of two broken headlights. No damage to front quarter panels, just a wrinkled hood and broken headlights. Each unit was clearly made of gold and unobtanium, as they were $2900 each.

Torque
Torque
3 months ago
Reply to  RataTejas

Holy crap that’s crazy. 7 years ago a ford c-max plugin hybrid was on my short list of cars to buy dor a DD; ended uo buying a plug-in prius instead.

Did you buy it back and put in junkyard (or “autorecycler”) headlights?

I remember years ago being Shocked when I heard the Volvo XC90 “thor” headlights were $2500 each

Growing up my dad bought a 3 door Toyota Tracel that had literally been rolled over & therefore “totaled” for my sister as a college car. It served her all through her college + I think grad school years too.

An article about the ridiculous prices for headlights & what they arlctually cost to produce would be interesting.

Seems like the European approach of being able to replace just the lense is one that needs to be followed

RataTejas
RataTejas
3 months ago
Reply to  Torque

Well I’m glad I moved to a more affordable vehicle. I just picked up a S60 Recharge last month. Complete with Thor hammer headlights.

The C-Max was a great ride. I had the regular hybrid. I used to call it the Tardis, as it’s way bigger on the inside than it looks. I didn’t buy it back, as they gave me a solid offer and was ready to move on. I ended up getting a Honda Clarity PHEV for an amazing deal. That was 2019.

Torque
Torque
3 months ago
Reply to  RataTejas

You got me curious…
Looking at ebay autos looks like most c-max headlights are going for between $165 – $350 for each unit (for most years), though I did see some asks for $800+ per unit

https://www.ebay.com/b/Genuine-OEM-Headlight-Assemblies-for-Ford-C-Max/33710/bn_32786970

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  Tom T

My 2nd car a 1974 4 door Plymouth Valiant, chosen by my dad paid for by me had a transmission issue. Couldn’t find reverse all gears were knocked up 1 point. We tried finding neutral, turns out it was drive. Car lurched forward pinned my leg between the front bumper and a 3 ton AC Unit. The unit was knocked off its base no damage to car or my manly leg. It depends on too many variables just like self driving cars.

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
3 months ago

While I’m generally against government regulation, I don’t think car makers like Rivian should be allowed to sell cars where a slight ding in the rear bumper costs $40,000 to repair. That drives up insurance costs for everyone and for no good reason.

For example, GM designed the C5 Corvette so that major portions of the chassis could be replaced instead of totaling the whole car. And that’s also a car that can take a parking lot scale incident with only paint damage.

VanGuy
VanGuy
3 months ago

After 7 years with a ’97 conversion Econoline, I had zero accidents or tickets, but did manage to hit a few stationary things.

It’s slightly humorous to me to have learned over time that I’m not alone, because any E-series vans with chrome bumpers for sale used rarely have a fully intact rear bumper.

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
3 months ago

“my own calculations suggest that humans and human-operated organizations control well over 70% of the fungible currency on the planet”

Your calculations are incorrect.

VanGuy
VanGuy
3 months ago

I went from being very confused and wanting to refute you, to nominating you for COTD

Torque
Torque
3 months ago

Major studies show 98% of all statistics are made up…

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
3 months ago

Sounds like it’s time to play pick a 74-82 US market car for Torch!

It’s Jason, so it has to be quirky and difficult to find parts for here in ‘Merrycuh. But the goal is to be stout enough to stand up to the occasional suicidal suburban mammals.

I’m going with a late 70s Peugeot 504. Preferably diesel. Can stand up to rhinos in Africa , it can handle the worst North Carolina has to offer.

Hillbilly Ocean
Hillbilly Ocean
3 months ago

I live in NC, fairly close to Torch, and used to have a 1981 Peugeot 504. Wagon. Diesel. 4 speed. Brown-ish. It was big, bog, slow, aromatic, and equipped with battering ram bumpers. Nobody messed with that car. I miss it to this day.

RataTejas
RataTejas
3 months ago

It’s probably in Cairo acting as a cab. I think that’s where Peugeot 504 Estates go to die. It’s like the doggy farm, but for French wagons.

Hillbilly Ocean
Hillbilly Ocean
3 months ago
Reply to  RataTejas

It needed ball joints. They were seized solid; I literally gave the car to a friend who had also owned a 1980 Peugeot 504 diesel four-speed wagon. Somehow, and I don’t know how, his blew the engine. I wasn’t going to spend the money on the ball joints, I wasn’t going to wrestle with them myself. So I gave him the car. He torched out and replaced the ball joints then drove the car for six more years. I had it for eight years after investing a princely sum of 800 bucks for the thing. He ended up driving it to the scrap yard under its own power after the fifth time it caught fire due to the wiring insulation falling off. A battery the size of Rhode Island produces a lot of amps at inappropriate times . . . If we had a way to post photos here, I could post a picture of the two Peugeots together.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago

Seems like 1 person messed with ot?

Morrokide
Morrokide
3 months ago

Back in the 20s and 30s, it wasn’t uncommon for cars to have bumpers made from spring steel. The relatively dainty looking bumpers on a model A worked well, because they were essentially nickel plated leaf springs. Keep in mind suburbs were less common before the war and lots of parking was on city streets. If you’ve ever tried to parallel park a ‘39 Ford, you’d appreciate yours and the car behind you having useful bumpers.

Manufactures started making them out of mild steel sometime in the 40s, when bumpers started becoming more ornate and integrated into the design of the car.

I think the federally mandated crash bumpers of the mid 70s were a reaction to the relatively fragile bumpers from the mid 60s by old people who remembered those older cars. It doesn’t take a huge hit to crunch the front bumper of a ‘65 Impala.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago

Oh deer, not again.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago

Yes in steed.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
3 months ago

I think Ford kept the 5mph bumper thing going on their line until around ’87. Not that it means much, just a random memory rattling around my brain that was aching to get out somewhere. Thanks to Torch for providing an outlet for it to fly free.

C Mack
C Mack
3 months ago

I had this epiphany shortly after I bought a Bronco a few months ago. Basic unpainted plastic bumper with no sensors or even fog lights. I was like “holy hell – I don’t need to even worry about this anymore” Now, I can just go into populated/city areas and just not give a crap.

(and my insurance went down, too)

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
3 months ago
Reply to  C Mack

This comment made me laugh. Because of the use of the word populated, the image in my head instantly became that you don’t have to give a crap when you run over people, mail boxes, shopping carts, strollers, you know, all the stuff common in populated areas.

C Mack
C Mack
3 months ago
Reply to  Lockleaf

I plead the fifth to what I meant by that 😉

(But mostly just the parking part of things…not having to worry about the parallel parkers from hell).

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
3 months ago
Reply to  C Mack

I understood what you did mean. I was more entertained by my misinterpretation though.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  Lockleaf

Yeah when you hit pedestrians they are just loud an annoying. It’s why I quit drinking and driving. You hit a ???? and you end up spilling your drink. JK.

RataTejas
RataTejas
3 months ago
Reply to  Lockleaf
Rusty S Trusty
Rusty S Trusty
3 months ago

I can’t believe you left deer out of the list of things to crash into.

Pneumatic Tool
Pneumatic Tool
3 months ago
Reply to  Rusty S Trusty

ooof!

Data
Data
3 months ago
Reply to  Pneumatic Tool

That’s what the deer said.

Rusty S Trusty
Rusty S Trusty
3 months ago
Reply to  Data

Both times probably

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
3 months ago
Reply to  Rusty S Trusty

The first time Jason has successfully avoided the deer.

Rusty S Trusty
Rusty S Trusty
3 months ago

Or maybe the other way around

James Carson
James Carson
3 months ago

You’ve got a decorative lawn anvil too?

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
3 months ago

I went to high school in the late 1900s, it was up on top of a hill so after school we’d all be waiting at the light on the hill, well at some point several of us got the idea to rest our front bumper on the car in front’s back bumper.

Had to be at least 5 of us, sitting literally bumper to bumper, all relying on the poor guy in front’s I’m sure drum brakes, but we all thought it was funny, no care in the world about our bumpers.

I think our next purchase will be a Bronco or Wrangler or some sort with real bumpers/fenders. A fender bender should not total a car.

Jim Zavist
Jim Zavist
3 months ago

My first new car was a ’75 Gremlin. The “battering ram” chrome bumpers looked good and worked great (along with the sealed beam headlights and flush door pulls).

I’m guessing that these days aerodynamics (for MPGs) is a bigger issue than aesthetics. Sensors could still be in the adjacent metal fenders, but that extra tenth of an MPG (from smoothing everything together) somehow wins out (see the new Tacoma).

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
3 months ago

“Minor collisions can be brutally expensive to repair, and I have no idea why the insurance industry is fine about this.”

Because insurance is priced based on margin compared to loss experience. Insurers pretty much know what it’s going to cost them, then they add 10% (or whatever is allowed by regulators) and that’s what they charge us. If repair costs go up, so do rates. It can lag a little but they cover the costs as long as they are paying attention and have good volume. Where they get hosed is catastrophic loss and when state insurance regulations are an absolute disaster (like Florida for both).

Mike Dt
Mike Dt
3 months ago

Not only do they not care about possible damage, they make it extra expensive to repair since for many models you can’t buy just a bumper or just the windshield or just the electronics they contain. No, it’s sold as a package. So if your windshield has a crack, $500 worth of cameras and sensors need to be tossed as well.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
3 months ago
Reply to  Mike Dt

$500 worth of cameras and sensors 

I think you forgot a “0”.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
3 months ago

You’ve turned into Torchminster Fuller.

Martin Ibert
Martin Ibert
3 months ago

In all fairness, all the sensors and gadgetry do serve a useful purpose, and you have to put them somewhere at the car’s perimeter to be useful. This gadgetry simple was not available in the cars of yore.
Some of the gadgetry, like the parking sensors, is specifically there to avoid many of those minor bumps.
Sure, maybe the car manufacturers could do more to make the cars somewhat more rugged without foregoing all the gadgetry, but the days of expendable 5-mph-I-don’t-give-a-fuck bumpers are over, and that is for a reason.

Carlos Seoane
Carlos Seoane
3 months ago
Reply to  Martin Ibert

This makes a lot of sense…

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
3 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Seoane

No it really doesn’t. We past the point of making cars safer. Now the new rules improve safety that is a 1 in a million chance but due to reduced visibility and li g t weight material for better gas mileage cars aren’t safer.

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