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.


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:


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?


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.



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:


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



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.


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?


The BMW Neue Klasse Concept May Be Re-Introducing Something Unexpected And Important: A Real Bumper (Sort Of)

I’m Pretty Sure This Renault Is The Only Time A Carmaker Put A Whole Other Bumper Onto A Bumper

New Automotive Fetish Unlocked: Color-Coordinated Rubber Impact Strips

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Box Rocket
Box Rocket
4 months ago

I’m not a fan of the repair costs for such things on modern cars, but by the same token having various sensors in the relatively easy-to-remove does make them somewhat easier to replace if/when they fail. Plus if that area of the vehicle is involved in an accident the sensors need to be checked and possibly recalibrate anyway.

However, I do take umbrage with having primary lights in the bumpers. They’re too low (especially ones in the rear), too prone to damage, and if they’re involved in am accident at light you lose cricilltical signalling/visibility capability.

Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
4 months ago

My god, this is so true. I have a very recent anecdote about this: someone reared into my Renault 4 back in october and I was looking at new hood, grille, headlights + some bumper straightening. My insurance company estimated almost €800 in damage, which I was like, sure, you’re paying, whatever. But I couldn’t help but go look for the parts online, and I realized I could get everything brand new for €250; since the hood came unpainted, and factoring in the labour, I don’t think I’d be looking at a lot more than €500 if I had to cough it up myself. And I’m willing to bet my mechanic found the parts for even cheaper, as he has mutiple sources of classic Renault parts.

Oh, and the best part is the front bumper isn’t really that crooked, and the rear is actually worse from getting banged at an angle a few times while parked, so we’re commiting some light insurance fraud reinterpretation and fixing the rear bumper instead (the car is finally in the shop, the insurance claim took quite some time)

One final note: this was the third time someone reared into me, and the first that atually required fixing and getting insurance companies involved, as both cars suffered damage. First time it was a Fiat Uno and both cars came out unscathed; second time it was a big, brand new Volvo SUV that was left with a destroyed rear bumper and probably a repair bill several times what my Renault 4 is worth. All I had to show for it was a slightly bent hood that I popped back into shape by pressing on the bent part from the inside with my foot.

Last edited 4 months ago by Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
4 months ago

The guy swinging the bat in those Pontiac ad was definitely checking his swing lol

4 months ago

In 1970 when my mother wanted to buy a sensible new Volkswagen sedan and my big brother eventually convinced her to buy a ’69 Chevelle SS396 (a story for another time), her 3 teenage sons were cruising the new car lots looking at the latest hot cars.
At the Pontiac lot my brother was actually allowed to start a Pontiac GTO “Judge” and immediately proceeded to punch it in gear right into the rear of another GTO in front of it. After inspecting the front and rear of the cars and seeing no damage, the salesman let us walk off the lot scott-free.
Thank you, Pontiac Endura bumpers!

Another Engineer
Another Engineer
4 months ago

Beyond bumper replacement, another issue is the permitted range in bumper heights as a bumper can’t work if it goes under that of a lifted truck, factory or otherwise. Permitting off road vehicles on the road has real safety consequences.

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
4 months ago

It’s even more egregious that factory trucks/SUV’s have a different bumper height standard, even though the majority of them don’t have the ground clearance to need that. As a result, a dinky Chevy Trax can have a 5mph impact with a huge S-class, and the Trax’s bumper will skip right off the Merc’s bumper and into its radiator.

There’s no reason why they should have higher bumpers despite the plastic fascia extending almost to the road’s surface. At this point it’s just a cruel side-effect of the fact that classifying a vehicle as a truck loosens emissions standards on it, these are just cars that cost more, pollute more and are more dangerous to pedestrians and other vehicles.

Another Engineer
Another Engineer
4 months ago
Reply to  Ricardo Mercio

So true. The EPA truck designation has caused so much unintended harm. Who would have thought people would commute to office jobs in them? NHTSA would do well to look to Europe for pedestrian survivability and speed limiters. Its not as if all the manufacturers aren’t already accommodating those rules in at least some of their models.

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