Home » I Bet You Don’t Know The What The First Car Crash Tested By The NHTSA Was

I Bet You Don’t Know The What The First Car Crash Tested By The NHTSA Was

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I mean, maybe you know this, but it feels like a pretty niche bit of trivia, even to a dork like me. I feel like it’s a sort of unexpected choice given the American car market on May 21, 1979, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) undertook their first official frontal crash test, driving a car about 35 mph into a solid concrete barrier. Thanks to NHTSA being a public, governmental agency, you can access all the available information and documentation about this historic crash test online, complete with some video and a full-in depth report. It’s really quite fascinating, and I’m going to tell you what the car was, but not until the second paragraph, because I want to be sure you click through to the whole story. I’m greedy, you see.

Okay, thanks for that. Here’s what the first official NHTSA crash test car was: a 1979 Plymouth Champ! Yes, a doubly-rebadged car, since the Champ was actually a captive import version of the Mitsubishi Mirage, which was sold in Europe as a Mitsubishi Colt, and in America through Chrysler as a Dodge Colt or Plymouth Champ.

ColtchampI suppose I find this an odd choice because you’d think NHTSA would have started these tests with much more popular cars, or even maybe the best-selling car in America at that time, which was the Oldsmobile Cutlass, selling over 500,000 cars in 1978. Plymouth only sold just over 27,000 Champs in 1979, so this was kind of a niche choice. I have always been fond of these little hatchbacks design-wise, as they’re so clean and kind of sleek compared to so many similarly-shaped cars of the era.

I’m not sure I’ve ever felt they were particularly safe, and perhaps NHTSA thought the same, which could be why they selected the Champ for their first NEW VEHICLE ASSESSMENT AND STANDARDS ENFORCEMENT INDICANT TESTING, as the first report was titled. There’s one video of the event, so if you want to watch a ’79 Champ smack into a wall, hot damn is today your day:

The impact was recorded at 35.27 mph, and if you’re wondering how the Champ fared, the report goes into plenty of detail. If you’d like to know more about the scene where this was shot, the report includes a diagram of the whole setup:

Camera Layout So, if you’re planning on re-creating this scene for a major motion picture about the First Frontal Crash Test (starring Tom Hanks as NHTSA, Cate Blanchett as the Champ, and Nathan Lane as The Barrier) you can use this as your guide.

I should note that this isn’t the first deliberate crash test into a barrier ever; GM did that back in 1934. I can’t find specific video of that first test, but this is a fun video of a Chrysler Airflow of the era getting shoved down a rocky hillside, so that should be just as much fun, anyway:

NHTSA helpfully has a searchable database of their crash tests, which includes video and full reports for most of the cars listed. It’s a little bit confusing because numerically, the tests don’t match chronologically. What I mean is the crash test that is numbered “1” is actually a test of a Chevrolet Citation from July 6, 1979, a few weeks after the Plymouth Champ test, which is confusingly numbered test 33. I don’t get why it’s like this, but I’m guessing fixing it is not a huge priority over at NHTSA.


The stated purpose of the crash test is interesting; it appears that NHTSA was primarily interested in three criteria: “Windshield Mounting,” “Windshield Zone Intrusion,” and “Fuel System Integrity.” The fuel system integrity one is perhaps the easiest to understand, especially given the uproar caused by the Ford Pinto’s dangerous fuel system design from a few years before. The windshield-related tests would certainly be good metrics to evaluate overall frontal crash performance, since if that “windshield zone intrusion” is found to be significant, that’s a pretty good indicator that the crash didn’t go so great for the people inside the car.


The Champ took quite a whack on the front end there, as you’d expect, and we’re well before the airbag area, so the results weren’t wonderful for the car’s occupants. Those occupants were some crash test dummies, which are described here:


It looks like only three dummies were used in the Champ test, and this is how they fared, two adults and a child:


Both front seat passengers took smacks to the head, with the driver’s chin hitting the steering wheel and the passenger’s head hitting the dash, in that case with enough force to break the glove box lid. The kid hit the passenger seatback and ended up laying sideways in the rear. Not fantastic, though the car actually held up a bit better than I might have predicted.



The Champ seemed to have fared pretty well regarding fuel system safety, with the fuel tank not appearing to leak at all post-crash:


I do like the low-tech, not-gonna-bother-to-find-the-tape method of labeling the picture there, too. Note that there’s zero actual spillage recorded on the rollover test, so way to go, Champ. It’s not too surprising considering the tank is way at the rear of the car, under the trunk floor.

Also interesting to note: the example car used to note measurement points and establish the coordinates used to pinpoint locations appears to be a Ford Fiesta:


I’ll be honest; I’m not sure why I initially found myself interested in this first NHTSA crash test, but after digging around in this data I find I have a renewed appreciation for NHTSA, mostly because all of this information is so readily available. If you’re looking at a used car, you can go through this database and find really detailed information about how it performed in crash tests, and get a lot of good insight into the design and build of the car. And it’s all free! Our EIC and dedicated wrencher David knows this already

The American government doesn’t do everything right by a longshot, but sometimes, in some humble places, you can see some examples of when things do actually sort of work.



Here Are Some Cool Things You Can Learn About Your Old Car From The Government’s Crash Test Database

Watch IIHS Slam An Old F-150 Overloaded To 9,500 Pounds Into A Barrier In The Name Of EV Crash Testing

The Rivian R1T Outperformed America’s Best-Selling Trucks In Crash Tests Because Of its Headlights


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33 Responses

  1. “Not fantastic, though the car actually held up a bit better than I might have predicted.”

    Which is why modern cars tend to look terrible after a wreck. Better to trash the car than the passengers.

  2. “starring Tom Hanks as NHTSA, Cate Blanchett as the Champ, and Nathan Lane as The Barrier”

    Are we still talking about crash testing or did I click on a link for the next Human Centipede sequel?

  3. Damnit, Torch! Another reason to kick you inna fork!
    Mother Jones made up that Pinto story, just pure bullshitted their way straight into a Pulitzer!

    The same year that MJ story was written, the NHTSA recorded that there were 27 deaths from fire from Pintos across its (at the time) 6 year model span. Mother Jones claimed 600-900 and never backed up their figures. When you look at actual figures and correct for vehicles sold, for the period of time it had fewer “fiery deaths” than any Japanese vehicle, fewer than the Gremlin, and fewer than the Pacer.
    The Pinto was maligned for much of its life for this and I will not stand for it! It should be maligned for many many other reasons!

  4. The Champ came out better than I expected. I suspect somebody wanted to prove that small, foreign cars were less safe than big, ole American iron. The Chrysler Airflow demo was jaw dropping. Good stuff!

  5. As an eternal optimist, I’m excited to see that the Plymouth Champ held the title of SAFEST CAR EVER CRASH TESTED until the NHTSA tested a second vehicle.

  6. Alright then. I had my hopes up for the Ford Pinto (Yes I know it was almost 10 years old at that time…) It would be “interesting” if the inertia from the sudden stopping could get a full fuel tank to touch the bolts on the rear diff and get one of those famous fires, without even being rear ended.

    Always found the Colt/Champ design to be a rip-off of the AMC Pacer, with those bulgy sides and big windows. But since it was one of the only non-4WD cars to come with 2 gear sticks (in some versions) I have to love it anyway for the quirkiness 🙂

      1. This is awesome! And is that a 2-DIN car stereo slot with separate tape/tuner and CD players stacked on top of one another? That has to be a mod, right? This interior looks like it comes from a time before Double-DIN slots were a thing.

        1. It looks like a CD player (top) and tuner cassette on the bottom, so waaay newer than the car. The dash trim also appears to be missing. DIN radios do go back a ways. Double DIN is pretty old, as separate units. I seem to recall some early Panasonic or maybe Alpine “stacks” for EQs maybe? Japanese cars had smaller radios, but an older GM or Ford, like 75 on or so, had enormous radios. A GM dash could easily swallow a double DIN I bet.

          1. Yeah, definitely two modules stacked on top of one another 🙂 that’s cool, and it makes sense that there were modular options at the time, especially high end aftermarket stereos.

            The oldest vehicle I can remember that came with a double din slot this side of the pond was the Renault Espace back in 1984 – likely not the absolute first, just the first I remember – but that was a highly exclusive vehicle that was meant to showcase all kinds of cutting edge tech. I wasn’t until over a decade later that they started being commonplace in luxury sedans, and then in virtually every car.

  7. I bought a 1981 Champ new when any Chrysler product was available at a bargain price. Fun little, reliable little car with a neat 4×2 split shift transmission labeled with a power and economy stick to go along with four speed shifter.
    The poor thing was totaled in a head-on with a mid 70’s Corvette. My wife, my 2 week old son and myself walked away myself (well the kid was carried away in his car seat) with just a few bruises.
    The front end of the car resembled the photo in the article and the roof was slightly crumpled. The passenger compartment was intact. I replaced it a Datsun 810 Maxima.

  8. Back in 1970, one of the Scout Masters in our Boy Scout troop in suburban Detroit was an engineer for GM. For a weekend field trip he took us to the GM tech center. Pretty cool overall, got to see some upcoming tech like the 5 mph bumpers, and they demo’ed some airbags for us. But the highlight was in their video room: they had large collection of crash videos. Trucks to Corvettes. What a treat for teenage boys.

  9. So, there’s actually a good reason these were the first. Notice something about the first set of crash tests?

    Yep. They’re all sub-compacts with a heavy focus on Japanese cars. Such ‘tiny’ cars were highly ‘suspect’ in terms of safety. Everyone was convinced that in an accident, they’d turn into balls of tinfoil that crushed the driver and passengers into tomato paste. Not like those BIG PROPER AMERICAN CARS.
    Wanna guess which cars fared better in crash testing?
    Also, the NHTSA couldn’t force manufacturers to give them cars yet. So yeah, price was almost certainly a factor too.

    1. Also, it was 1979, a lot of people weren’t too sure Chrysler Corp would live to see 1980, Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth showrooms were piling up with unsold inventory and I’m sure one of them was happy to cut NHTSA a good deal

    1. No. Pre-before an event is still before it. The “pre” prefix is superfluous.

      Post-after is still after. The prefix is superfluous.

      Torch’s torture of English is one of the reasons I love this site.

  10. I fully understand why it is done, but I still find fascinating that we have to throw cars against walls to see what happens. It is not like we go around smacking buildings with wrecking balls to see what would happen in case of an earthquake.

  11. “First Frontal Crash Test (starring Tom Hanks as NHTSA, Cate Blanchett as the Champ, and Nathan Lane as The Barrier)”

    I cannot stress how much this reads as a porn parody of the historic event. Even title would probably hold up, but I’d be inclined to go for something more like Full Frontal Crash Test (is Testes taking it too far?)

  12. That held up way better than I expected based on my long ago rides in a Champ. It was driven by a beefy guy, and saddled with an automatic. Underpowered anyway, adding a couple passengers meant he had to mat it always. Poor engine was trying to sing, but it was breathing through a pillow. One night we piled out and someone happened to look back and see the glow under it. We pushed it off the leaves before they did more than brown and crisp up, and he just said, “Yeah: it does that” which meant it cost too much to fix. I’m still sorry for that car : it sounded willing-and it didn’t deserve the ugly death that I’m certain it got

  13. As a fan of captive imports from that time, my dad bought me a 78 Plymouth Arrow (GT, no less!) to beat on so I wouldn’t kill his nice cars.

    I rear ended a courier van and bounced my noggin on the windshield. We fixed it, I paid to fix the van out of my pocket. The courier company let me do that in installments.

    First snowfall after I got my license (PNW, not a lot of snow there in the metros in those days) me doing happy donuts in a parking lot that day. Next day, things warmed up and I put the thing in a ditch almost taking out a row of mailboxes. Dad just so happens to check our mail as I’m walking home. “Where’s the car?” he says.

    The tow truck did more damage pulling it out of the ditch than I did putting it in there.

    I loved that car. Many life lessons there that inform my driving habits today.

    RIP Dad.

  14. They started with the Champ to get at least one of these deathtraps off the road. Friend of mine had a Colt in HS, and he liked it because if the thought he was getting pulled over, he could lift the floor mats and dump any contraband under the car through the giant holes. I only rode in it once.

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