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Old car safety

ndancendance Posts: 323
edited March 2014 in Dodge
New topic generation being slow and all....

I'm sort of fishing for responses in a couple of areas.

1) How dangerous are old cars to drive ('60-'70s)
2) How dangerous are yet older cars ('50s and prior)
3) How much of this is fixable

I'm not thinking in terms of accident avoidance or crummier brakes but sheer survivability in collisions.

No doubt air bags make a difference, more monocoque/crushable stuff, etc. but it seems to me that most (all) of the opinions I've heard on safety are *pure* opinion and hearsay. A really interesting study (hey, we can raise the money, kind of a class project) would be to have one of these safety institutes actually smash, say, a 1970 Chevelle two-door and see what happens.

In addition, simple additions to old seatbelts, for instance, it amazes me how *nobody* seems to think it reasonable to replace old belts. Jeez, I bet when they are 30 years old the combination of UV, age, and stress through the years make the things barely useful, kind of like a climbing rope that's been used to stop a fall. More complex solutions could range from retrofit of collapsible steering columns, aftermarket seats (it's amazing how crummy factory seats are, and how often they break loose in collisions), or even roll cages.

I'd especially like any citations to real studies on older cars.


  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    ...versus newer cars is something that's always interested me. I think one of the best things you can do to an old car is upgrade the tires to something modern. I had a '69 Dart GT, the first old car I bought, and it had bias ply tires. I put some 205/70/R-14's on it, and they made a world of difference.

    I think in some ways, the fact that older cars aren't as collapsible as a newer car actually makes them safer today than they were when they were new. If you run into something that simply will not budge, like a big tree or a bridge abutment, you're going to come out worse. But if you run into a car that's designed to collapse, then that car is going to take the brunt of the impact, and lessen the shock than the older, more solid car will take.

    FWIW, awhile back I was at the local junkyard, which specializes in old Mopars but gets other old cars in from time to time, as well. There was a '67 Dart 4-door sedan in there, that looked like it had been run through an offset test like what NHTSA does. I was amazed at how controlled the crumple looked. No passenger cabin intrusion whatsoever. The steering wheel didn't even get shoved back. Theres no doubt that a modern car would be gentler on its occupants than a '67 Dart, simply because the components that crunch up today are softer. But that doesn't make a well-designed '60's car out to be an instant death trap.

    As for collapsible steering columns, I think 1967 was the first year for them. Before that, a big measure of how safe a car was was how far back the steering box was from the front of the car. Some cars had it mounted ahead of the front suspension, so even a relatively minor impact could drive the steering column back like a spear. Shoulder belts were a major advance too, appearing in 1968, although it seemed the automakers back then went out of their way to make them obnoxious to use. I guess they did it just to prove a point that people won't voluntarily wear a seatbelt!
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Sonoma, CaliforniaPosts: 57,604
    I have a much simpler (some may say simplistic) view---old cars are deathtraps, and the older they are, the more likely you are to die or be mangled in one.

    Having said that, insurance records from companies that insure "classics and collectibles" show that their safety record is excellent. How is this possible?

    Well, obviously, the owners drive them little and drive them carefully.

    Also, I might point out the new cars are deathtraps, too, but better risks than old cars. We still lose over 40,000 Americans in car accidents every year.

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  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    ...well, not factoring in vehicle-miles driven, if we lose 40,000 a year out of a total of roughly 270,000,000 people, that comes out to a fraction of 0.000148148~. So I guess you could say that if you go out and pick a person, any person at all, that they'd have that chance of dying in a car accident within the year.

    Now let's throw out some numbers for the past. I don't know how accurate this really is, but let's say that in 1957 there were 150,000,000 people in the U.S. and we lost 50,000 people that year. That comes out to a fraction of 0.000333333~. So basically the chances that any given person would be killed in a car crash in 1957 were a little over twice as high. I don't know how accurate my guesses were here, though. Anybody got any good links on the web for this kind of stuff?

    But truthfully, considering how much things have improved in the past 45 years, what with braking systems, tire technology, seat belts, air bags, better roads, etc, I would think that your odds today should be better than what they are. I guess driver stupidity can go a long way toward negating safety advances!
  • I drive my old car much more carefully, precisely because I know of it's handling and braking limitations. (Drum brakes fade quickly, and the steering has no feedback).

    That being said, I think I would do okay in an accident with another vehicle. It has a lot of "road hugging" weight, as they used to say.
  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    Just being a crank, but there might be two factors that actually work against modern traffic safety compared to, say, 1960:

    1. More variance in the size of vehicles. We have everything from Geo Metros to Chevy Suburbans. Of course we had lots of big cars on the road in '60 but nothing like now, where every other soccer mom is driving a 5500 lb. SUV. And while we had small cars back then, it was a handful of sportscars and eccentric imported sedans, not legions of mainstream vehicles.

    2. Don't laugh--cell phones. Where I live it seems like every fifth driver is glued to a cell phone. A few months ago I was almost rear-ended by one of these drivers. And judging from their expressions, most of these calls are personal. Are we really that lonely that we need to reach out and touch someone from our car?

    I think at some point (and maybe we're close) we'll reach the same point of diminshing returns with safety that we've reached with emissions. Then maybe we'll deal with the lousy drivers (one trip to Italy showed me what good driving is) and the drunks.
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    let's take the 1970 Chevelle. OK, throw some modern tires on it and freshen up suspension/brakes. Obviously, to some extent, lack of safety in older cars is due to the fact that they are worn out, not entirely a design problem. Also throw in my bug bear, new seat belts. I've always thought it was funny how people treat belts from a restoration standpoint, as a cosmetic issue like headliners...only replace them if the look bad. The proposed new belts will be a retrofit of some later model retractable belt set bolted to the original mounting points.

    Those cars really don't have bad brakes and handle darn well (I'd say better than a Camaro of the era). So...compared to the new equivalent...maybe a Grand Prix (how is that pronounced anyway?)...what is the real difference in both nasty real world driving (I-80 outside Berkeley maybe) and in equivalent accidents? The real world driving thing I've done (if anything, the thing that older cars hate the most is idling for a long time, it's amazing how much people in metropolitan areas sit in running, immobile cars anymore) but I really don't know about the accident angle. I think the concept of 'old cars as death traps' concept is a bit glib, but then the sample car is usually comparing a VW Thing to a New Beetle. much worse is a GM A-body than a new intermediate car?
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    Improvements to old cars....

    New seat belts.
    Retrofit of collapsible steering column.
    Modern tires.
    Retrofit of disk brakes (if needed).
    Suspension upgrades (shocks/swap bars/polyurethane)

    those are obvious....

    Musing on less obvious ones....

    Moving the gas tank from the cab of older trucks

    Fitting some sort of bracing inside of door for side impact purposes. I've never seen that done, but it doesn't look like an impossible engineering problem.

    Is new glass of higher quality? Safer in a collision?

    Proper installation of good quality aftermarket seats (I think this is a biggie).

    Start with a car that hasn't already seen a big shunt.

    Fitting a third brake light. Brighter brake lights generally.


    I'm mostly looking for passive systems in the sense that the accident will/has happened. Better accident avoidance is kind of a different (but equally important I admit) deal.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    ...what would happen if, instead of going for more modern brakes like a disk setup, you just put on bigger drum brakes? For example, my '69 Dart GT 225 had 9" drums, which were just adequate. Nothing more, nothing less. My '68 Dart 270, with its 318 V-8, has 10" drums, which are still just adequate, considering the V-8 weighs a bit more, and puts out a lot more power to have to slow down. What would happen though, if you just put bigger 10" drums on the 225? Is it possible for a car to have too much braking? I'm thinking that if you went overkill, that they might be too easy to lock up.

    As for door bracing, all cars have had that since 1969, anyway. My '69 Dart had it. Made no difference whatsover when I got run off the road and hit a traffic light sideways (and yes Shifty, that one was running perfectly until it got totaled ;-) The door got bent in about a foot at the deepest point, and so did that brace inside. That beam may have made a difference in a lower-speed impact though. Or who knows? Maybe without it, my door would've gotten punched in even more?

    I'm not sure about newer glass. It's thinner, I know that much. I don't know when safety glass first came out. Chrysler had it back in the 30's, the kind that would shatter into little blocks instead of sharp splinters. And the windshield of my Dart has a safety backing that more or less holds the windshield together even if it gets broken. I don't know how long they had that, though.

    Moving gas tanks is a good idea...not just in trucks, but in cars as well. Back in the '60's, a lot of GM cars had large, shallow gas tanks that reached almost to the back of the car. I can look down the fuel filler of my '67 Catalina and see inside the tank, it's so close. That car has a massive rear bumper though, and the frame work looks pretty strong back there, so I don't know how hard of a hit it would take to damage the tank. A lot of Fords back then had those "drop in" gas tanks though, that doubled as the trunk floor. Very easy to rupture in the event of a rear-end collision. I think GM put the tank up over the rear axle in the earlier '60's, kinda like how Ford does nowadays with the Crown Vic. I always thought that was a good idea. It also gives you a deeper trunk well, although it does take out some room towards the front of the trunk. Compact Mopars back in the '60's, as well as intermediates some years, had the fuel tank moved far forward, and had a spare tire well under the trunk that provided some crush space between the back of the car and the fuel tank.

    I think seats are a very crucial thing. I believe it was 1969 when cars were required to have head rests. My '69 Dart had them, but the '68 didn't (until I put the seats from the totaled '69 into the '68). Those old headrests suck compared to modern cars, though. And those old low-back bucket seats were the worst! I have a friend with a '66 Charger, and the seatback only comes up to just under my shoulder blades. I'd hate to think of what would happen to me if I got rear-ended in that car!
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    I'm thinking of a couple of issues there...

    Headrests are good (having been rear ended in a 1959 VW, I can attest to that)....

    Good aftermarket seats (Recaro, etc.), at least the few I've seen apart, are tons better than factory seats (even new ones). I think that's an area where manufacturers cheap out, kind of like upholstered sofas covering a cheap pine frame oftentimes. I believe the more expensive seats not only provide more side protection (a smidge at least) but are built with a metal bucket rather than tubing + springs.

    I would definitely put some thought into mounting. Having seen more than one accident where a rear end shot results in a seat breaking loose, that strikes me as an area where a big improvement could be seen.

    It would probably look a little weird to have a Recaro in your 1957 Plymouth, but WTH.
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    Short answer here. I'd just go for it and buy a fuel cell. Might be a little work to get one that fits and has proper fittings for venting and inlet, but they're not super expensive and are bound to make a big difference.

    An interesting product line would be to build fuel cells that are drop-in replacements for common cars (Camarobirds, GM A-body, Mustang, etc)...even to the extent of looking similar to the existing tank, but with the build quality and baffling/liners/etc. of a racing gas tank.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    I always get confused on this...what exactly is a fuel cell? I've heard of a few Dodge Dart race cars and other stuff with fuel cells, but never really understood them. All I know is they were much smaller capacity, like around 5-6 gallons, and I think they were designed to be harder to rupture.
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    I just threw that in there wondering if formulas for safety glass have improved through the years. I suppose there's some possibility that glass degrades over time due to UV or something else.

    By the same token, it would be interesting to know whether the age on sheet metal (the front clip for example) has any bearing on survivability. My understanding is that sheet metal becomes more brittle over time. On the other hand, new sheet metal could easily be worse due to cheapening (ie. Asian manufacture) of either thickness or alloy.
  • grbeckgrbeck Posts: 2,361
    A few years ago, in the Lancaster area, a couple was out for a Sunday drive in their restored 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. At a relatively low speed, an oncoming car swerved to miss a turning car and hit the 1956 Chevy head-on. The Chevy's occupants were killed instantly. In a new car, they more than likely would have survived - bruised and shaken maybe, but still alive.

    Until a year ago, I had a 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass Holiday coupe. It was big, fairly heavy car, but I never felt safe in it. Aside from the fact that the body quivered over every bump (and this car was in good shape), the lap and shoulder belts used two separate buckles! There was no inertia reel for the shoulder belt, which meant that the belt, to be effective, had to kept pretty tight. With the belt on, I barely could barely wind down the driver's side window without strangling myself. A lap belt with an inertia reel, combined with a shoulder belt without one - now that would have been fun in an accident. Even if the car could have been upgraded with new seat belts and seats, I still wouldn't have trusted the basic structure in an accident.

    And I won't even get into the vague steering, mushy suspension and the four drum brakes that were expected to stop a 3,800 pound car powered by a 350 V-8 engine. The good old days weren't that good... Yes, they could be upgraded, but it hardly seems worth it. I love to look at old cars at car shows, but when it comes to actually driving, I'll take a new one.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Sonoma, CaliforniaPosts: 57,604
    Certainly you could make an old car safer. When I use the word "deathtrap", I mean as it came from the factory, no seat belts, etc. Probably your worst nightmare in an old car would be hitting a very solid and stationary object e.g,. bridge. You would hit the "dashboard of Death" at a very high rate of time to decelerate and no "crush" from the car to absorb energy.

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  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    I saw what happened after a Stude Lark hit a very large oak at what must have been a relatively low speed. The engine ended up sharing the front seat with the driver.
  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    that this group did do some old-car crash testing when Andre punted a '52 De Soto with his '57. There's probably a wealth of data in those two cars.
  • I think my 1986 Pontiac Parisienne Safari is new enough to be a reasonably safe car. It has decent seat belts, collapsible steering column, front disk brakes, third brake light, safety glass, and very good bumpers (I once hit an aluminum light pole while backing out of a driveway...I knocked the pole to the ground and did not even scratch the car). It does lack air bags, but I always wear a seat belt, so that deficiency is probably not a severe safety decrease. Actually, I think the 1977 Toyota Celica ST that I'm working on right now (will be my brother's daily driver when he gets a license in a year or so) is about the same in terms of safety features as my Pontiac, though it's obviously a smaller and lighter car, so that would subtract some safety as it would in any case. One thing I was wondering about the Toyota was whether the tilt-forward hood could be a safety issue in a front-end collision. Since the hinge mounts are in the front and there is only one cheap latch in the back, might the hood come through the windshield instead of crumpling? Other than that, I think both of these cars are reasonably safe. I would think that the turning point for safety came in the mid-70s, when most cars began coming with decent seat belts, head rests, disk brakes, etc.

    -Andrew L
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    if cars from the mid '80s (even Pontiac Parisienne Safari' what in the heck IS that) are much safer than cars from the early '70s. An SS Chevelle circa 1970 has disk brakes, safety glass, shoulder belts (albeit non-inertia), head rests, etc.

    My bet is that safety only came into its own through the '90s with the common use of airbags, design for collision, etc.

    What I want (and honestly don't see how I can get any) is hard data. There's too many strawmen (early VW's, drum brake full size cars) and too much anecdotal evidence (Aunt Millie's accident in the '58 Ford).

    "certainly you could make an old car safer"...well hell man, that's the point of bringing it up. What actually makes a new Crown Vic scads safer than an old LTD and to what extent can that be remedied?

    Are all old cars more dangerous than all new cars. Is a new Geo Metro safer than a 1972 Olds 442? Why?
  • ndancendance Posts: 323
    for some real numbers...

    from nhtsa...

    1992 Mustang

    2001 Mustang:

    The numbers are pretty darn different. The point of looking at these in particular is that the '92 is the later iteration of a car actually first sold in 1979. It would be really interesting to look at the actual wrecks. I wonder where the low hanging fruit was for the engineers. Better control of the air bag system? Some sort of belt tightening system? Improved design in the engine compartment/front sheet metal/suspension? Better dash design or door design? Dunno...

  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    I think most of us are overmatched here, but you're right, the differences between a '92 and a '01 are marked for two iterations of the same platform.

    What's also significant is that Mustangs aren't sold based on their safety record, like a family sedan would be, so crashability is probably a relatively low priority (although obviously Ford doesn't want them to have a reputation as death traps).

    My guess would be that someone has written an SAE paper on this, or maybe some academic has done a study for an insurance company. That's where I'd look.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    Actually, even the current models date back to the old '79 (itself based upon the '78 Fairmont/Zephyr) "Fox" platform.

    Did the '92 have air bags, or were they using motorized seatbelts in them back then? If that's the case, I'm sure that simply having an air bag helped with a lot of the numbers. Also, they've probably made a lot of the stuff that your body impacts against...the steering wheel, dashboard, B-pillar, door panels, etc, softer and more absorbent (hey, kinda like Bounty!) And even though it's the same Fox chassis, they might've re-engineered some improvements into it, such as bracing it up in weak spots, improving the bumpers (doubtful, as bumpers seem even flimsier today), etc. I'm sure they've improved the seats, as well.

    Just for some anectodal experiences, I did a little check on the headrest protection of the seats in my Intrepid. No, nothing dangerous or stupid! But I noticed that, in my normal driving position, the back of my head is about 2" away from the headrest. Also, the headrest feels like it will catch me, and keep my neck from snapping back, in the event of a rear-ender. In an older car like my '89 Gran Fury, the headrest feels like it's more like 4-5" away from the back of my head, and a couple inches lower. Pretty useless by comparison.

    Oh yeah, as Speedshift mentioned, I did whack another DeSoto with my '57. It was a '55 Fireflite Coronado though, one of the first triple-toned paint jobs offered from Detroit. It had a turqoise body, white roof, and black spear, with a matching leather/cloth/vinyl interior. Much more tasteful in person than it sounds, actually! I don't know how fast I was going when I hit him, but it knocked him about 30 feet. It was in the rain, and we were caravanning together to go to a DeSoto club meeting. We were merging onto a road from a highway, and neither of us saw that there was a "stop" sign instead of a "yield" sign, until it was too late! Nobody really got hurt, thankfully. My friend in the '55 had a stiff neck for a few days, and a friend riding with me was sore all over for a few days, because when he saw the impact coming he tensed up. I had a serious adrenaline rush, but that was about it. No damage at all to my car, and only a matching set of little dings on his rear bumper guards, to go with the set he already had!
  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    When they restyled the Mustang in '93 I remember reading that they also threw some stiffening into the platform--not a redesign, just bracing. The '93 certainly felt stiffer (and heavier) than the earlier version, but not as lively.

    The sport articulated seats used in the early GT were exceptional, surprising in a car that wasn't built for comfort. The current seats are very ordinary.

    It would be interesting to know the weight difference between the '92 and '01. NHTSA used a convertible in one of the tests, a coupe in the other, so we can't compare those weights. My guess is that unless the 4.6 is lighter than the 5.0, the '01 is several hundred pounds heavier.
  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    2002 GT premium coupe, 4.6/5-speed manual: 3241 lb
    1992 GT hatchback, 302/5-speed manual: 3144 lb. Both #'s according to Edmund's. Also, in '92, the 'Stang did have an airbag, but I'm pretty sure only a driver's side.

    Isn't the 4.6 still an iron-block engine? If that's the case, wouldn't it actually be heavier than a 302, considering that the OHC design would be physically larger and bulkier because of the head design?
  • speedshiftspeedshift Posts: 1,598
    I did a quick search and can only find info on the 5.0--460 lbs. There were probably a gazillion articles on the 4.6 when it came out and if I had more time I'd find one, but someone here probably knows the weight already.

    Here's a link to a great site on engine weights:

    Also found a good one on current Ford news, BlueOvalNews.

    The mod V8 has more stuff but I'll bet Ford learned a few things about thinwall casting since 1962. It's iron except for the Cobra and Continental InTech V8s.

  • I was watching a TV show on driver education and modern day driving safety. What was interesting to note is that the safer that modern cars and roads are, the faster and more dangerously people tend to drive. Why? Because they feel safer! Some people enjoy and even thrive on taking risks and simply wish to push the envelope. One diver's ed instructor on the TV show said that if you really wanted to make people drive safely that instead of putting an air bag in the middle of the steering wheel, there should be a pointed metal spike about 6 inches long!! Now that would make a very careful driver out of anybody.

    In an earlier post somebody stated that they drive more carefully in their classic car, because they are aware of it's limitations. Well there's the whole issue wrapped up into a nutshell. Case in point (and no I can't give references for the source of this other than "Tom sez so") Sports cars tend to get into more accidents that other vehicle types not because they are inherently unsafe, but because of how they are driven and who drives them.
  • gungeeygungeey Posts: 11
    Think I'll stick with the old cars, but judge for yourself. Plenty of pics, etc. here:

    P.S. Say a little prayer for the lost souls in the Intrepid.

  • andre1969andre1969 Posts: 23,040
    ...Actually, that was a '67 Wildcat, which is a lighter (but not smaller) car than a Riviera. Judging from the pics, not what the guy said, the Intrepid veered off the road, came back on, and got T-boned by the Wildcat. What you're seeing here is the strongest part of one car (the Wildcat's front) impacting with the weakest part of another car (the Intrepid's side). I was in a similar accident, where I was T-boned in an '86 Monte Carlo, by a girl in a Ford Tempo. I took the brunt of the damage, and my car was totaled, but driveable. I was actually pissed when I saw how little damage her Tempo sustained!

    One thing though, if the situation were reversed and the Intrepid T-boned the Wildcat, you would have seen some serious passenger cabin intrusion on that Buick. 4-door hardtops do not tend to hold up well in side impacts, because there is no B-pillar for added support. Also, I didn't read too much into the details, but were the kids in the Intrepid wearing seatbelts? In a side impact like that, the air bags (even if they deployed...I can't tell from the pics) would've been useless.

    All in all though, I'm pretty impressed by the way that Buick held up. Very little passenger cabin intrusion, and the car crumpled up almost like how some of the better modern ones do. Looks like the steering wheel moved very little. I'd guess if this car had shoulder belts, the driver would've suffered much less injury.
  • Mr_ShiftrightMr_Shiftright Sonoma, CaliforniaPosts: 57,604
    Yeah, shoulder belts would have made a world of difference, since, obviously, you don't bend at the waist on impact.

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  • rea98drea98d Posts: 982
    The block is iron, but the heads are aluminum, so this probably saves some of the weight associated with OHC designed heads. Of course, I never weighed them, so this is just conjecture. Take it for what it's worth.
  • How can I find the crash test scores of an '87 Chevy Nova? The NHTSA site won't let you choose a model year earlier than 1990, and the last year for this generation of Nova was '88. I just assumed that 1990 was the year they started testing, but I stumbled across, and they report that an '86 Nova scored four stars for the driver and five for the passenger in a frontal crash test. I tried to find another citation (not Citation!) of this on the Web without success.

    I'd like to take this opportunity to repeat a request I made some time ago for improvements that would make this car safer. Mr. Shiftright recommended upgrading the tires and the brakes. (But how does one upgrade the brakes on an econobox? Brembos?)

    By the way, the engines in the previous Mustangs were 4.9 liters, not 5.0. Though that's not as bad as the latest Mercedes-Benz S600's and CL600's having 5.8-liter engines!
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