They’re Heavy… But Fragile

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New cars  are very good at meeting Uncle’s crash test requirements – but even minor impacts can and do cause a lot of very expensive damage.

Despite the fact that most new cars are really heavy.

Older, pre Uncle-ized cars may not have been as “safe” – as measured by Uncle’s current criteria – but they were harder to damage. Minor fender benders were just that; the entire front clip of the car didn’t crumple like a ball of Reynolds Wrap.

This despite the fact that most of them were a lot lighter than today’s cars.

This interesting juxtaposition is chiefly the result of Uncle’s conflicting fatwas.

The first fatwa is actually several fatwas.

New cars have to pass head-on, side-impact, rear-impact, offset and rollover crash tests. It’s a tall order that takes lots of steel.   

Structural steel.

The frame and related internal architecture; the parts of the car you can’t see, under the skin.

The heavy parts.

New cars weigh a lot as a result – notwithstanding the use of lots of aluminum and plastic for non-structural parts like fenders and hoods and “fascias” (the term used for a modern car’s front and rear bumper covers).'76 hood

To make the point, consider a modern muscle car like the 2016 Chevy Camaro SS – and compare it with an old muscle car from the (relatively) pre Uncle-ized era of the mid-1970s: my ’76 Pontiac Trans-Am. The new Camaro weighs 3,685 lbs. – almost exactly the same as my 40-year-old Pontiac (its lineal ancestor) even though the Camaro has an all-aluminum V8 engine that shaves several hundred pounds off the curb weight as well as numerous aluminum suspension components, aluminum (vs. steel) wheels and so on.

If the Camaro had a cast iron engine like my car does, a bolted-on steel subframe like mine – and steel wheels and cast iron suspension components rather than lightweight aluminum pieces, it would weigh around 4,200 pounds at least rather than around 3,700 pounds (as my car does).

But then it would tough for the Camaro to abide by Uncle’s other fatwa – the one dictating mandatory minimum average fuel economy (CAFE, in bureaucrat-speak).

The current fatwa is 35.5 MPG – on average. Note, not highway. The average of city and highway mileage.

Expecting a 4,200 pound car (or even a 3,700 pound car) to deliver 35.5 MPG on the highway or anywhere else is the automotive equivalent of expecting a 220 pound man to run a six minute mile.

He’ll have an easier time if he drops some weight.camaro prop rods

Same with cars – when it comes to going farther on a gallon of gas.

Sounds simple, right? Just lighten the thing up… ?

Well, here’s the dilemma:

A lighter car will be more fuel efficient (all else being equal) but it’s is also less safe – in terms of how it performs during crash testing.

Unless you can find ways to shave weight without removing the structural steel.

Hence the use of aluminum in place of steel for heavy but non-structural parts of the car like the engine and suspension pieces and wheels, too.

And also almost paper thin – and very fragile as a result – steel for exterior body panels like the hood and fenders.

My Trans-Am’s hood is a slab of thick and heavy steel that weighs about 100 pounds and takes two strong men to physically remove from the car. Just raising the hood to have a look at the engine requires the assistance of a pair of heavy, high-tension springs mounted on beefy steel hinges. Each of these hinges weighs another 10 pounds.'76 hinge

Now have a look at the new Camaro’s hood – or the hood of almost any new/recent-vintage car. Pop the safety release and notice that the hood can be held open – easily – by anyone, with just one hand and without any mechanical assistance. Most new cars have a flimsy little prop rod that you use to support the hood while it’s raised.

The metal used for the hood is so thin (in order to be light) that an average man could literally bend it with his bare hands if he wanted to.

Meanwhile, it would be tough for Arnold Schwarzenegger – in his prime – to deform the thick stamped steel hood of my Trans-Am without tools. A man could walk on the hood of my car and not dent the hood.

I know, because I have.

Walk on the hood of any modern car and see what happens.Caddy graphic

Fenders, too, are made of very thin metal relative to what was common years ago – and the front and rear clips (“fascias”) of modern cars are all body-colored plastic that is extremely vulnerable to physical damage. Ditto the chromed-plastic grilles and plastic headlight assemblies. They are plastic – and rubber – to save weight (metal and glass being heavier).

Underneath all this basically decorative material is the structural steel, the stuff that keeps the cabin (and, hopefully, you) intact during a crash. The rest of the car is designed to crumple up like … Reynold’s Wrap.

The downside is this has made it very costly to repair modern cars. Impacts that would have resulted in fairly minor physical damage to a car 30 years ago can leave a modern car undriveable – and requiring thousands of dollars in body and paint work, much of this for new replacement panels since the damaged ones often aren’t fixable.

This translates into higher insurance costs.because Uncle

If it weren’t for Uncle’s CAFE fatwa, heavier and less fragile materials could and probably would be used for things like hoods and fenders and front and rear clips – since buyers would be interested in cars less vulnerable to expensive damage from minor impacts. And probably, they’d be even safer, too – since a heavier car is (all else being equal) more crashworthy than a lighter car.

It will be interesting to see how the car industry manages in the next couple of years, as the fuel-efficiency fatwa ascends to an inconceivable 54.5 MPG (not even the Prius hybrid makes that cut) and Uncle’s crash-test fatwas become even more demanding.

Where else will they be able to shave weight without diminishing structure?

It goes without saying none of this will be easy – or cheap.

Too bad it’s not buyers who are making unreasonable (because conflicting) demands on the car industry.

That’s all on Uncle.

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25 COMMENTS

  1. Ya know, I’ve been watching some Russian car crash videos on Youtube. Their cars, even in some heavy-duty accidents, don’t seem to crumple anywhere near as bad as ours, and yet the drivers are usually up and walking around and ranting. Hmmmm. Maybe making a car that stays together and actually protects the occupants from intrusions IS better (Something I’ve always advocated), not to mention the economic benefits.

    T’was just weatching one, where there were several accidents where cars were rear-ended at highway speeds by semis, and in many of them, only the cars bumpers showed any damage. In NO cases were the rears of the cars compacted like you often see here, even when it’s only 2 cars involved. In some of them, the cars just kept on driving away!

    Something is definitely wrong with Uncle’s fartwars which have made our cars into throw-aways if they are involved even in a relatively minor accident.

    I think as more and more multi-airbag-laden delicate cars start to make up the majority here, as the older cars are retired, insurance is going to go so insanely high that it will effectively be unattainable for many, and thus contribute to reducing the number of people who can afford to drive in the near future- as is likely the UN’s plan.

    We’re going to see with car insurance what we’ve been seeing with health insurance. More distracted drivers in cars with more restricted visibility and tons of distracting gadgets, having more accidents, in vehicles which get totalled if anything more than a shopping cart hits them.

    • Government requires things like crashes into fixed objects and various tests where crumple zones work best to pass them and meet other requirements like CAFE. The sleds used for crash tests also prevent the billiard ball like results of crashes. Also measurements are accelerations and such of the crash test dummies. In other words cars have evolved to do well in the tests.

      The rigidity of the car means that people get slammed into seat belts, dashes, windshields, and the like in a crash because they keep moving when the car itself stops. So stop the car slower with crumple zones. These are of course a certain kind of crash. Crashes by running off the road, odd angles, T-bones, and the like are far more about intrusion. On the local news someone crashed into a L pillar and was killed. Why? the elevated train’s supports are from the 19th century, strong and rigid. The SUV’s door wasn’t.

      • Yeah, I thought the airbags and seatbelts were supposed to keep us from crashing into the inside of the car? So instead, they now hold us in place, and the car crumples, and essentially crashes into us.

        Speaking of els: My grandfather, who was a retired NYC cab driver, took my mother somewhere once in his car, and being in declining health, wasn’t driving too good, and they crashed into an el pillar in the old rigid car.

        The car just bounced off the pillar….and they drove home. And this was before seatbelts or anything.

  2. With the government’s edicts on heavy safe cars and impossible to meet fuel mileage you see that the end game is all-electric cars. This is the only possible way the mpg requirement can be met. Notice how governments constantly ban old things and require new ones, so we are always having to re-buy stuff, thus allowing governments to get more revenue via taxes.

    • “the end game is all-electric cars” – but since those cannot be made economically, the real end game is to take away our freedom to travel, one of those ‘among these’ that gunvermin is supposed to secure.

  3. We teenaged boys were shooting the bull near our parents’ cars and one of us, used to sitting on the fenders of cars from the 50s and 60s, sat on a ’75 Mercury Comet. He left a large depression in the fender that we were relieved to be able to pop out. It’s comical now, but at the time we were shocked.

    That wasn’t what we were used to. But we hadn’t seen anything yet.

  4. It might be nice if the heavier, reinforced and highly refined body and superstructure resisted the salt and grit applied to roads every winter.

  5. The problem is: most people have minor accidents, not major ones. So we have the problem we now have thanks to uncle, huge expenses for minor crashes. The vast majority of us will likely have a minor fender bender but most of us will never be in a major crash. Uncle mandates for the major crashes, the crashes we most likely will never have. We won’t roll the car, we won’t hit something going 60 mph. So the cars get built for the crash that it will never be in. The irony, things like the thick pillars will lead to more crashes due to not being able to see.

    My dad has a 2015 Fiat 500 with the roll back roof. Even with the roof open, it has huge blind spots in the back. It, for some reason, also doesn’t have a backup camera. Though a camera wouldn’t help much as cameras don’t cover those spots either.

    • ” most people have minor accidents, not major ones” – but, as Eric points out, even a minor one becomes major, cost wise, when the Claybrooks get involved.

    • fedgov will just mandate more cameras or something else to work around the problems their other demands created.

      The art of balance, engineering, will not be allowed. All cars will converge into one basic design that passes all mandated requirements. One balance point, one set of trade offs and benefits for all.

      • Wrong, Brent…
        You’re still too optimistic. 😉
        “The art of balance, engineering, will not be allowed.” – Correct.
        “All cars will converge into one basic design that passes all mandated requirements” – Correct.

        “One balance point, one set of trade offs and benefits for all.” – WRONG.
        NO balance point. We’ll be driving Sherman tanks in structure, while it demands the fuel efficiency of a bicycle, and only Trump, Reid, Clinton, etc. will be able to afford the monstrous contraption.
        Zero visibility (makes for safety, no glass issues, no risks of the proletariat breaking in and damaging Dear Ruler.)
        Automated driving, which won’t allow them to stop if there are too many proletariat drones around. (Protection from the mob of unwashed.)
        Etc.

        We will even be forced to pay insurance, I’m certain, for our own enslavement in this: Mandatory Auto Insurance (auto-walking) will be required.
        Seriously, there are places with mandatory BICYCLE insurance.

        When you allow evil to take root, it quickly is impossible to clear it out – it flourishes almost instantly.
        If you tell people what they want to hear, it gets repeated and translated and adjusted…
        If it’s a good idea, it usually takes some THOUGHT, so it takes time and discussion to get the word out….

        Politics is sound bytes. So is business. Parable of the monkeys. And I believe it’s NOT that hard – just that most people are THAT stupid. Malcolm X discussed it in his biography – right in the beginning. He was the youngest of some large number of siblings. His mother worked the night shift, and came home and went to sleep before the children were leaving for school. They were expected to take care of themselves.
        But he threw a temper-tantrum, demanded breakfast… And she gave in. So he learned early on that the squeaky wheel got the grease…

        Same here. A 1% chance of “X” happening? “I just want to make sure no parent EVER has to feel this pain, of their infant crawling under the sink and eating the garbage disposal blades and bleeding out, while the parents are on a bad LSD trip in Thailand seeking spiritual enlightenment. It’s all the fault of the evil corporations who make garbage disposals that can be disassembled by a 30-year old using tamper-resitant Torx bits with a reverse-screw!” (Because it can’t be the fault of the parents who are 10,000 miles away, of course.) And were the facts are known, you’d find that the “infant” is actually 10+, though the picture shows them from 10 years earlier; the garbage disposal was disassembled by Mommy Dearest using a hammer to break the parts, because there MIGHT be crack inside; she’s a single parent by choice, and the father is one of 10+ men whose names she doesn’t know and faces she can’t remember because she was high and drunk at the time…. And she left the child to fend for himself (herself) when she had a moment of “Eat Pray Love” “I’m gonna find myself…” – but that’s HER PREROGATIVE, and no MAN can say otherwise (and no woman ever would, because it negatively effects her personal choices later.)

        So, we’ll be priced out of the market, limited to non-greenhouse gas creating activities, and the vehicles that are made will be owned by the elites, and be immune to “prole” interference….

        • “the “infant” is actually 10+, though the picture shows them from 10 years earlier” – you mean kind of like the pictures of Trayvon Martin as a 13yo, not the 17yo who was ‘murdered’?

    • The irony, things like the thick pillars will lead to more crashes due to not being able to see.

      Exactly right.

      Ditto with so many other “safety features” that unwittingly put us at increased risk, such as automatic braking.

  6. Pull off a front or even rear wheel and compare frame rails. That’s where the truly massive difference is with my cars. It’s something to behold how unit body frame rails have grown over time.

    • “unit body frame rails have grown” – and wasn’t that supposed to be their ‘claim to fame,’ that they were just as strong, but lighter, than the old separate frame?

  7. Eric, All the detriments you mention are true. But at least for now, the cost/benefit ratio remains favorable. At least to me.

    If involved in a crash, would I rather have me dead while the car survives relatively unscathed…..or vice versa.

    Hmm, I’ll go with door number two please. 🙂

    • I hear that… but then, I haven’t been in an accident since ’87 and so am comfortable with the risk of driving a lighter car (or a car that’s less prone to damage of the sheetmetal)!

    • Dear Mike,

      Don’t forget that if all cars are lighter, then a collision between two of them will not necessarily mean greater risk of injury.

    • I’m concerned about my own safety on the road too, Mike- which is one of the reasons I like big heavy vehicles with full frames (I drive an 8,000 lb. Excursion…) -But the thing is, I don’t think that the government should decree that you or Eric or anyone else should have to drive an 8,000 lb. Excursion if you don’t want to. I’m fine with people driving an old style VW Bug (they fold faster than Superman on laundry day) ior a motorcycle or a car with no airbags or seatbelts (I don’t like airbags, myself). It’s all about the level of risk we are willing to accept and personal choice. No one should be privileged to make that decision for us.

      I’ve only been in one accident in my life- 25 years ago- didn’t get hurt; not my fault, but I know that anything can happen out there, and it only takes one idiot; one error in judgement; one millisecond, and your whole life can change or end. Be safe…but don’t point a gun at me and tell me I have to be, and that I have to pay more for what someone else says “may be safe” (like an airbag, which may kill me) or that i have to pay a fine because i don’t conform to Der Fuerher’s edict.

  8. I used to make out on the hood of my high school car (1974 Impala).

    There’s no way you could do that today, without leaving expensive evidence behind in the form of hood dents her father could identify.

    • “I used to make out on the hood” – are you the one that gave them the idea for “Transformers”?

      • Phillip the Bruce,

        “More than meets the eye.” 😉

        Eric,

        I enjoyed reading the article. Curious to see what could be done if there was a 2000lb weight limit. How safe and efficient could one make this car and a what cost?

        • The problem is the weight mis-match between such a vehicle (like an air-cooled VW Bug) and something like a pickup or SUV. You don’t need the Mythbusters to know that the lighter vehicle loses every time.

          India has the Tata Nano, which is about 1400 lbs. While it’s very affordable, Indian consumers want more safety than it offers, so sales are declining. (NCAP in Europe tested one – zero stars)

      • Nah, anyone who ever went to a drive in knew the best way to watch was to throw a thick blanket up on the hood and windshield. The make out session was the inevitable outcome.

        • Ah, the drive-in movie…..brings back lots of memories, makes me long for those days. It was great when they finally broadcast on FM so you could leave the windows up in the winter.

          But pickups were great for nice weather with chairs in the back or a chaise lounge….or two. I rescued a mattress my mother was throwing away that fit perfectly(you knew it was karma)in the bed of my 55 Chevy. I had a set of livestock panels I often kept on that pickup and you could throw a tarp or black plastic over them. It let air go through the ends but lots of privacy. The mattress was tall enough with some tv pillows you didn’t even need to lower the endgate. Cooler right beside you, what more could you ask for?…..and there was plenty of that…..all of it.

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