Old Cars Are Safer Than New Cars!
I bought tires today for Project Alcan, and I had to choose between radials and bias ply tires. For those not familiar, bias ply was the de facto tire in the early days, and by that I mean anything prior to the 80s really. Since then, they've gotten a fairly bad reputation, and often this is related to safety and the inherent superiority of radials. This argument continues in various circles, and I'm not going to beat it to death here. If you want to read up a bit on the differences, Coker Tire does a good bit of explaining.
Anyway, while I was buying tires and thinking safety, it got me thinking about the safety of cars today and how far they have come vs how far they are perceived to have come. Let's consider a few aspects of safety - vehicle construction, safety equipment, and vehicle design.
First, vehicle construction. Many people point to an old Chevy or Ford from the 50s or 60s and say something along the lines of, "That's when cars were steel right there." implying they are more well constructed than the cars of today. People like that couldn't be more wrong. In fact, there is plentiful evidence pointing to quite the opposite, and today's crash test methods are much more rigorous than they were when cars were "steel." (Side note: cars are still steel for the most part.) Some of the improvements come from transitioning away from body-on-frame construction to more monocoque designs, and some come from the improvement of joining technology and improved structural load testing. It's worth mentioning specific crumple zones as well, designed to bear the brunt of an impact and shelter the passenger compartment. Suffice to say, today's cars are vastly improved in this area.
How about safety equipment? This round goes to new cars too. Airbags are just one of the improvements. Add to the list three-point seat belts (thanks Nader) and yes, radial tires, along with better seat design - yeah, that comfy hug you feel? Safety feature - and anti-lock brakes with traction control. As a hot rodder, I'm not a fan of that last one, but it's definitely a safety feature for the majority of the population, whether they want to admit it or not. Then there's more tech gadgetry when you consider blind spot detection, additional lane change indicators on mirrors and such, brighter headlights, fog lights as more-or-less standard, third brake lights, the list goes on. Headrests? Safety equipment. Collapsible steering column? Safety equipment. Padded dash? Safety equipment (arguably started in the 60s though). There's a remote fuel valve that shuts off the fuel supply from your tank in the event of a collision to prevent leakage, and rollover protections to do the same. You didn't even know they were there and they're safety equipment. Point is, massive win for new cars.
So what about our last round, the one about vehicle design? Well, since we're not talking about pedestrians here, because vehicle design in recent years has been impacted by pedestrian safety significantly, we can make the argument that the classics just might have the edge on this one. Think about this: an old muscle car sits pretty low, and they're fairly wide, right? Looking at you Torinos... That's a built-in safeguard against rollovers. With today's trend toward CUVs and SUVs, that's not so much the case. Generally speaking the center of gravity on these vehicles is higher by quite a bit than the old coupes and sedans, and the only way to combat that is with a wider stance, which you don't really see happening, and honestly, a vehicle can only get so wide. So by that metric (and they're my metrics, so I get to do what I want) I declare this round a win for the classics!
There you have it folks, if all you care about is center of gravity, old cars are safer than new cars.