This date is a fateful one in the automotive world as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 215 was adopted in the USA, and only a year and a half later, all passenger cars sold within America were required by legislation to be capable of withstanding an impact of 5 mph without damage. This led to some creative thinking.
As with most legislation, the intentions were probably good. Perhaps a congressman’s car was hit gently outside the White House one random day back in 1969, only for him to discover that what had initially appeared to be minor and superficial damage would cost hundreds of dollars in lenses, fenders and not least chromium-damaged bumpers. And so a few years later it had suddenly become law that cars must be able to cope with a minor collision without damage. It’s certainly not inconceivable that it may have happened somewhat along those lines.
As FVMSS 215, the “Impact Bumper Protection” Act, applied to all new cars, manufacturers had to think creatively regarding the many new models already under way – since they obviously didn’t want to redesign it all for the fateful 1973 model year. The results were none the better for this approach.
Admittedly, a few did manage to make it work: To the best of my knowledge it was the Impact Bumper Act which indirectly came to dictate how each and every Chevrolet Corvette after the 1973 vintage had a sportily integrated, quite dramatic and (in this specific sense) functional shark nose. The thin chrome strips of earlier models were replaced by a clever system of springs and steel rails, all of which were hidden under the entirely integrated lines of its deformable plastic nose and rear end – both of which were painted in the car’s color with elastic lacquer. The task was solved to perfection.
But not everyone managed such thorough engineering. Some designs were simply incapable of being united with such an integrated front in that manner – and Mercedes-Benz were one of them. Actually, the large W116 limousine was already massively equipped with double bumpers as a design as well as a practical feature, but it still was not good enough for the new requirements. And then the lower bumper was simply exchanged for an fabulously unsightly lower lip which with one stroke changed the car’s appearance from “venerable statesman” to “failed plastic surgery on an ageing movie star”.
Of course, one of the problems was that these new rules only applied in America, and for European manufactorers it was therefore a balancing act of how much they should invest in living up to the bumper act – as the solution only applied to a part of their production of any specific model. As a result, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and many others chose to disfigure their American models with 20-30 kilos of extra bumper equipment, but leave the euro cars as they were. Good for us Europeans.
Porsche, which also exported a lot of cars to America, chose another model – a kind of compromise between Mercedes’ and the Corvette way of addressing the problem: Their solution would – at least designwise – be implemented across all markets, meaning that also the European models got the new bumpers. In some ways their starting point was not much better than that of the Mercedes, as the original design of the 911 – like most other cars from that time – had thin and elegant chrome bumpers. Though by 1972, the 911 design was getting a bit long in the tooth.
Porsche’s solution to the FMVSS 215 was new and much larger bumpers equipped with a folding rubber piece that in a rather clever way integrated them into the (otherwise remarkably unchanged) general design: With this operation, the 911 was updated in a manner which allowed it to survive almost unchanged up to 1989. Since then, this successful compromise solution has become its very own design characteristic for most any Seventies and Eighties 911. Although I do find the Corvette solution tidier, the Porsche way was not a bad effort either.
As a foot note, please understand that the European 911 models do not actually have the American dampened bumpers installed underneath those rubber folds. The design is merely the same and thereby a significant amount of kilos were saved on the 911s which were sold outside of the USA. Although the dampers were in fact an option in Europe too – but I understand that very few ordered them. I wouldn’t have either.
Incidentally, it’s amusing to consider that according to FMVSS 215, the bumpers actually have nothing to do with safety as such (my interpretation of that term is that it would apply to the people travelling in the car): The purpose was instead to prevent or reduce damage to the car’s own structure. Before engineers and designers discovered how that task was to be solved, low speed incidents could and did indeed result in rather heavy damage to the bodywork of many a fine car. I would even argue that many of the damages were significantly greater than the proceeds could in any way justify.
Yet one must inevitably roll one’s eyes when witnessing how some car manufacturers solved their collision requirements with bumpers which were quite simply so ugly that any preferably violent collision in itself would constitute a clear improvement. Below is a small selection of examples, and readers are as always welcome to provide further hideous examples in the comments. You are also welcome to omit doing so, as I simply do not know whether my eyes can withstand the if misery and pain.