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Bump! How an American Law from April 9th 1971 Created New and Destroyed Old

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.

The 1973 Corvette had a new nose that lived up to the FMVSS 215. AND looked great while doing so.

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”.

On this Mercedes-Benz, the law might have protected the lights – but the result is tough on the eyes.

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.

I always liked the rubber bulges on the 911: When I was a youngster, these were the hot stuff and the chrome bumbers old fashioned.

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.

12 Responses

  1. Peter

    Citroen was banned from the US and Canada markets by this law. The Americans forgot to use the phrase “operating ride height” in the law. Citroen has height adjustable suspension that eventually sinks when the engine is off.

  2. Anders Bilidt

    Purely from a design perspective, the US impact bumper legislation was quite a tragedy – especially for many European and Japanese cars. Very few managed to pull it off with their dignity still intact.
    The BMW 02’s which I so love is a prime example too, looking quite ungainly with a massive picnic bench attached to either end of the car from the ‘74 model onwards. But surely the worst of them all has to be the US-market Triumph Spitfire! Just look at the size of those massive impact titties it’s grown…

  3. yrhmblhst

    Uh no…the intent of most ‘legislation’ is certainly NOT good. I will spare y’all – for now – a discourse on government tho.
    Interesting that you picked a 73 Corvette as the first example; yes, Chevrolet did a good job on the front of the car. It weighed a tonne, did nothing to actually help the perceived problem as minor impacts now required paintwork most of the time, but it looked good. However, in 73, the Corvette still had regular chrome metal rear bumpers – one year only combo. The 74s got the extra 200 pound rear cap.

  4. Claus Ebberfeld

    I stand corrected, @yrhmblhst – this is your home turf and you know it! And yes, I really think the Corvette-solution was well thought out and looked really neat – and to the best of my knowledge basically the same solution as Porsche chse with the 928 that usually gets the honors for being the first car with integrated bumpers.

    All of the solutions carry a premium in weight, absolutely – and it would be interesting to see an analysis of the extra fuel used because of this versus the savings because of the supposedly reduced damages!

    Regarding the intentions with the law: Maybe that congressman back in 1969 had stocks in a paintshop franchise?

    No, @anders-bilidt : The ugly stick price goes to the Lamborghini Countach, 100%!

    Interesting, @peter : I did not know that implication. It does make sense that the Citroëns pose a problem in this context, though. As far as I see it the bumpers of all cars should be around the same height for the protection to work its best. And that applies to parked cars as well. So a much lower parked Citroën would have its headlights smashed by other car.

    I would assume, though, that a Citroën is always and everywhere surrounded by less idiots than the average automobile, which might help its statistics. Although I am not sure that intellectuals are necessarily good drivers? Here’s another thing I’d like to see analysts shed some light on.

  5. Erik

    Well, I own one of the hideous BMW 2002s. It’s a 1975 model. It’s still a lot more fun than most of the new appliances passed off as cars today. I rather like it and have come to love it. The rear bumper is large and flat enough to hold a beverage of choice for an after drive moment of contemplation. ;)

  6. Tony Wawryk

    Bit surprised no-one has mentioned the MGB and indeed it’s smaller brother, the Midget – two previously handsome cars in metal bumper form, defaced by an enormous moustache on the front and a great thick belt at the back. Unlike BMW and Mercedes, all markets got these versions of the B and the Midget.

    With regard to Mercedes Benz, I always thought the car that really suffered with the introduction of these impact bumpers was the W107- bad enough that they lost the stylish headlamp covers, but the added extended bumpers really spoiled the lines of a beautifully styled car.

    @erik – no-one is saying the US-bumpered ’02’s are “hideous”, just ungainly. I note that many US ’02 owners have been converting their cars to European bumpers – have you ever considered doing that with your car? You would of course lose a place to put your after-drive drink ;) .

  7. Anders Bilidt

    @erik , I certainly wouldn’t go as far as saying the big US bumpers make the 02 hideous. Yet, I do maintain that the design is purer and cleaner with the standard Euro bumpers. Like Tony said, quite a few later American 02’s have been converted to Euro bumpers. But from the US 02 forum, I know there’s also a fair few who pride themselves in keeping the picnic benches in place both front and rear. They are after all part of automotive history – especially of course for the Americans.

  8. yrhmblhst

    @mr Ebberfield – I wouldnt say ‘corrected’ , just additional info added. To add even more, the photo of the Corvette you used must be a pre-production picture as the nose emblem is from an earlier model like the preceeding year; Chevrolet changed the emblem is 73 – and went backwards imnsho.
    Personally, I kinda liked the 911 bumpers shown; thought Porsche did a real good job on that and the big black baby buggy bumpers added never really ‘stood out’ or detracted from the aesthetic to me.
    The example given of the Spitfire is surely one of the most hastily and poorly done – the Countach taking the cake tho – but the Spit could be undone easily; assuming its like the TR6, one could take them off, fill the holes with chrome plugs and the difference between the newer and the older/original design became virtually unnoticeable.
    For more bad examples, look at a 74 Nova, or nearly any 74 model American car. Oddly enough, I kinda like the railroad ties stuck on the ends of the 74 Z28 Camaro, but Im weird… I dont even mind the big uns on the 02…

  9. Andrew Wilson

    I enjoyed seeing the manufacturers interpretations – some careless, some beautiful. My 1973 Corvette prompts questions as to why the front is different to the back. The one year only version of the C3 really captures the evolving rules.

  10. yrhmblhst

    Mr Wilson
    May I congratulate you on your fine taste in automobiles. [i currently have a 73 coupe sitting in the garage… :) ]
    Do NOT bet the farm on this answer, but as I understand it, the reason the 73 is unique is that it was caught in ‘transitional’ regs. The rear passed the tests for damage even with the body being fiberglas. But, given the way the front was designed, with the bumper being so thin and so close to the body and having smaller bracketry, even very slight movement would cause it to contact the plastic, causing dmaage and high repair costs.
    Our front bumpers ‘bounce back’ from minor impacts and, being thicker/deeper, dont impact the fiberglas. However, remember, that should you have a small bump in the front, TECHNICALLY, the front cover should come off and there are some ‘one time use’ bolts back there that will collapse that should be replaced. No one ever does and you cant tell it from teh outside, but those stretch bolts actually absorb a portion of the energy.
    It actually was a good and elegant solution to the created ‘problem’.

  11. Anders Bilidt

    @andrew-wilson, such a fabulous looking C3…!! It’s funny, because the C3 is probably the only car where I’m torn between preferring the design with the original slim bumpers and the later FMVSS 215 compliant bumpers. And as such, the ’73 C3 is even more intriguing as it of course combines the two. Yours looks excellent – especially in that colour! I’m guessing it would be the only one in Hong Kong…??


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