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March 1, 2013

Vent It Out Friday: These Bumpers Don't Work

Modern car bumpers are, in the majority of cases, beautiful but utterly useless. They just don’t work. From experience, it often takes huge amounts of money to repair damage from fairly minor accidents—sometimes requiring a replacement—from a relatively minor shunt. And that’s the fundamental problem: modern car bumpers are designed to break.

But before heading there, it’s a good idea to qualify first on how bumpers should work. Basically, a car bumper should be that part of a car that satisfies a simple criterion: it should be able to take some, without you giving any. The ideal car bumper should allow you to crash into another car or object, stationary or moving, at speeds below 8 km/h with zero visible damage. A good bumper design should provide the driver with a sort of buffer zone where small errors in judgment can be absorbed and forgotten. Of course, the modern bumper fails at doing this. However, there was a time when bumpers were able to achieve this ideal, but sacrifices had to be made in one area: aesthetics.

It’s best summarized this way: the better a bumper is at absorbing damage, the less people like the way it looks. Most modern bumpers and most bumpers up until the early 1970’s usually score well in attractiveness and low on durability while the chromed bumpers from the 1940’s to the 1960’s are often a bit more durable, shunting today’s cars to the lowest echelons of bumper usefulness.

Of course, the most recent designs do have a bit of an excuse as they do have to conform to more stringent pedestrian-impact standards. This means modern bumpers have to rely more on collapsible energy-absorbing materials and stiffeners to prevent legs from being drawn under the bumper. Pedestrian impact is an important consideration, and one that the durable bumpers of the 70’s and 80’s didn’t really care too much about. Still, pedestrian safety, bumper durability and the cost of repair don’t need to be mutually exclusive.

Older designs, usually decked in chrome with some rubber for impact strips held up better than many modern designs for many sorts of impacts due to their lack of paint and the metal’s general durability. They were also cheaper to repair: one or two whacks after a fender bender and it’s good as new.

However, modern car design has pretty much abandoned the bumper, visually at least. With the advent of body-color matching, bumpers have now been totally consumed into the body and the actual impact bars and brackets completely enclosed with plastic or fiberglass covers. These covers are great for aerodynamics and styling, but allow other breakable elements onto the bumper surface such as the grille and headlights. And by being painted, they have become as expensive as body damage to repair. This is downright stupid.

Of course, modern cars are much safer in large-scale crashes than ever before, but the bumper is only a small part of this; chassis engineering, crumple zones and all that get the credit. Thus, bumpers in modern cars are a lot like your typical health insurance: terrific for catastrophic accidents but worthless for anything else. So, unless your car driving plans consists of ending up in a spectacular wreck, modern bumpers probably aren’t going to be useful to you.

Drive or walk around the parking lot and you’ll confirm that modern cars with painted bumpers have all sorts of damage from apparently small incidents including paint scratches, scuffs, punctures, cracks, and big caved-in areas. Even bumpers on more rugged cars like full-blown SUVs are only painted plastic over mostly empty, hollow interiors, so they tend to crack and cave like any of them. On the other hand, look around for cars from the 1960’s and 1970’s and you’ll notice that their bumpers are remarkable better preserved. Sure, there’s going to be evidence of wear like scratches and dings, but on the whole, the bumpers actually weathered daily use better than then modern designs.

Automakers should be applauded for giving the motoring public much more aesthetically pleasing cars. However, don’t you think it’s about time they consider toughening those bumpers? With all the millions spent in developing a car, carmakers should design something that’s equally rugged and safe for pedestrians to boot. Even if this would mean paying the cost upfront for stronger bumpers, people probably won’t mind. In return, it should mean less cost of repairs.


  1. depends on how we perceived the modern day bumper, I guess good for pedestrians but not much for scratching against a surface in garage or other cars. I remember a beautiful girl who is getting down a public jeepney and an owner type jeep behind, pinned her knee on the step board- she lost an inch in height now.

  2. Bumper test video from IIHS (US) 2010 for small/mini cars.
    The previous gen Kia Rio was the worst performer of the group, the Mini was the worst in the front corne test, while the Fit (Jazz) was the worst in the rear bumper test because the bumper is too low.



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