They don't make 'em like they used to

It’s futile to compare modern vehicles with those manufactured 40 years ago. A good ole boy can look at, say, a current Ford F150, with its plastic front bumper, compare it to the steel counterpart on his 1970 predecessor, and drawl, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And he’s correct—but not in the way he thinks. That modern truck will protect its passengers in a wreck that would have left the occupants of the earlier one dead. 

Credit a Mercedes Benz engineer named Béla Barényi, who in the 1950s first questioned the prevailing wisdom that a vehicle had to be rigid to be safe. He realized what now seems obvious: that the forces in a collision have to be absorbed somewhere, and if they are not absorbed by the vehicle they will be absorbed by its occupants. This led to the development of front and rear crumple zones, which sacrificed part of the vehicle’s integrity to safeguard the rigid cell containing the driver and passengers. With the further advent of, first, lap and then shoulder belts, and then air bags, injury and fatality rates in collisions plummeted. 

(If you’re still not convinced, take a look at this revealing video of a test collision between a 2009 Chevy Malibu and a 1959 Chevy Belair, then tell me which car you’d pick to crash in.)

But. Still . . .

The photo above shows me holding up the entire outer “bumper” assembly of our 2012 Toyota Tacoma—including fog lights—with one finger.

Trust me that I have zero doubt as to whether I’d rather be in the Tacoma or my solid-steel 1973 FJ40 in any kind of collision. I remember a tiny misapplication of throttle in the latter that once sent me into a concrete parking bollard at perhaps two miles per hour. I felt the result right down into my spine. The 40 was of course unscratched.

Nevertheless, it seems to me the thing I’m holding has lost the right to even be called a “bumper.” I’m convinced a two-mile-per-hour tap on a parking bollard would necessitate replacing the entire assembly. Imagine the result if you innocently stuck the tongue of a Hi-Lift jack into that front opening and started cranking. This “bumper” is really nothing more than a bumper-like facade.

I realize that wishful thinking along these lines will have as much effect as hoping Toyota will start importing Hiluxes equipped with three-liter turbodiesels, but wouldn’t it be nice if manufacturers offered a front bumper in their “off-road” packages that was stout enough to withstand jacking (and perhaps even bumping), while still conforming to crash standards?