The Bumper Cars


For a car designer, the early 1970s were pretty tough times. New federal regulations announced in 1971 for the 1973 model year stipulated bumper height and mandated that cars survive a 5-mph frontal collision without damage. Over a three-year period, from 1973 to 1975, the look of cars sold in North America went through some radical changes.

Some manufacturers planned ahead and handled the changes with aplomb. Others “strapped on” what former GM VP of Design Wayne Cherry called “Armco” (a.k.a. roadside guardrails). At the time the new regulations were being implemented, Cherry was stationed in Europe, which gave him an impartial view of what was happening at home.

“From a design perspective, prior to the 5-mph bumper law, the design trend for mainstream cars was continuing to integrate the bumper into the overall theme. The bumpers were becoming more inset, recessed and very much part of the overall front-end graphics,” says Cherry. “The 5-mph bumper requirements set back the evolution of bumper design as an integral part of the design theme nearly two decades. It was also influential in speeding up the development of flexible materials, which took the integration of bumper design to a new level.”

This lack of “flexible materials,” particularly in Europe, resulted in what many people cite as one of the worst executions of the 5-mph bumper, the large black projections fitted to the MGB. British Leyland designer Harris Mann, who designed the TR7, was aghast. “I said, ‘Oh my God,’ when I came back from holiday and saw what they did with the MGB.” The safety bumpers on the Lamborghini Countach may have been worse, but they were witnessed by far fewer people.

Both Mann and freelance designer Raffi Minasian agree that the cars that suffered most were existing designs adapted with safety bumpers, which included the MGB, many Mercedes-Benz and BMW models, most Fiats and a large number of big Fords and GM cars. That meant grafting on unwieldy girders or large chunks of rubber. Though the 1974 Fiat X1/9 looked very good with its black rubber corner bumpers, the 1975 model featured a double bar version that could have passed for a highway guardrail.

Standouts for handling the transition to safety bumpers included Tony Lapine’s heavily redesigned 1974 Porsches and the 1974 Bricklin SV, which showed well-integrated bumpers, regardless of what you think of the car’s overall design. Another polarizing design was the 1975 Triumph TR7 coupe. Minasian particularly likes the way Mann integrated the bumpers into the TR7, even though the only material available to withstand a 5-mph impact was black rubber. According to Mann, “We had to go with the black, because no manufacturer in the UK could do a flexible paint coating or finish.”

Tom Matano, responsible for the original Mazda Miata and now an instructor at Academy of Art University, says, “Pontiac did particularly well with the Grand Am,” which, not surprisingly, was introduced in 1973, complete with bumpers benefitting from Pontiac’s long-standing use of a plastic called Endura. Former Ford designer Dick Nesbitt liked the concept at first but felt some of the details could have been better resolved. Conversely, the 1974 Pontiac Bonneville, a carryover design fitted with Armco-style bumpers, firmly supports the assertion that new cars developed from the ground up with safety bumpers — like the Grand Am — usually held the advantage that came from any clean-sheet design.

Car and Driver called these Armco-style bumpers “chromed railroad ties,” and they were found on the Chevrolet Caprice, Bel Air and Impala, as well as the Monte Carlo, Malibu and Nova, plus many big Fords. Although the 1974 Vega lacked the delicacy of the original, GM stylists did well, but not as well as on the Monza, which was new for 1975. As Cherry explains, “Bumper designs which had some semblance of a continuation of the grille took some of the visual weight out of the bumpers.”

According to Mann, “GM was the leader of the pack in [developing] integrated front ends, using body color and making the best of the problem with which they and their competition had been handed.”

When Art Center graduate Nesbitt joined Ford’s design department in 1971, he was perplexed by the 1973 and 1974 Fords and even more surprised by the record sales that followed. “The public didn’t seem to care as long as the economy was good and they had money to spend. I was totally shocked by that,” he recalls.

One of the hallmarks of cars that had existing body designs or new bodies adapted to existing platforms was that the overhangs grew dramatically with the addition of the 5-mph bumpers. Nesbitt explains that the bumpers were tested with a pendulum swung at a 45-degree angle. The bumpers had to ensure that the main body segments suffered no damage at all from what Mann refers to as the “impact tool.” So in addition to a formidable girder-like appearance, bumpers often extended beyond the width of the car.

While the soft nose applied to the 1973 Corvette was “well done,” according to Nesbitt, “it was starting to extend the length and the front overhang too much. In ’74, when they added the cap on the rear, the extreme front and rear overhangs adversely affected the car.” Those overhangs and changed proportions bothered Minasian. However, he concedes, “Given the challenges in front of them, they did a great job.”

Overhangs were a primary reason the Mustang II always looked a little awkward. The body may have been new, but the platform was from the Pinto. While Dick Nesbitt considers the color-coded Mustang II bumper “about the best of the Fords from the period,” the combination of the short wheelbase of the Pinto platform, long bumpers and small 13-inch wheels made for uneasy bedfellows.

Over at Chrysler, Raffi Minasian says the No. 3 automaker handled the bumpers on its full-size cars reasonably well, citing the way the bumper shapes complemented the slabsided New Yorkers and Newports.

Despite their challenges, Tom Matano thinks that American manufacturers did a pretty good job, as did most of the German companies. He also acknowledges that the Japanese did well making the 5-mph bumpers look integral to their cars. While the bumpers of the 260Z weren’t as delicate as those of the 240Z, they were nicely done. The new B210 didn’t look too bad, either, and helped to propel Datsun to the top of the import sales list. American-market Toyota Celicas lost their delicacy with the addition of the dreaded 5-mph bumpers, though the high-volume Corolla handled them quite well.

Minasian sums up that early bumper car period thusly: “Whenever you’re dealing with proportional changes in visual architecture, you have a period of clumsiness. You can add clumsiness or change architecture.”

As more new models were introduced in 1974, 1975 and 1976, soft noses using plastics came into play, particularly in American cars. Chrome was gradually phased out, largely because of weight and cost. With the fuel crisis and strangling emissions equipment, every pound counted.

Due to the travel and literal and figurative bulk needed for the new bumpers, the visual aspect of cars changed rapidly. “Now,” says Minasian, “it’s changing again because of pedestrian impact laws.”

According to several designers interviewed, there was limited safety value associated with the new bumpers. While they may have reduced body damage, passenger safety wasn’t dramatically improved until the implementation of rules regulating side impact intrusion and greater energy absorption of unibodies.

So while repair costs of a low-speed collision may have been reduced, passengers were still just as much at risk at highway speeds. But the road toward safety had been opened, as had a whole new look for the automobile. Bricklin, Porsche and, to some degree, General Motors, began the integration of safety bumpers, just as they had tried to integrate traditional chrome bumpers. Thanks to those federal regulations, manufacturers had no choice but to explore new soft materials, which turned out to be more resilient, lighter and easier to tie into the overall design.

Today, the cars that best integrate their soft noses to their main body sections, such as Chevy’s Corvette and Camaro, Ford’s high-volume Focus, the entire Porsche line and many others, owe their very existence to unpopular legislation dating from 1971. Go figure.

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