Journal: Which Car Wore It Best: “Safety” Bumpers From The ’70s

Which Car Wore It Best: “Safety” Bumpers From The ’70s

By Andrew Golseth
March 31, 2016
26 comments

Michael recently asked, “Which Classic Car Looks Best Without Its Bumpers?”—The answer is: any Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT scalino model, in case you were curious. Nothing drastically changes a vintage sports car so quickly like removing those shiny but-often-back-then-worthless bumpers. Generally, eliminating the heavy brightwork turns a classic car’s look from pretty to race ready in just a handful of hardware.

I quite like the bumper-less look, but it got me thinking: which nostalgic autos dealt with the often-heinous low-speed crash bumpers that started ruining cars imported into the United States in the early 1970s? There were several revisions of the bumper regulation initially enacted in 1971—and for a long time, they only made things worse!

In 1971, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard “Standard No. 215,” also known as FMVSS 215. FMVSS 215 was effective starting September 1, 1972 and required new automobiles to sustain a 5 mph front end or 2.5 mph rear end collision without causing damage to the lighting equipment or fuel delivery system. This almost entirely dissuaded automakers from integrating lights into bumpers.

In a procrastination-induced last-minute scramble (they’d been lobbying against the changes as long as possible) to meet the safety regulation, manufacturers added chunky “low-collision-damage-proof” bumpers on all vehicles sold in the United States market. In an attempt to help consumers, in 1972, Congress issued the Motor Vehicle Information and Cost Savings Act, which required the new bumpers to, “maximum feasible reduction of costs to the public, taking into account the cost and benefits of implementation, the standard’s effect on insurance costs and legal fees, savings in consumer time and inconvenience, and health and safety considerations.”

Though perhaps with a new and honest intent for motorists’ convenience and safety, the new bumper regulations certainly didn’t help a car’s elegance. Many otherwise beautiful cars became an instant abomination in vehicle design—especially European imports. Some of the more infamous examples include any BMW sold from 1974 to 1982, and the Lamborghini Countach—as if the Countach wasn’t folded-paper-ugly enough, the U.S. spec models were fitted with a nosepiece reminiscent of a color-matched railroad tie. (Sorry, the Countach is a popular classic that just doesn’t do it for me.)

Obviously, it’s not the end of the world. Plenty of enthusiasts have ditched their diving boards in favor of slim-fitting Euro-spec units. Today, it’s relatively easy to swap out the ugly FMVSS 215 equipment for some more aesthetically pleasing pieces, but what cars don’t look all that bad with their U.S. mandated bumpers?

I think the Mercedes Benz W123 and the ’74-’89 Porsche “Impact Bumper” 911 are two great examples of making the best of a bad regulation. The W123 bumpers were fairly slim compared to its Munich rival’s. The 911 of that era featured love-it-or-hate-it accordion bumpers that, I think, look pretty nifty depending on the car’s color. Perhaps due to the 911’s laughable market in recent years, I wonder if Impact Bumper models have become more acceptable out of desperation?

What do you think? There are surely more U.S. market vehicles from the oil crisis period that get the enthusiast “OK!” What other cars made from ’74-’82 managed to stay sharp despite FMVSS 215?

Photography by kinja-img.com, BonhamsCool & Vintage, Federico Bajetti, Rémi Dargegen 

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Adrian Burke
Adrian Burke(@yvr-r35)
1 year ago

Well, definitely NOT the Countach. That was ridiculous.
Era BMW 2002’s weren’t much better.
The Merc wasn’t so bad. I don’t love them on the Porsche 911.
Mark might be right – the 928?

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira(@sketchtank)
4 years ago

I stopped reading after “as if the Countach wasn’t folded-paper-ugly enough” and promptly erased your name and all of your articles from my memory.

Chuck Goolsbee
Chuck Goolsbee
4 years ago

I own a remarkably original 79 E21 BMW 320i, with enormous diving board bumpers. I’m super-conflicted about it, as on the one had it can only be original once, but damn are they ugly.

Scott Lewis
Scott Lewis
4 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Goolsbee

I had a ’77 320i, and while the bumpers were hideous to look at, they made excellent footrests when joined with those flat hoods and trunks. Add in that the hood and trunk were made of decent steel, and you’ve got one of my favorite cars to sit ON ever.

Thatdirtykid
Thatdirtykid
4 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Goolsbee

Push them in. Still origional enough right?

Gokshin
Gokshin(@gokshin)
4 years ago

Saab 99 Turbo US version of course..

Dutch Stick
Dutch Stick(@roorda)
5 years ago

Triumph Spitfire with the big black bumpers. Gave it extra lenght.

Nom DelaNom
Nom DelaNom(@fb_100007357035967)
5 years ago

I quite like the big rubber bumpers on the Jaguar XJ-S and the series 3 XJ6, probably because they were more or less designed with them in mind. Besides, it’s quite handy having a nearly 3″ flat rubber ledge for tools when working or champagne glasses when showing.

Azmi Afyouni
Azmi Afyouni(@elbeik)
5 years ago

The US -spec bumpers on Mercedes-Benz from the eighties were really atrocities.
You could use a w116, w123 or r107 bumper as a bench.

Mark Willenbrock
Mark Willenbrock(@markwillenbrock)
5 years ago

Best integrated bumpers of all are the Porsche 928’s.

This ridiculous legislation took a heavy toll on European car design, with several manufacturers simply mounting the US spec bumpers in the retracted position for other markets. Imagine how different an XJ-S would look with the slim chrome blades it was intended to wear.

moosesport
moosesport(@moosesport)
5 years ago

The 911 was it. Honorable mention to the 944.

Tom DesRochers
Tom DesRochers(@brown76)
5 years ago

I can’t find the part where the article excludes US manufactured vehicles from answering the question. Still, to cover myself, two answers:

Of imports:
VW Type 1 (The real Bumblebee!)

Of Made-in-USA:
Pontiac Firebird

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
5 years ago

Afshin – As promised here it is . After careful consideration and at the risk of incurring the wrath of many here including the Brits and French here’s my answer ;

The car that wore its US mandated Snout & Tail warts the best .. though not good is in my opinion ;

The Citroen SM ; First off because the design was radical enough that it could accommodate properly integrated ‘ safety ‘ bumpers . And more importantly .. because Citroen’s designers did such a damn good job creating those Snout & Tails warts into the design what with their overall aesthetic not to mention the French penchant for the fine art of Jolie Laide .

As for the rest mentioned here ;

The 928 was designed from the outset to accommodate the safety bumpers in all markets which disqualifies it from the discussion

The MGB’s rubber nose looks like an afterthought

The Volvo’s 240 US bumpers were an abomination

Gee the C3 is an American car so no accommodation needed

———-

PS ; JAlfa – No offense taken . No harm done . Other than the ‘four paragraph’ comment I really did love it and got a good laugh out of it as well … and yes I really do wish the driver was me . Which is to say … take out the ‘ four paragraph ‘ bit .. and I would of given you the Comment of the Day award … damn clever actually ! Verging on offing brilliant !

Rock On – Drive On Tastefully – and do please Carry On

Mark Willenbrock
Mark Willenbrock(@markwillenbrock)
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Citroën disqualify themselves with the SM thanks to the appallingly ugly US spec headlamps…

Michael Bell
Michael Bell(@professor_speed)
5 years ago

Although not an an import I think the C3 corvette did what the europeans hadn’t done and make it a seamless part of the design. Possibly more so than the original body, and in some ways closer to the concept car. (Not necessarily better looking , but well integrated.) Way better than Porsche accordion nonsense.

DrewD
DrewD(@drewd)
5 years ago

Porsche 928. Of course it was probably one of the first Euro cars designed from a blank sheet with the legislation in mind…

Scott Spaeth
Scott Spaeth(@fb_1601306911)
5 years ago

The answer is easy: Volvo 240. It would have had those massive aluminum bumpers, which fit with the general look of the car-as-tank theme, even if there had been no Federal 5mph standard. The lines weren’t ruined because they were part of the design from the beginning.

David Ellmaurer
David Ellmaurer(@ellmaurerdj)
5 years ago

You have to mention the MG B in this conversation. A lot of people hate the plastic bumper, but I think they did a great job blending in the new bumper without changing the design of the car.

DrewD
DrewD(@drewd)
5 years ago

I think I remember reading they also had to raise the ride height to put the rubber bumpers or headlights up at the legislated height, and the rubber bumper cars don’t handle as well as the early cars (i.e less safe due to increased safety legislation).

John Roth
John Roth(@johnroth)
5 years ago

The W123 pictured in the article has Euro spec bumpers which are fine. I’m sorry, the US bumpers were still awful.

It’s a fringe car, but the DeTomaso Pantera L models were OK. The bumpers changed the look of the car some but didn’t make it heavy looking or ungainly. On the other end of the spectrum, US version Ferrari 308 GT4’s were horrible. Better off grafting AMC Pacer bumpers onto the thing.

US bumper regulations were a lesson in the automotive design cycle in the 70’s. It took a good 5 to 10 years to get bumpers that weren’t ill executed afterthoughts.

Thom Semeniuk
Thom Semeniuk(@semeynormal)
5 years ago

who wore it better? Europe because no bumper…

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
5 years ago

None of them !

( certainly the shortest response I’ve ever given .. but what more need be said ? )

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

.. but hey .. just so’s I don’t disappoint anyone 😉 There was the more than Bad enough . There was the whole lot worse than that . And then there were the abjectly and blatantly effing Ugly south end of a north bound mule one’s . Good never even so much as coming into the discussion

Afshin Behnia
Afshin Behnia(@afshinb)
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

But does “best” have to imply “good”? In other words, what’s the least bad?

JAlfa
JAlfa(@daglobalconsultants)
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

OK GS… I was just fooling with the (ahem argh err) F40 comment yesterday… Don’t be sensitive… You gotta be able take it if you like dishing it out… Type away sir…

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger(@gtrslngr)
5 years ago
Reply to  Guitar Slinger

Afshin ; ” Best ” by the very definition of the word implies at the very least … good . As far as which is the least bad ? Good lord .. That’ll take a fair amount of consideration because they all were The Bad , The Worst and The downright Fugly

[ cue in Ennio Morricone soundtrack please ]

Hmmmm .. I’ll think about that .. taking it as a challenge … and get back to you .