Think Your Old Car Was Awesome? It Probably Wasn't

August 21, 2013

There are many reasons to hate federal regulations, especially when it comes to cars. Those rules can be complicated. They often lead to contentious debate and bureaucratic inefficiency. They can add new equipment to our cars, causing them to weigh more and cost more.

But there are upsides, too -- the biggest being that government rules typically make our cars safer. Airbags, electronic stability control, seatbelts: those were all made possible though federal regulation. And that explains why the U.S. is experiencing historically low fatality rates (even though we're expecting an uptick, due to factors that are tougher to regulate). 

We're reminded of this every time we read comments here and on other auto sites -- comments like, "Modern cars are all crap! My 1990 Geo Metro can get 55 mpg!"*

Look, we appreciate the cars of yesteryear as much as anyone. We love their style, their "luxury" touches, even the ads that sold them.

But there's a reason those cars aren't made anymore. And perhaps the best illustration of that reason can be found in the video embedded above, in which the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety pits a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air against a Chevrolet Malibu made exactly 50 years later. Note which car comes out on top.

(FWIW, we hear that the owner of the mint-condition Bel Air sold it to the IIHS not knowing what the company intended to do with it. Ouch.)

Naysayers might argue, "Oh, the Bel Air was just a product of its time. Cars naturally evolve to become safer, with or without federal regulation. That kind of accident would never happen on a modern vehicle."

We would encourage those folks to check out this video:

That's a 2013 Suzuki Alto K10. Though the video was highlighted at IndiaAutosBlog, the Alto has been sold around the globe and remains hugely popular in certain countries.

The Alto isn't available in the U.S. (in part, because Suzuki bit the dust), but we've seen cars like this before. In fact, it's a lot like the small cars sold in the U.S. during the 1970s and 80s -- rides like the Honda Civic, or maybe a Chevy Sprint -- manufactured before crash structures, airbags, and other safety features were regulated.

All of which is to say: yes, regulations can be annoying. They can minimize the fun of driving and drive up the cost of our cars. But would we really want to go back, even if our cars were lighter and more fuel-efficient?

That's not a rhetorical question. Sound off in the comments below.

* Note: thankfully, we have never read this exact phrase.

[h/t John Voelcker]

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