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

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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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Comments (10)
  1. A problem I see with your article above is this: No matter how many hundreds of dollars worth and hundreds of pounds of safety equipment and crashworthiness standards cars are now required to carry, there's always going to be somebody who's going to demand even more safety doodads for other people's cars. Sooner or later we are going to have to ask, how fair is it to place the ego needs of self-appointed caped crusaders over the practical desires of those of us who have to live with their demands?

    The hundreds of pounds added to the weight of cars by safety requirements, should be seen not only in physical terms but also as a metaphor for the way we are being asked to carry the ego baggage of all these self-proclaimed consumer advocates.
     
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  2. Cars are unbelievably better today! In the 50's and 60's, a car with over 100k miles was considered scrap.
     
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  3. It depends on how one defines "awesome". Now for me it's forty three years of flawless service, thrilling performance and classic muscle car looks that draws admiration and respect. It's my 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T. Best ride of my life. AWESOME.... by definition.
     
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  4. I've noticed that one unintended consequence of increases in safety features such as side airbags and rollover protection for roofs is poor visibility. Cars now have much wider A-pillars, smaller rear windows, and higher side window beltlines. Now we even have rear cameras to make up for the postage-stamp size rear window that 5 feet off the ground on SUVs, resulting in more weight, cost, and complexity. Who makes the decision as to whether one tradeoff offsets another?
     
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  5. Surely that should be poor "vision", not poor "visibility".
    Paint all the windows on a car bright yellow and you will improve its visibility, but reduce the driver's vision to zero.
     
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  6. If I'm a driver with poor vision, shouldn't I have glasses?
     
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  7. Cars are definitely better in every way: safety, reliability, handling, braking, zero to 60 speed, fuel efficiency. Today's vehcles might lack the great styling of past cars, but are far better otherwise.
     
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  8. I have own a few cars and trucks from the sixty to present. My fastest was a 63 ford with a 427cid. yes she was fast could past anything but a gas pump. But compared to todays cars, I'll take todays cars anytime, one they are smarter, and more efficient and that is the name of the game. What I think is sad we could have been here tech wise years ago. Yes I'm still a car nut just don't have the money to show it.
     
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  9. My 1995 525I is better than any honda coming off the lot now.
     
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  10. My 20 yr old Mercury Cougar is a gas guzzler, but it's also built like a tank i.e. When rear ended - the other driver's hood folded up against the windshield...the Cougar - not a scratch. A new "tin can" little car...no matter if it has 18 seatbelts & 25 airbags...wouldn't survive the Cougar. She's old - purrs like a kitten & one can't b---h about replacing 20 yr old parts. "Sides that, no one wants to steal it...
     
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