Car

The Many Ways in Which Cars Were Stupendously Unsafe 60 Years Ago

From the December 2017 issue

Unpadded metal surfaces, blunt knobs and rods, steering columns that impale—and seatbelts weren’t even on the options list. We may think highly of the 1955 Chevrolet, but like all cars of the era, it didn’t think much of its passengers; here we use it as a lens through which to view the state of automobile safety of the time. Yes, 62 years later, things have become much safer.

A-Pillars: The ’55’s wraparound windshield was gorgeous. It also left the front of the roof supported by only thin pillars of sheetmetal, ready to collapse under the car’s weight in a rollover. But just look at them.

Steering Column: Though the collapsible steering column was invented in the 1930s, GM didn’t begin installing them until 1967.

Steering-Wheel Hub: A bullet-nose cap at the center of Chevy’s two- and three-spoke steering wheels all but guaranteed forehead-shattering or sternum-smashing injuries.

Dash: No squishy soft surfaces here. Only paint cushioned the blow from skull-crushing metal.

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, Getty Images,
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1955 Chevrolet Bel Air

Hood Ornament: A glorious homage to jet-age styling with sharp edges that filleted pedestrians as they were launched skyward.

Parking-Brake Lever: An unforgiving steel tube filled with an unforgiving steel rod. In other words, the sword of Damocles.

Door Latches: If they didn’t pop open in a crash, they stayed closed, jammed by a collapsed structure.

Doors: No built-in guard beams, no soft surfaces, and with handles and window cranks seemingly designed to gouge flesh. Combine these doors with a structure that buckled, and you end up with an animal trap. That we survived at all is amazing.

1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, Chevrolet, 1950s, Getty Images
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Front Crumple Zone: In a crash, the frame and passenger compartment would buckle and metal would fold onto itself, but there was no managed energy absorption. If a gruesome injury didn’t get you, you’d be trapped inside when the doors couldn’t be opened.

Front Bench Seat: Held in with a couple of bolts, and without belts to hold humans in during a collision, the front seats did nothing to stop a body from bouncing around the cockpit like a pinball.

Fuel Door: Located on the driver’s-side rear fender near the tail, where a collision virtually guaranteed a fuel spill. In ’56, it was moved behind the taillight, which was worse.

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