Of all the features outside your car, few are more important than bumpers. Acting as a barrier against the impact from other vehicles, bumpers are essential to the survival of your car and the wellbeing of everyone inside it during a crash. Most drivers know that it is critical for them to get a car with strong bumpers and to take good care of those bumpers from the start. Yet few fully understand the history of bumpers, or how they came to play the protective role they do. By considering the evolution of this feature, you can get a complete sense of just how important it is for your car.
Bumpers in the Beginning
While most of us think of the bumper as a quintessential feature of the automobile, the latter predates the former by more than thirty years. Automobiles emerged on the scene in 1885, but bumpers didn’t start appearing on them until around 1915. When they did appear, they were almost entirely decorative. The earliest bumpers were extremely thin and straight, consisting of a painted strip of metal. They were mounted in the front of the vehicle, but not in the back.
As automobiles became more popular and consumers demanded more artistic vehicle choices, automakers began to design flashier bumpers. The chrome bumper first appeared in the 1920s. Chevy played a pioneering role by offering forward chrome bumpers with two bars as optional features on the 1926 Superior. Other automakers followed suit, designing increasingly complex and stylish bumpers into the 30s and 40s. But even as they came up with more complex bumper designs, they still only saw this feature as aesthetic in nature. They continued to build the bumpers very low on the surface of their vehicles, offering little or no protection in the event of a crash.
After the War
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the United States and other industrialized countries experienced an economic boom, driving demand for ever more stylish cars. Automakers saw the bumper as a valuable source of style and distinction, building further on the designs they had pioneered in earlier decades. Many began to integrate bumpers continuously with the rest of their vehicles’ bodies, creating a complete, flowing appearance.
During the 1950s, automakers started to combine forward bumpers with grilles, setting the stage for their modern appearance. Buick was the first company to attach these two features to one another, while Oldsmobile, Ford, Pontiac, and Chrysler quickly followed suit. Ford took the unique step of combining three bumper features into one on its 1957 Edsel, breaking from the tradition of using a single metal bar. As the decade ended, automakers also started to make their bumpers thinner and therefore lighter. This made it possible to mount them higher on the vehicle. The 1960 Chevy Corvair had bumpers in roughly the position we now think of them.
Perhaps the most significant innovation during this era was Pontiac’s decision to start constructing bumpers out of plastic materials. This made it easier to match the color of the bumper to that of the rest of the vehicle. Moreover, it ended the long reliance on chrome and other metals, laying a foundation for improvements in both the efficiency and the safety of modern automobiles.
The Rise of Regulation
In 1973, the US government introduced its first bumper regulations. Recognizing that this feature had the potential to protect vehicles and drivers in the event of a crash, lawmakers mandated that they had to be able to withstand a rear impact of up to 2.5 miles per hour and a frontal impact of up to 5. Only if the tail lights, headlights, fuel system equipment, and other essential components remained intact during such a crash would the bumpers be considered strong enough to provide full vehicle safety. The government tightened these regulations in 1974, demanding that bumpers also protect the engine, safety systems, and lights in any crash below 5 miles per hour. It increased them even further in 1979 by declaring that all body panels had to survive in a crash at that speed.
In response to these new regulations, automakers had to scale back their creative designs and focus on making bumpers stronger. They returned to using chromed metal bars, and mounted these bars farther forward so that they would withstand fender benders more effectively. The result was bumpers that were safer, but that appeared bulky and unwieldy.
For several years, drivers had to contend with these bulky, unattractive bumpers. But thanks to the invention of composite headlights, it became easier to fuse the safety of new bumpers with the style of older ones. Consisting of replaceable lightbulbs and contoured lenses, composite headlights allowed automakers to avoid leaving a large gap between the bumpers and the rest of the vehicle. This reduced the bulky appearance and gave manufacturers more leeway for creative designs.
Meanwhile, the government continued to modify its bumper regulations. The early 1980s brought the requirement that bumpers had to be no less than 16 inches and no more than 20 above the ground. But Federal authorities loosened the regulations on crash resistance, decreeing that bumpers only had to protect vehicles in front and rear collisions at up to 2.5 miles per hour, or in corner impact crashes of up to 3. Automakers took all these changes into account, designing bumpers that maximized safety in all its forms.
To meet both safety regulations and stylistic expectations, automakers built on Pontiac’s plastic bumper designs during the early 1980s. They started by using a plastic skin to fill the gap separating the car’s body and the edge of the bumper. From there, they began to rely on plastic for more and more. By the 1990s, almost all new vehicles were made with plastic bumper covers, which usually had a steel or aluminum reinforcement beam underneath, as well as plastic honeycomb or Styrofoam to provide cushioning. By combining multiple sources of strength and cushioning, these bumpers provided a high degree of safety during fender benders, allowing cars to meet all applicable safety regulations. They were also lighter than traditional bumpers, lowering the weight of the vehicle and thus the amount of fuel it had to use. This proved essential in complying with environmental regulations, as well as in marketing to eco-conscious consumers.
For all the benefits of the new bumpers, many consumers express nostalgia for the sleek, stylish appearance of their chrome predecessors. Thus in recent years, automakers have focused on designing bumpers that fuse the safety and lightness of plastic covers with the aesthetic of chrome metal units. The most successful applications have involved creating chrome plastic fascia, which are no heavier or less flexible than other forms of plastic. As a result, drivers can take to the road in style while still enjoying modern safety standards.
Badell’s Collision has a detailed understanding of the history of bumpers, along with all new developments affecting this critical safety technology. We use this knowledge to provide the best possible repairs, replacements, and care suggestions for your car. For more information on obtaining quality bumpers and other automotive features, visit our locations in Aston and Malvern or use our simple online estimate form.