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IIHS '09 Malibu vs. '59 Bel Air crash test – Click above for high-res image gallery

We're all well aware of the video released recently by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. You know the one. Modern Chevy Malibu versus vintage Chevy Bel Air. Crash test. The results speak for themselves (see the video again after the jump). The two cars, one a 1959 model and the other from 2009, illustrate exactly how far vehicle safety has come in the 50 years since the IIHS was founded. There are two others dates you should know. 1972 was when the IIHS launched the Highway Loss Data Institute and began collecting objective data on insurance losses. The other date is 1992 when the Vehicle Research Center was opened and the IIHS began crashing cars.

In addition to the aforementioned video, the IIHS has also just released a gallery of images, before and after if you will, of the two cars involved in the celebratory crash. Note the passenger compartment of the '09 Malibu, which stays completely intact, versus the Bel Air that crumbles like a cereal box. Thanks for the tip, Derrick!

[Source: IIHS]


In the 50 years since US insurers organized the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, car crashworthiness has improved. Demonstrating this was a crash test conducted on Sept. 9 between a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu. In a real-world collision similar to this test, occupants of the new model would fare much better than in the vintage Chevy.

"It was night and day, the difference in occupant protection," says Institute president Adrian Lund. "What this test shows is that automakers don't build cars like they used to. They build them better."

The crash test was conducted at an event to celebrate the contributions of auto insurers to highway safety progress over 50 years. Beginning with the Institute's 1959 founding, insurers have maintained the resolve, articulated in the 1950s, to "conduct, sponsor, and encourage programs designed to aid in the conservation and preservation of life and property from the hazards of highway accidents."

A decade after the Institute was founded, insurers directed this organization to begin collecting data on crashes and the cost of repairing vehicles damaged in crashes. To lead this work and the Institute's expanded research program, insurers named a new president, William Haddon Jr., who already was a pioneer in the field of highway safety. In welcoming Dr. Haddon, Thomas Morrill of State Farm said "the ability to bring unbiased scientific data to the table is extremely valuable." This scientific approach, ushered in by Dr. Haddon, is a hallmark of Institute work. It's why the Institute launched the Highway Loss Data Institute in 1972 - to collect and analyze insurance loss results to provide consumers with model-by-model comparisons.

Another Institute milestone was the 1992 opening of the Vehicle Research Center. Since then, the Institute has conducted much of the research that has contributed to safer vehicles on US roads. At the anniversary event, current Institute chairman Gregory Ostergren of American National Property and Casualty summed up a commitment to continue what fellow insurers began in 1959: "On this golden anniversary of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, we celebrate this organization's accomplishments toward safer drivers, vehicles, and roadways. We salute the vision of the Institute's founders and proudly continue their commitment to highway safety."

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      Big points here:

      -This Bel Air was a survivor, not a repainted junk-yard dog. Those claiming otherwise need to go to the TruthAboutCars site and view the car, right down to the fuzzy dice. It wasn't a rust bucket.

      -The photo pretty clearly shows the X-frame was huge factor here. Others have claimed the right fender was unbolted, but it's clear from the after picture that it was just following its frame member after the frame failed at the center of the X.

      -Choosing the X-frame wasn't unfair because this was the most popular car of the period. This basic frame was produced from '58 to '64. Though Ford eked out a win if I recall correctly for '59, most years the Chevy won. Even for '59, among the Biscayne, Bel Air, and Impala nameplates, 973K were sold, not including El Camino, which shared the same design. So you're talking probably close to 1 million in one year. And about 30% had the 6. Plus, Chevy advertised it at the time as a "Safety Girder Frame." AND THIS IS HUGE: it was made the same year the IIHS was founded. So the real question is why would they NOT choose it?

      -Another vehicle, such as a Fury or Galaxie 500, probably wouldn't have collapsed like the Bel Air did, but there's no valid reason to even begin to believe they'd do anywhere near as well as the Malibu did and actually stop the deformation at the firewall. The net result would be a much easier extraction of the fatality, which as far as auto safety goes isn't a major improvement.

      -Lastly, as has been pointed out, the off-set crash is the most common type of fatal crash and it's the only type the IIHS does. It's what they did in their first video released (Cutlass Ciera vs. Cutlass Ciera), the vid replicating America's first collision of two airbag equipped cars (LeBaron conv. vs. LeBaron cpe), and in mini cars vs. midsize (Yaris vs. Camry, etc.). It's also the same test used in Europe, Japan, and Australia to test a car's crashworthiness. So again, the question becomes explain why they wouldn't do an off-set crash.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Ford won in 1957 - 1,522,406 vs 1,515,177 - something I always found curious, because the '57 Bel Air seems to be so much more revered than the '57 Fairlane.

        At least they crashed one of the hideous bat-wing '59's, instead of a good looking car. I'd hate to see a Nomad get beat up like that.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Yeah, I saw that Ford won in '57 and found it odd for the same reason.
      • 5 Years Ago
      This is misleading, implying that a unibody vehicle is generally stronger and safer than a body on frame car, and they are NOT. The truth - GM used an "X-frame" from 1958 - 1963 which of course includes the 1959 model. They stopped using this frame design because they knew in 1964 that it was pathetically unsafe compared to a ladder frame ( a rectangular box with cross member pieces). The center of the "X" was the center of the passenger compartment, thus in a side impact the occupants had no frame protection (you are sitting basically "outside" of the frame). It is also weak in front end crashes, particularly an off-set one as this, because only one "leg" of the "X" is taking the impact, and at a bending angle as well. This frame leg may have even broke off completely. The problem with this frame design is not the lack of a crumple zone, it is the unintended crumple zone all around the center of the "X" which happens to be where the passengers are !

      Whether intended or not, this organization is misleading the public to come to general conclusions of unibody vs body on frame cars, even of modern design. I have also read modern unibody crumple zones may not function after five years due to corrosion. I challenge this institute to take a 2004 unibody vehicle and recreate this same crash test with a 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis (a framed car) and show us THAT. This would give the public something for a fair comparison regarding frame vs unibody, instead of a 50 year old frame of a faulty design that hasn't been used in 45 years anyway ! Cars have come a long way, but I would also like to see this test re-done against a 1966 Impala. It would be interesting to see how much of the vast improvement in the last fifty years actually occurred in the first few years of that time frame.
      • 5 Years Ago
      One other observation: from the overhead view, you can see that the damage to the Malibu's door is from where the Bel Air's front end swings around and hits it after the Bel Air's frame fails. Wow.
      • 5 Years Ago
      'The driver of the 1959 Bel Air would have died instantly'

      Is that because there were no seatbelts?
      If that is the reason, then the rest of the crash results are worthless
      • 5 Years Ago
      there is something wrong with the demonstration.. thats a fake 1959 chevy with plastic body.. vintage cars were stronger than the toys they make now

      Must See!!!

        Todd A
        • 3 Years Ago
        No, the were not. Engineering & science prove it, not this nostalgia for 'classics'. Whether you want to believe it or not, those old cars were death traps.
      • 5 Years Ago
      The only problem here is that the 59' Bel-Air they used is 60 YEARS OLD!! Cars, I would assume, go through structural atrophy as they age, even if they just sit around. But this Bel-Air looked like it had some miles on it. Although I do think the 2009 Malibu would still fare much better in a accident than the '59 Bel-Air, I don't think it's a completely true representation due to the age of the Bel-Air.
        • 5 Years Ago
        60 years old? Using what calendar? 2009-1959=50. Yeah, the car had at least 75K miles and yeah steel weakens some with age. But just what percentage of its original strength are you proposing it had lost to crumple like that? If steel truly ages so poorly even when kept up, why isn't the Brooklyn Bridge's steel-cable supported steel deck in the East River by now? It's 126 years old. It seems to me that even if it'd lost 40% of it's strength we're still looking at firewall collapse and steering column impalement.
      • 5 Years Ago
      should have been a head on then we could have seen what weight would do
      • 5 Years Ago
      Great Sales tool for GM and should help boost Malibu sales
        • 5 Years Ago
        Why? nearly every modern car sold in North America and Europe would hold up as well as the Malibu did.
        • 5 Years Ago
        GM isnt really behind this or using it as a marketing tool, the IIHS just decided to use chevrolets. but some people won't make that connection and assume the malibu is the safest car in town. While Jim is right, the video will be helpful for the Malibu simply because theres now a very visual picture of how safe the car is.
      • 5 Years Ago
      but the '59 bel air is a masterpiece of beauty the malibù look like crap
      • 4 Years Ago
      I believe it was actually in Australia during the early 1960's that concluded that people were being killed in crashes due to problematic vehicle design. The Holdens made by GM Australia were criticized. That book came up with an interesting word for red light running: Xanthochromophilia. (The attraction (philia) of chasing (xantho) colour (chromo).
      • 5 Years Ago
      even Chinese cars do not fold like classic American... That thing folded like Detroit... expect parts of the bel air are still worth money to recyclers.

      Sorry could not help the troll comment... have a nice day.
        • 5 Years Ago
        "even Chinese cars do not fold like classic American... "

        Wow, that's faint praise. You mean a chinese car made in 2009 is a little better than a Chevrolet made in 1959? Next you're going to tell me the sun doesn't actually revolve around the earth.

        "That thing folded like Detroit... "

        I'm sure 50-year-old Australian cars are paragons of safety.

        "Sorry could not help the troll comment... have a nice day. "

        Are all Australians as dumb as you?
        • 5 Years Ago
        just so long as we are not american, we feel fairly superior.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I think I hear a dingo eating your baby.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Safety? The ability to survive a collision with another car contributes about 5-10-15% to the overall "safety" of the car. The multi-car collision survivability is just not a top factor when it comes to safety. The safety of the car is defined overwhelmingly by its ability to avoid getting into accidents, not by its ability to survive an accident that's already in progress. For example, a Civic would probably look bad in a collision with any SUV, but on US roads a lot more people die in their SUVs than in their Civics (per registered vehicle-year).

      I don't deny that the real safety improvements (like brakes and handling) also went a long way from what it was in Bel Air era, but trying to demonstrate it by simulating a two-car crash is just marketing nonsense.

        • 5 Years Ago
        Korben- check out the IIHS stats here:

        Where you'll find this chart:

        Do you have ANY data supporting your statement about how big of a role accident avoidance plays in the results we see? Plenty of accidents occur where people are unexpectedly t-boned or hit by a drunk driver who weaves into your lane at the last possible second where both can happen in unavoidable ways. If you have data that shows how often avoidable accidents occur and how often a car's accident avoidance ability actually makes a difference in the real world, I'd love to see it. Otherwise, what you've written is just speculation.

        Would love to hear your response.
        • 5 Years Ago
        The stats that you quote report absolute numbers of deaths, which is pretty useless for obvious reasons.

        What I'm talking about is in reference to the rather well-known 2005 IIHS study, where they deterine the specific numer of occupant death per million registered vehicle-years.


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