Crash test 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air VS. 2009 Chevrolet Malibu

What happens when a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 2009 Chevrolet Malibu drive into each other? This slow-motion video of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's frontal offset test shows the Malibu (or rather, the occupant inside) as the clear winner. (Via The Presurfer)


  1. i would say the cars are safer, but not necessarily the roads.

    now, get rid of cell phones, and maybe you have a case.

  2. My guess is that this is an attempt to drive up the market value of 1959 Bel Airs.

    (Now, if they’d crashed a 2-door, I would really be up in arms…)

  3. The biggest problem I have with this test is the fact that the 59 Malibu wasn’t ever tested (until now) for frontal offset crashes/ nor was it ever designed to be. We didn’t begin testing for frontal offset crashes until 95, so conceivably most vehicles pre-95 would fail at this test. If you really want to see something spectacular, have a full frontal crash test.

  4. When this got first posted several people pointed out that the Bel Air was probably structurally compromised, if you look at the side collision you see rust etc. fly out from the car, so in all likelyhood it wasn’t in good shape.

    Now, for the driver of the Bel Air it probably made no difference, but it could have made quite a difference for the driver in the Malibu.

    Having said this: I drive a 1969 Mercedes (which has a crumble zone) and I am fully aware of the consequences of hitting something. All that safety that was put into cars seems to just have helped people to get more distracted. The longer I drive, the more I think we should replace airbags with large spikes, that should slow a lot of people down.

      1. You’re misunderstanding my comments. It’s about “felt safety” and people try to keep within a certain zone.

        The crumble zones aren’t something you are actively aware of, but the overall “safety feel” is there, thus people do other things instead of concentrating on driving.

    1. The longer I drive, the more I think we should replace airbags with large spikes, that should slow a lot of people down.

      Good idea. Or all cars could be designed like the Ford Pinto.

      1. Nah, there wouldn’t be a constant reminder that crashes have consequences, a nice spike in the center of the steering wheel though should drive that point home rather nicely.

  5. The fuzzy dice on the mirror of the Bel Air was a nice touch. They should have countered it with having the driver of the Malibu texting.

  6. …This totally goes against at least a dozen similar local examples where 50’s and 60’s steel went up against 90’s and 00’s tinfoil and plastic, and not only did the Land Yachts win every time, they were actually able to drive off in all but one of the cases the steel machines could be driven home if not to the body shop. All of the little toy cars and Big Mac boxes on wheels wound up so totaled that you couldn’t even sell the parts for scrap.

    Sorry, but when it comes to car collisions, rock goes through paper.

  7. Y’know, Ralph Nader’s reputation may have been in tatters after the 2000 election, but this video should remind us all that he did, in fact, do something good for the American people.

  8. #15 – yes, old steel cars could probably drive away from an accident. Too bad the original driver had to be peeled off the steering wheel.

  9. One sad bit that reduces the effectiveness of this test…

    The ’59 Bel Air used an uncommon “X” frame where the main frame rails meet in the middle under the passenger compartment. Take a look at the frame by itself:

    And then decide if you’re surprised it folded in an off-center impact.

    I do believe newer cars are safer in an impact, but this particular demonstration gives an easy out to eh doubters.

    1. It’s not at all by chance that Chevrolet products were chosen for this test, the X-Frame was notoriously unsafe in its day and was completely phased out by 1964. Had this been an ’09 Taurus versus a ’59 Galaxie, I can promise that the results would not have anywhere near as much shock value. Chalk this up to grandstanding on the part of the IIHS.

      1. If anything I think the degree to which the X frame crumples makes this comparison even more valid. Because of crash test requirements cars are no longer built with X frames that can’t handle a crash properly.

  10. Quick Poll- if you could show this video to a person in 1959 do you think their reaction would more likely be:

    a) “Wow, those are some impressive safety improvements that you people of the 21st century enjoy” or,

    b) “You still use gasoline-powered automobiles to get around? What happened to hovercars?”

      1. @ Brainspore, @ Felton,

        They would also wonder where our moon bases are and why we aren’t traveling to other solar systems on a daily basis.

        1. I was about to say something about transporters, but Star Trek hadn’t yet come out in 1959, and The Fly didn’t exactly make matter transference look like a good idea.

  11. _OM_ That might be great that they were rigid, the problem is exactly that in many instances. It doesn’t matter how well you’re strapped in and how many air bags you have, the force from that sudden stop will kill you right-quick. And since most cars of the late-’50s have a lap belt at best, as aeroplane said in #17, you’re going to be impaled on anything in front of you assuming you’re not thrown through the windshield.

    New cars get messed up in a frontal collision. They’re supposed to. It takes a lot of people (even after all of these years) a while to come around to the idea that the front end flattening back to the firewall is okay as long as there’s not intrusion in to or buckling of the passenger compartment.

    When you look at crash test footage of a really poorly-performing modern car, you see that the front end starts to flatten, but then you see that energy transferred to the door sills and A-pillars, and roof, whereupon they crease and compress the passenger compartment. Front wheel intrusion is also a big problem, because it’s hard to build a crumple zone (I like the crumble zone thing, actually) in to a wheel. There are some really horrific crash test videos on YouTube showing Chinese-market cars and SUVs that just turn in to an unrecognizable blob of sheet metal, even when hit at relatively low speeds. Actually, watch the Ford Escape vs. the Chinese 4wd.


    Chinese 4wd:

  12. yeah, but what about a 57 Plymouth Fury? crashes don’t bother them at all, according to Stephen King. :-)

    1. @ #30:

      a) That isn’t a VW, it’s a Chinese transport
      b) It is carrying roughly a ton of ballast
      c) It was purposefully staged to see how smooshy they could make it.

  13. Two things:

    1) What the hell are they doing smashing a gorgeous antique like that to bits for crying out loud, and

    2) METAL FATIGUE. Not only was the 1959 Bel Aire not designed to be safe like cars are today, but it’s probably not as durable as it was when it was manufactured over 50 years ago.

    1. To all the people asking “why crash test a 50 year old car?”:

      This test was conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Those are the people who rate how dangerous the cars we drive are so that insurers can bill us accordingly. How much should they charge for full medical coverage if you’re driving a ’59 Bel Air? More than if you drive a 2009 Malibu, apparently.

  14. Those sissy ’59 Chevies were pieces of junk. My ’58 Chevy could take that offset frontal crash test like a REAL car.

  15. This clip is slightly old news if you regularly read the various car blogs.

    The crash test was done to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the IHS and as a “See how far we’ve come” sort of item. It was not meant as a strictly scientific test as much as a general demonstration of what 50 years of safety innovation means.

    The Truth About Cars blog actually tracked down the ’59 Chevy used for this test and spoke with the person who sold it, the car was rust-free and a complete running car. Pictures from the ad show it looking exactly like in the video less hubcaps and rear wheel skirts.

    For all of those who claim that this was a flawed test and that “old cars are tougher” this test shows just how untrue that is. For further proof, here are a few ’59 Chevys in offset crashes back when they were fairly new, and they look just as bad as the aftermath of the test above:
    ’59 vs ’62 starliner
    ’59 2-dr coupe vs ’59 wagon below
    ’59 wagon vs ’59 coupe above (note how the roof is buckled)

    I love old cars (and own a ’62 Mercury myself), but I have no delusions that in a crash I’d probably come out looking like the dummy in the ’59 did.

  16. Not sure what point they are trying to make, if 50 years from now you crash a flying car ( complete with ejection seats) into one of today’s models the new one will look superior and today’s model like a death trap.I don’t have to worry about cars from 50 years a go or 50 years from now, only thing relevant is what’s on the road now that can run into me.

    Thumbs down for not providing any useful information and trashing a classic possibly historic car just to blow sunshine up their own skirts.

    1. I don’t have to worry about cars from 50 years ago

      Apparently, you don’t live in California. There are quite a few 50 year-old cars on the road here.

      1. Absolutely true. My first car was a 1960 Ford Falcon, which my brother still owns. It’s old, but far from the most ancient thing on the road around here. Today it would be considered a death trap but at the time it was among the first American cars to be offered with factory-installed seat belts.

        1. I live in Palm Springs. We have 80 year-old cars still driven by their first owners. Seriously.

  17. It is true that there exist steel tanks from bygone eras that would take a hit from a malibu and probably keep on driving. The difference is that in such a collision everyone in the car is going to be severely injured, if not flat out killed. The car being intact is of no use if all of the passengers were snapped in half. Passengers are squishy and made up of things that tend to snap and break when they eat the kinetic energy of going from 60 mph to 0 in a fraction of a second.

    The ability to bleed off kinetic energy slowly (relatively speaking) is what makes a modern car safer. A modern car dumps a huge portion of its kinetic energy into the engine which is designed to drop out on impact. It bleeds off more by crumpling up. Finally, you have a seat, seatbelt, and airbag that work in concert as a last ditch effort to bleed off even more energy before your squishy human bits need to eat what is remaining from the crash. Basically, everything in a modern car is designed to eat as much kinetic energy as possible before forcing your squishy insides and snappy bones from having to deal with it, and they do a pretty damn good job at it.

    In an iron tank of a car, the car just takes all of that kinetic energy and dumps it into whatever gets hit and whatever poor unfortunate human happens to be attached to the car. To put it another way, any force that has the ability to crumple a modern car such that it crushes and kills the driver is going to be such a horrific hit that it is going to snap a human attached to one of these steel monstrosities in half.

    Seriously, you are better off in a modern car. In an impact where you don’t get crushed to death you are absolutely better off in a modern car because the car will bleed a ton of kinetic energy before you have to eat it with your body, while in an steel monster you are going to eat it all, even at low speed. If you happen to be in an accident so horrific that it crushes the passenger compartment, consider it no loss, because in a steel monster you would have been snapped like a twig anyways.

  18. Granted this is a bit of an old post but when it came out from the IIHS a few months ago many, and I mean MANY auto blogs went off the charts with comments from the “they don’t build ’em like they used to” verses the “meh, people have a skewed version of their reality of things being better.”

    Who was more-or-less right? Well the people who put on the test, and engineers. Where engineers would chime in about these things, taking into account physics, etc. etc., as much as the old timers would like to believe “back in my day…” version of things, yeaaaah not so much. You’d be dead. Doesn’t matter if you want to claim you’d survive in a Fury, Bel Air, Hudson, pick any car, better yet, pick your old car, don’t put any new safety equipment or welds, put yourself in it, and contact me, and I’ll buy a brand new equal land barge and crash it into you at speed and we’ll see if you live and die verses the new car. Hint: You’ll be dead. Computer generated tests to a test like this prove it.

    And I love the weird tinfoil hat wearing conspiracy theorists, all who were proven wrong, “oh but you see… that’s rust there and the frame was compromized…” [nope] “well they removed the engine in the old Chevy…” [nope] “but, but [while the naysayers grasp at straws] the chevy was older, so it had fatigue… ” [nope, they had engineers look at the older Chevy, it was sound] “well [hemming and hawing for something] well… um, the Chevy was an X-frame notorious for…” [on and on]. Literally all these were addressed in one way or another. Yes newer cars are rolling steel tanks, but your odds are living are so, so much higher.

    Just like race cars from that era verses the modern area, the attrition rate of race car drives was astounding 50 years ago, it was considered gambling with death. Nowadays, though dangerous, being a race car driver by profession doesn’t even get you into the top ten most dangerous occupations. There’s a parallel of course, many safety innovations for race cars like crumple zones, ways of having laws of physics disperse energy, etc., have transcended from race cars to regular passenger cars.

    So if someone wants to live in their fantasy time capsule, that’s fine, if you want to believe the older car holds up better, there’s a mountain of evidence by engineers to an actual test like this and others to tell you otherwise. You’re might even be alive due to the tests that got the IIHS where we are, but feel free to ignore the facts.

  19. I was just going to jump into this thread and say

    “Modern Cars have better safety features? Who knew!” but I can see that would have been missed on a lot of people.

    Accidents might have increased due to mobile phones, but that’s about the only factor that would make roads more dangerous than they used to be. Safety standards have come a long long way. Crumple zones are designed to leave your car un-drivable and you in tact. Not much point in being able to drive away if your head contains windshield, steering wheel and a lot less brain matter. Factor in seatbelts (and improvements to them), airbags, abs braking systems and traction control, etc and there are not only less accidents, but people are far more likely to walk away from them than they used to be.

    On top of thing (again at least in Australia) laws concerning speeding, drinking while under the influence (both drugs and alcohol), etc are all much much stricter.

    The best statistics I could find on this were from 1970 and 2006 in Australia.

    The road toll in 2006 of 1,601 was less than half the 1970 figure, while the number of fatalities per 100,000 people (8.0) for 2006 was less than a third of that of 1970. Also, while there were 8.0 road fatalities per 10,000 registered vehicles in 1970, this rate has decreased to 1.1 in 2006.

  20. Be honest: How many of you who are not gearheads or automotive engineers were hoping this would turn out in favour of the Bel Air? I know I did.

  21. Nice test. I wonder how it would have turned out if the Bel Air had an engine installed?

    The engine would have stopped the Malibu from getting into the passenger compartment.

  22. Come on folks; this is propaganda. The Insurance Institute chose a “corner-to-corner” 25-30 mph accident to make the 1959 look bad (it has no collapsable steering wheel and was designed to resist a head on collision, not a corner impact). The new car is better in most ways (progress test: compare a 1929 to a 1959, then a 1959 to a 2009) but in a head on it will depend purely on speed (at low speed both are ok; at 20-35 the new car is better- air bags; at 60 mph everyone dies.

  23. Sure, you can probably drive an old steel car to the shop after most low speed accidents….after you get the steering wheel removed from your torso.

  24. Totally rigged. I drive a 1967 GTO. I chip cars like this Malibu out of my fenderwells. Don’t ever give up common sense (and physics) for government propaganda.

  25. Amazing how someone can say:

    “The Insurance Institute chose a “corner-to-corner” 25-30 mph accident to make the 1959 look bad (it has no collapsable steering wheel and was designed to resist a head on collision, not a corner impact).”

    And say it as if it was a fact, when they have NO CLUE about what they are saying. Just a few minutes of research would show you that the IIHS ALWAYS does a 40 mph (not 25 to 30)offset test these days, because in the real world, there is ALMOST NEVER SUCH THING AS A ‘TRUE HEAD ON CRASH’. Most head on crashes are similar to that test. The odds of 2 cars actually crashing perfectly head-on is astronomical. You would have to do it on purpose in order for that to happen. And another post above was right – most pre-1990s cars would fail as well, to a varying degree. It’s in the last 5 to 10 years that the greatest advances were made. The 1959 was not ‘designed’ to resist anything – it was designed to look a certain way, and to be able to be assembled easily at the factory. Crash protection was not though about in 1959, except by Mercedes and Volvo, and even they would not do well against their modern equivalents. And this test is important – those people who are driving a car that old to a car show or cruise night, as is done all over the US all summer long, need to be very careful. If they do get into an accident, it will most likely be with an ordinary, average newer car like that malibu, not something from way back when. Or worse, with a modern SUV or pickup truck, most of which are heavier than most old cars. And those in the newer cars will walk away, and those driving their antiques will likely be dead. And don’t even start with the badly located fuel tanks. Held under the trunk where the crumple zone should be by 2 thin sheet metal straps, and a fuel filler neck behind the license plate. All ready to catch fire in a rear end collision.

  26. I hate to say this, but your 1967 GTO would only do slightly better in a 40 mph crash. The passenger compartment would still collapse, just not as much, due to the full frame. So instead of being killed instantly, you would die on the way to the hospital or after getting there. Want to see crash tests from cars built similar to your GTO?

    They tested the biggest, heaviest, of each manufacturer vs the smallest and lightest in 1971. As you can see, the smallest cars, vega and pinto, are demolished by the impala and galaxie. BUT – the passenger compartments are just starting to deform in the full size cars, but probably not enough to kill you. So if you crashed mid size cars into the full size, or full size into full size, both passenger compartments would collapse, and kill both drivers. Since your 1967 GTO is not heavier enough than the 2009 malibu, it is very likely it would collapse. Plus, you have only a lap belt in the GTO. Even if the passenger compartment did not fully collapse, you would be dead. And the engine would break through the firewall and enter the passenger comparment, at least partially. Those cars had a strong frame, but the sheetmetal above is weak and poorly attached to the frame. And there is very little structure between the engine compartment and passenger compartment. You would need to install a full roll cage and racing seat belts in order to survive such an impact with a similar weight new car.

  27. Dave Trent This test was quite unfair in that the 59 used the x-frame, which had no side rails, despite beefed up rocker panels (below doors). Not only did this severly weaken the side of the car but compromised the structural integrity of the body as a whole. They used this frame from 1958-64, when it was replaced by the far stronger ladder frame. My 65 Impala would produce far different results.

  28. Dave Trent While new vehicles incorporate airbags and so called “crumple zones”, these 2 items are severly compromised by the drastically downsized front/rear ends of most modern vehicles. Published data has for years proven larger vehicles save lives 2:1 over smaller cars. While shorter, sloped front ends cut nicely through the airstream, and produce good gas mileage, they are no match for the xtra cubic feet of sheetmetal in an old or recent car, kinetic energy or not. Cars produced over the past 40+ years have employed impact absorbing technology along with airbags etc. since the 59 was produced. One must not group every old car in the same category as the one in this test. As I stated in my previous comment, the x-frame had much to do with the outcome of the test. Regardless how many safety features your car may or may not have, old or new, wear your belt and stay off the phone and you’ll have a better chance of seeing gray hair and old age.

  29. Look at the giant rust cloud coming out from under the ’59 as they collide. I have a feeling things would be different if you took a brand new ’59 off the line and did this test with the malibu.

  30. Don’t believe this its old and rusty rubbish, old cars are not as strong as newer ones end of. People look at large old cars and come out with silly comments like Tank and Lead Brick. But this is nonsense, the old stuff was just not designed to withstand these sorts of impacts. In the same way they use more fuel and can’t go as fast things move on. Everybody used to go on about how safe old Volvos where until a UK car program crashed a Volvo 960 head on into a Renault Modus (a small car) the Volvo was turned inside out, the Renault was good with no cabin intrusion. It literally punched its way through the bigger car.

  31. “Totally rigged. I drive a 1967 GTO. I chip cars like this Malibu out of my fenderwells. Don’t ever give up common sense (and physics) for government propaganda.”

    I love this statement because it shows how truly how ignorant some educated people can be when they have no basis for what they are saying other than “because I said so”. That worked when I was 12 not now. Not when I can look at prior comments with links that show for one thing your version of physics is about as outdated as the car you drive. Bigger and more rigid does not always mean safer. Sure your car might come out looking better but again, where does the kinetic energy go. AND please look up the modern information on the physics of kinetic energy before you go spouting off that it is government propaganda. It does not just go away it runs right into the passenger compartment. So no matter how your car turns out looking on the outside, in a loss like this you will still likely be breathing or eating steering wheel and dash panel.

    “Look at the giant rust cloud coming out from under the ’59 as they collide. I have a feeling things would be different if you took a brand new ’59 off the line and did this test with the Malibu.”

    Nope. No matter how clean it is it still can’t escape modern physics.

    “Dave Trent This test was quite unfair in that the 59 used the x-frame, which had no side rails, despite beefed up rocker panels (below doors).”

    I keep hearing this but no one is bringing up the fact that the Malibu has a uni-body frame The only rails it has are in the front and rear and they meld into the body. With a “beefed up” rocker panel and pillars that adsorb that kinetic energy and reroute it around the passenger compartment. So essentially the frame is just as weak as the X but it uses that weakness to its advantage to save the squishy human inside.

  32. “Modern physics”

    How have the laws of physics changed? Point here is, had they done this with another car of similar weight, size, and a less unusual frame, the modern car would have lost, i dont care how good the crumple zones are, the little 2009 malibu would shoot backwards and the driver would have a snapped kneck.

  33. This video isn’t meant to bring value to either vehicle. It simply shows how far we have come in making the cabin safer for passengers! It’s no form of propaganda.

  34. Reminds me of what Jay Leno said about his ’56 Buick, “If you crashed it, they could wipe you off the dashboard and sell it to the next sucker!”

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