By Bob Blake

In the automobile’s infancy, bumpers were an option and purchased separately. As more cars hit the road and collisions frequent, they became standard equipment. With the conservation of chrome during W.W. II, automakers used painted metal bars. During the “Go Go” fifties, the front and rear of cars became a mass of shiny metal. In the next decade, manufacturers covered the metal protection with a color matching plastic fascia that complimented the car’s design. So goes our love/hate relationship with the lowly automobile bumper!

A bumper is simply a structure integrated with a car’s front and rear that absorbs impact in a minor collision. Ideally, passengers are protected and repair costs are reduced – maybe! British native, Frederick Simms, first attached protective bars in 1904. His rigid design protected the car, but transmitted the impact energy to the passenger’s bodies. Not good!

Years ago, the bumper served as a means to push a stalled car with another vehicle- a common motoring experience 75 years ago. When was the last time you saw two cars on the side of the road, slowly nudging up to one another, to see if the bumper height matched? When the level was different, often one bumper often caught or “hooked up” with the other one. Today the term “hooked up” means something entirely different!

To untangle the two locked cars, the motorists frequently climbed on the bottom bumper and jumped up and down to free them. If that failed, the trusty bumper jack was used to lift one car off the other. Bumper jacks went the way of the bumper – gone!

The federal government introduced the first safety standards in 1967 and mandated bumpers must withstand low speed impact without damage to the car – a true bumper. General Motors lead the way in 1968 with an esthetic plastic covered bumper that flowed with the body lines and absorbed a 5 mph shock without harming the car. A Hemmings Motor News© article recounts auto designer John DeLorean, dressed in a suit, sledge hammer in hand, forcefully striking the front of a brand-new red 1968 GTO without damage. The tightly packed urethane foam, bonded to a steel frame, absorbed the blow.  The flexible paint did not chip. All manufacturers eventually adopted this design.

Based on the principles of physics, a bumper that protects a vehicle at 5 miles per hour must be four times stronger than a bumper that protects at 2.5 miles per hour. Today’s cars have energy absorbing foam-like cells over the steel to absorb the impact. 

Collisions between different height vehicles continue to pose problems. For side impacts, auto bodies have door reinforcements at strategic points to lessen damage. Air bags also save thousands of lives each year.

Under-ride collisions occur when a smaller vehicle slides beneath a larger one. Tractor-trailers are a bad mismatch and these impacts frequently cause severe injuries or fatalities. A typical tractor-trailer bed is about at the level of a seated adult in a passenger car. Such an accident resulted in death of actress actress Jayne Mansfield. Shortly afterward, the federal government required a rear under-ride guard, also known as a “Mansfield bar.”

Think about it this way: Without a shiny bumper there is much less chrome to polish… and the sleek, energy absorbing hidden ones are much safer!