In high school my friend crashed his '68 Rambler, which I remember well because I was in the passenger seat. We hit the other car twice. I'll put the full story down at the bottom so we can get right to the point of this entry: That crash left me with the distinct impression that older cars were better-suited to handle impacts because they were built more solidly. But that simply isn't true. My friend and I had just gotten lucky.
The technology, analytical capabilities and manufacturing techniques that automakers have today completely trumps the construction methods of old; overbuillding by using thicker, heavier parts would prove no match for modern-day crumple zones and airbags. Here's the best video I can find that illustrates this: It's a 1959 Chevrolet versus a 2009 Chevrolet in one of the nastier types of impact, the front offset crash:
Is it not nauseating to see how completely the A-pillar buckles on the '59, and how far the impact penetrates into the passenger cabin? On the other hand, the cabin of the '09 seems largely intact, and the in-cabin camera views show much less interior disturbance in the latter car. In keeping with the technologies of the time, the '59 was clearly not designed to handle shear forces or offset crashes.
My buddy's Rambler was built in 1968, the same year GM was running the crash tests you'll see in this next video. (Warning: If you're not able to firmly remember that these are dummies and not humans, particularly the child-sized models, you'll find the footage disturbing.)
Granted those cars must be traveling at a pretty decent clip, but the ease with which the frames bend, and the amount of force that penetrates into the passenger cabin, is positively gruesome.
Meanwhile, across the pond, Mercedes engineers had been conducting crash tests for decades. This clip starts in the '30s or '40s and covers their progress up to the '80s, though we'll have to rely on our German-speaking readers for narrative clarity. (Check out the detaching rocket engine they use as a propellant at 0:37.)
You can see the progress they've made over the decades, and advancements will only continue to increase. Even a difference of ten years brings significant safety improvements. To illustrate this, a pair of British presenters did their own old-vs-new car crash using Renault Espace minivans, one from the 2000s and one from the '90s:
The conclusion they drew is a little chilling. It seems that those who can afford to buy the latest-model car will generally do better than those driving a used one. My buddy and I got off lucky in the Rambler.
As for that crash, it happened unbelievably quick—WHAM/veer/CRUNCH—but broken down it went like this:
My friend had been following another car too closely; that car braked suddenly to make a turn; my friend slammed on his brakes too late, and instinctively yanked the wheel to the left to try to clear the car; we didn't quite make it, and the front right of the Rambler smashed into the rear left of the other car. Our momentum carried us onto the wrong side of the road. As we shot past the car we just hit, my friend yanked the wheel to the right to avoid a head-on collision with oncoming traffic, and the Rambler's rear right wheel well snagged the front bumper of the first car and ripped it right off.
We came to a stop on the right side of the road, sitting at an angle in front of the car we'd just hit. No one was hurt, but the other woman was pissed. She was driving a small Toyota, and the damage was appreciable. In contrast the Rambler—which is not a large car by any means—seemed solidly built and showed surprisingly little damage. The front right headlight was smashed and the right side fender was slightly deformed, but the rest of the front end looked exactly the same. Basically the Toyota's rear end looked smashed and deformed, but the Rambler looked like a solid block of something that had merely had the corner chipped off.
Since then I'd always believed that older cars were better-suited to handle a crash because they were built more solidly. But now I know my buddy and I escaped injury due to the idiosyncrasies of that particular crash.