A good car to have a crash in…? Part 2

13 Feb

We all risk injury or death with every car journey. But how do we assess or value that risk? Is it great or is it small?

My 87-year-old mother drives every day in a style that leaves her with few willing passengers. In her defence, I will point out that she has never caused an accident in over fifty years, a record that many of us might envy. Okay, there was an incident with a gate-post quite recently. But, since the gate-post no longer exists and therefore the evidence has disappeared, we cannot sentence her to hang for her crime.

She has what the French might describe as “…a joy of life…”. Many witnesses to her ‘enjoyment’ may later  need counselling or possibly just a stiff drink but my point is still upheld.

A passenger being driven by the late actor Sir Noel Coward once told of his horror at Noel’s driving style. During a ‘brief’ journey across London, the passenger suggested to Noel that it was perhaps safer to slow down for cross-road junctions and not to speed up, as Noel was in the habit of doing.

The great man disagreed. Noel argued that the less time one spent in a situation of great danger, the better for all concerned.

Today’s Motor Insurance industry seems to agree with Noel; they minimise their exposure to risk. They do not wish to insure people who are continually exposed to risk and danger. Taxi drivers, (who are driving for long periods of time  but therefore gain great knowledge and skill through their vast experience) have to pay over £1,000 for cover. My mother (who sees the world like Noel, or would do – were it not for her failing eyesight) is fully insured for £50. The price of a parking ticket.

Motor Insurance Claims Investigators fly across the world each day to visit the crashed remains of new cars. Why? The answer is a fascinating one. Switch your phone off and lean closer to the screen.

To avoid being pulled smartly off the internet by stone-faced lawyers, I shall illustrate my answer by using the example of a 1964 Morris 1100. All you have to do is open a new tab, click ‘Images’ on Google Search and type in the date and name of the car. I’ll wait.

The Morris 1100 first appeared in 1962. Although it looked as sexually alluring as a pork pie, it gained immediate success as a solid and well-priced family car. It had many features that made it attractive to buyers and was well designed and quite advanced for its time.

One of the features it originally possessed was a long and narrow chrome strip that runs along the centre of the bonnet. Held in place by wire clips, this bright metal strip added a sense of luxury and much-needed style.

After about two years, the small wire clips often became corroded and weakened. Insurance assessors noticed a fatal flaw. If you were unlucky enough to crash your 1963 Morris 1100 above a certain speed, you would be propelled forward through the windscreen just as a long, sword-like strip of metal was travelling backwards towards you.

Notice that the Morris 1100 quietly loses that chrome bonnet strip, some time around 1964.

This example perfectly illustrates how both manufacturers and insurers have to accept that new cars are effectively ‘Beta-Tested’ on their first owners. There is no such thing as a complete set of crash data information. Manufacturers and Insurers get much important collision information inside floodlit laboratories but all the rest of the facts are gathered by them daily, on location, under emergency floodlights, while those same cars drip their fluids and their metal clicks and pings.

Several luxury car makers proudly describe their vehicles as being “…built without compromise…” What hog-wash. No car would ever meet its owner if this statement were true. All cars are designed within a budget. There comes a point where money has to be made back for all the investment and research and that is called the “New Car Launch”. Get it out in the showrooms and get it sold.

Manufacturers are quick to try and come up with what the driving public wants. When Ford USA noticed American families desired an affordable and chunky-looking 4×4, Ford rushed to release the Ford Explorer. To mask its under-developed ride and handling, Ford lowered the tyre pressures. The tyre manufacturer objected. Ford persisted. Families lost loved-ones. Ford got sued and paid heavily.

Ironically, Renault went to great effort to protect rear-seat passengers from injury with their 2002 ‘New’ Megane II. The resulting rear end design reminded people of a cow’s backside. People just could not take the new car to their hearts. In a stroke of marketing genius, Renault spent a massive wad of money on a song and dance routine: “…I see you, baby…shaking that ass…” and by sheer persistence changed the customer’s mind-set. The car became a success, particularly with women of a certain age…

Once rust and wear takes significant hold of a car’s structure (normally after about six years) the car often behaves much less well in crash situations, even if it was originally well-designed and built. Therefore, we have to rule out most older cars as being a good bet to protect us in a hard collision.

It is a sad fact that young and less experienced drivers are mostly confined to driving old and small cars due to extortionate insurance quotes. While under 21, their yearly insurance routinely amounts to over twice the cash value of their frugal city car. Next time you read that local newspaper headline: ” Teenage clerk fined for being uninsured” consider that if you only take home £8,000 for a year’s work, £6,500 is a lot less to live on.

If both new cars (too little data) and old cars (too much corrosion) are ruled out, then cars of about three years age are ruled in; old enough  to have been modified using ‘real-world’ collision data and young enough to be rust-free, we can add them to the list inside our heads.

Large, heavy cars perform well but with some notable exceptions: tall SUVs have a higher centre of gravity and tip over far more easily than lower-slung cars, particularly if T-boned just in front of the rear wheels as they drive. Their larger, wider tyres  try to hold the car to the road, just as the laws of mechanics want to push them sideways and upwards. It is not a coincidence that top marque SUVs are becoming wider and lower, sacrificing ground clearance for a lower centre of gravity.

I have divided this post called “A good car to have a crash in…?” into segments. The reason is that so many factors come in to consideration that the answer is not a simple list and a box-tick. I can and will show you the answer…but you may at first feel uncomfortable with the results.

© 2012 Loop Withers Roadwax.com

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