Remember the chrome bumper? Today's trucks still sport a hint of them but, by and large, the once ubiquitous chrome bumper on an automobile is a thing of the past. If today's bumper has any chrome at all, it is applied as a stylish trim piece.
The common chrome bumper had a long and useful history. First appearing in the teen years of the 20th century, the bumper was added by automakers to provide protection to a car's sheet metal, both front and rear, in low-speed collisions. Early bumpers were little more than a strip of heavy steel across the front and back of the car, with little attention to style. Over time the bumpers became an important design (and stylish) element of automobiles and helped define a brand.
By checking my copy of the book "100 Years of the American Auto," I determined that bumpers didn't start appearing on cars until around 1915 or 1916. In the book is a color photo of a 1916 six-cylinder Reo sporting a thin, straight-as-an-arrow bumper. Unlike bumpers that followed, it appears to be a painted metal strip and mounted only in the front.
For a long time bumpers were treated as accessories by the automakers. The 1926 Chevrolet Superior could be outfitted with an optional front chrome bumper that featured a two-bar design. From photos shown in the "100 Years" book, it appears that bumpers became more and more common in the '20s. As the decade wore on, bumpers became more substantial and more complex. Long gone was the straight-across, single-bar bumper.
In the '30s and '40s, the more complex bumpers became more and more decorative, but all were mounted low, in front of and/or below the radiator grille. It took the styling exuberance of the '50s to see the design of bumpers become an important styling device as will as a damage-avoidance device.
Buick got the '50s ball rolling by creating a bumper/grille combination on the 1950 model featuring the trademark vertical grille bars attached directly to the bumper.
All of the U.S. automakers started new bumper trends that decade. Oldsmobile introduced a front bumper in '55 that featured an oval over-and-under bumper design, and Pontiac, with the '55 car, used a two-piece split bumper up front. Chrysler introduced stylish bumpers on its landmark '57 Forward Look cars; especially notable were the U-shaped rear bumper on the '57 DeSoto and the twin-blade front bumper on the '57 Imperial.
Ford was adventurous in the late '50s. The inaugural Edsel should be given credit for taking the front bumper to another level. Instead of a one-piece, horizontal stamped metal bar, the Edsel actually used three bumpers: an ovoid one that fit into the brand's signature (and ahead of its time) vertical grille and one each on either side of the vertical unit. In '57 on the two-seater and then again in the first four-place models in '58, Thunderbird used an attractive two-piece over-under, looplike grille similar to Olds.
By 1959-60 many automakers started to use thinner bumpers to help make the vehicles look lighter and more modern. Chevy, for one, in '59 with its full-size bat-wing cars, and in '60 with the Corvair, used bumpers front and rear that were narrow and mounted higher. The designers filled the space below the bumper with a painted metal valance. Many other makers also used the thin blade-like bumpers at the time.
The next big innovation in bumpers came in 1968 when styling leader Pontiac introduced both the chromed one-piece metal "loop" bumper (and found on a number of other cars soon after) and the Endura bumper system on the fabulous GTO. I believe that the GTO was the first high-production model to offer a bumper that was painted the body color. Even more significant, the bumper was "soft" and could be mounted directly to the body, eliminating the unsightly gap between the bumper and the sheet metal found on all other cars.
Pontiac's introduction of a bumper that was made of a plastic material that could both act as a bumper and be painted to match the car's body was a huge design advancement and opened the doors to major bumper improvements in the decades that followed.
Big bumper changes came in the '70s when the government had a major role in changing how a bumper was designed and assembled. In 1972 new government-mandated rules required that U.S.-sold motor vehicles must withstand, with no damage, a 2.5-mph collision. A short time later that requirement increased to 5 mph.
The automakers' clumsy and awkward (some say ugly) answer to the new bumper standards set back bumper design tremendously. Gone were the attractive, but almost useless, bumpers found on cars produced during the '60s and prior to 1972 (think 1966 Buick Riviera, for example). The GTO Endura-type bumper did not meet the new bumper standards, so automakers were forced to return to using substantial chromed metal bumpers like those in the past and place them far enough in front of the car so that they could do their job in a fender-bender.
The post-1972 bumpers did their job but they were bulky and unattractive. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then we have both the new bumper standards and the government approval of composite headlights to thank for the big changes that came to bumper design and assembly in the past couple of decades.
By the mid-'70s and into the mid-'80s two significant trends evolved, both affecting bumper development. First was the widespread use of painted plastic being used on the exterior of the cars, and the second was the approval by the U.S. government of composite headlights (contoured lenses with replaceable bulbs), as opposed to sealed beam headlights.
To eliminate the large gap that separated the new 5-mph bumpers from the car bodies, designers and engineers developed plastics that could be used to fill the space between the bumper's edge and car body.
Over time the use of plastic "skin" expanded until today a plastic shell or fascia covers the entire front and rear of a car.
The actual bumper is a beam behind the fascia hidden from view. The plastic fascia gave car designers enormous freedom in shaping a vehicle's front and rear end.
The other significant trend that changed the way a bumper looks involved big changes in headlight design. Starting with the 1984 Lincoln Mark VII, U.S. automakers dropped using the rectangular sealed-beam headlights and switched over to lighting fixtures with lenses that could be shaped in any fashion to fit the surfaces of the car body.
This development opened up all kinds of options for designers to create cars that were lower in front and more aerodynamic.
The all-chrome metal bumper is not returning on cars, but the shiny chrome look on bumpers is making a comeback as a fashion statement. A way has been found to apply a shiny chrome look on the plastic fascia, and many automakers are taking advantage. The shiny grille, so prevalent in the past, is making a wonderful comeback. I, for one, am pleased to see some shimmer on a car's face once again - just like the old days.
Dar Davis is the director of the annual Krasl Concours on the Bluff car show and owner of DavisBarber + Associates LLC, a car purchase consulting firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.