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Film Friday: 'Head On' pits a 1938 Chevy against a mighty locomotive

Fri, 28 Mar 2014

The train is, in many ways, the enemy of the automobile. We're not even getting philosophical about personal transportation versus mass transit or diving into disputes over whether to fund interstates or railways: Trains are simply bigger and heavier than even the bulkiest of cars, and they're quite happy to turn any vehicle that happens to be parked on their tracks into scrap-metal pancakes without slowing down.

It's physics, people. When an unstoppable force meets a very movable're not going to want to be close to the point of impact.

Unless, apparently, you're in a 1938 Chevrolet sedan. And that train happens to be moving very, very slowly. At least we think that's the point of this 1938 film reel titled "Head On."

In typical Jam Handy fashion, the film uses a series of seemingly disparate examples-- racing yacht masts, high-speed passenger trains, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge -- to introduce a concept applicable to automotive engineering. In this case, the box-girder frame used on the '38 Chevy. To demonstrate its impressive compressive strength, a sedan is sandwiched between a Pere Marquette 2-10-2 "Santa Fe" locomotive and another railcar. The impromptu piece of rolling stock gets bumped along the rails without getting crushed like an egg, all thanks, we're told, to its box-girder frame.

This raises some interesting questions about the merits of modern vehicle construction versus the stout -- to the point of being unyielding -- ladder-frame methods of the past. The whole point of designing a crumple zone into a car is to manage impacts and to absorb the energy of a collision. The more energy that goes into deforming metal, the less that goes into you. And you are, at least to your mother, less replaceable than the car you're driving. So it's entirely possible that a modern car might come out of a similar test looking worse for the wear than this '38 Chevy while performing far better in an actual collision where passenger survivability is concerned.

Either way, we think this frame does a good job presenting the supposed merits of a new car in a novel, engaging way. We'll watch a new Impala go toe-to-toe with an F40PH. You listening, Chevy?

By Graham Kozak