Big Water-Filled Bumpers Were Once Almost A Thing

Chances are, you’ve thought about bumpers at least a little bit. Maybe it was when modern, energy-absorbing bumpers saved your ass in a wreck, or when you found a minor scrape to a bumper cover would cost you $1100 to fix. But I suspect that you’ve never thought “Hey, wait a minute. Why the hell aren’t my bumpers were filled with water?”

I guess that’s what sets you — and most bumper-having humans — apart from people like John Rich, the man who invented “hydraulic bumpers.” That name makes them sound a bit more complex than they actually are. A slightly more accurate name might be “bumpers with industrial-grade water balloons attached to them.” The name rich applied to the bumpers was a much more fun-sounding one: Hi-Dro Cushion Cells.

Of course, I first heard of these from my big pile of old Popular Science magazines:

Illustration for article titled Big Water-Filled Bumpers Were Once Almost A Thing

I’m glad to see I can get a set for my Beetle. Well, if my mail-order time machine-underpants did more than give me a weird rash.

Now, I understand that the initial reaction to these bumpers is normally a derisive one. They look clunky and comical, when an impact happens they emit an equally comical-looking money shot of a water geyser, and all of our instincts tell us that this is a crackpot idea, worthy of amusement only. And, sure, that was my first reaction upon seeing this old promotional (and silent) video:

But, the more I thought about it, the less confident I was in my derision. For one thing, they don’t look any worse than the massive rubber blocks most car makers had to include on their bumpers from about 1973-1985, and, in the case of that VW Type III Fastback with the body-colored hydro-guards, I think they’re almost fetching.

More importantly, though, they actually seem to do their job well, which is to protect the car’s bodywork at lower-speed impacts. Hell, most factory chrome bumpers in the late-60s/early 70s era this was shot did a pretty terrible job at this task.

Illustration for article titled Big Water-Filled Bumpers Were Once Almost A Thing

These bumpers were actually used on taxicabs in Portland, as well as in New York and San Francisco. Taxis, of course, are some of the most likely cars to have to deal with low-speed impacts to bumpers. The results were pretty impressive:

In an initial test sampling, nearly 100 taxi fleets from New York to San Francisco reported unexpected benefits from the use of Water Bumpers. Results were sizable reductions in accident-repair costs (down 56%), down-time costs (50% lower), and accident-claim payments (reduced 58%), as well as in time lost by drivers due to accident injuries.


Those are pretty damn good results, any way you look at it. Also impressive are some descriptions of tests of the bumpers, described by John Rich’s grandson, who uploaded the above video to YouTube (emphasis mine):

The hydraulic effect of just simple tap water in this rubber cell did the work of spring and shock absorber, like your cars suspension system, and could be simply bolted on with little difficulty for most cars. I have seen the films where they have a man sitting on the trunk of a car equipped with his water bumper, and have another car also with his water bumper mounted run into the parked car at 15 mph. Not only was there no discernible damage, but the volunteer had his legs between these two cars and did not hardly suffer much bruising. One volunteer even got the confidence to place his head between the two cars with a 10 mph impact, and again suffered no injuries.


Dude put his head between two bumpers during a 10 MPH impact? I’m not sure I’ve ever believed in anything as much as that unnamed zealot believed in those water bumpers.

Now, modern bumpers are vastly better than anything that was around in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and do a truly remarkable job of dissipating energy from major impacts and keeping drivers alive and free from issues like a steering column bisecting your thorax like some giant, toothpick’d hors d’oeuvre. But what they’re still not great at is dealing with small impacts in a cheap and easily repairable way. If they did, we wouldn’t see ugly gym mats like these strapped to cars:

Illustration for article titled Big Water-Filled Bumpers Were Once Almost A Thing

The water-bumper guards and full-bumper covers aren’t exactly elegant, but they’re no worse than that Parking Armor thing, and they’re better than a bumper cover full of cracks and scratches.

So, maybe water-filled bumper protection is worth another look? There’s a lot of appeal to the idea that a relatively low-speed collision could be something that required nothing more than a towel and a hose-refill of your bumper. In winter, I suppose you’d need to add antifreeze, to keep from ending up with big ice battering rams, and the weight might be an issue, too.


Though, on the plus side, a little red food coloring could turn even the most mild parking-lot tap in to a gruesome faux-bloodbath, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The results of testing seem to have been pretty impressive, and it’s not like these were particularly expensive pieces of equipment to manufacture — so why did these not catch on? I suspect some combination of aesthetics and improvements in mechanical impact-absorption technologies, as mandated by stricter crash-protection laws, had a lot to do with it.


But I’m still sort of taken by the idea. Maybe it’s time for some more tests?

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I’m going to patent my upgraded design, using mercury. It is so much more viscous and massive than water, it ought to provide superior energy dissipation qualities during impact.

It also has a far lower freezing point than water.

Something in the back of my mind tells me it probably isn’t a good idea, but I can’t quite pinpoint it. Mercury it is then!