Theme: Shutlines – The Body In White Recedes

A look at some rear bumpers illustrates changes in the way cars are constructed

Around the mid 1980s the bumpers of most cars were quite separate items added to the front and rear of the car’s metal structure or “body in white” as it is sometimes known. If you look at a Volvo 340 in its first iteration, for example, the bumper is a plastic coated metal item wrapped around the wings and front valence. The same goes at the back. Clearly the bumper is not an integrated element of the car and you can see the painted metal all around it.

However, the 1971 Renault 5 kicked off a trend with its single piece plastic bumpers that the Volvo eventually caught up with during a facelift. The newer bumpers attempted to look like one piece items but unlike the Renault, the front valence was still there underneath. Throughout the ’80s old school cars were given refreshes that attempted to make the bumpers look like one-piece items.

Facelifted Volvo 340 with a mock one-piece bumper.
Facelifted Volvo 340 with a mock one-piece bumper.

What was happening in principle was that the extent of the pressed metal visible on the outside of the car was being reduced. Under the Renault 5’s bumper there were merely some metal brackets to hold the bumper in place along with a lot of fragile bits like radiators and fans. A car like a Series 1 Mondeo is a direct descendent of this construction. Remove the bumper and there are only unstyled components and ugly brackets. Remove the front bumper of a Volvo 340 and the 340’s main shape is still visible underneath.

Moving forward to the later 80s and early 90s, designers at various firms were still slowly extending the bumpers. The main design themes of horizontal shutlines between the body in white and bumper below left a small metal strip between the bumper and the grille or rear lights. The Mitsubishi Colt from a few days back is an example.

1993 Renault Laguna. Note the small groove under the lamp.
1993 Renault Laguna. Note the small groove under the lamp.

I have selected a few “before” and “after” photos to show how the gap between the rear lamps and the bumper changed from being a small metal tab welded on to the rear wing to being a vertical extension of the bumper. This got rid of the vertical groove that was left when the weld was made. I assume such a line was never shown in sketch drawings of the cars but arrived during the productionising process.


2000 Renault Laguna: note the way the bumper now meets the rear lamp.
2000 Renault Laguna: note the way the bumper now meets the rear lamp.
1994 Saab 900. The little extra panel under the lights is the result of the need to have a shallower pressing. Without it the rear wing would need a deep draft pressing which is complex and expensive.
1994 Saab 900. The little extra panel under the lights is the result of the need to have a shallower pressing. Without it the rear wing would need a deep draft pressing which is complex and expensive.

The result of this is that the bumper has grown upwards, the lamps extend downwards and perhaps the tailgate is enlarged. By this means the strip of metal between the lamps and tailgate on the upper side and the bumper on the lower side is eliminated.


The advantages are that there is less dentable metal on view and the car can be a bit lighter. This solution also allows a more flexible approach to the graphic aspects of the outlines of the lamps and their relation to the surrounding surfaces.

Another effect was to free designers from the clearly horizontal arrangement of the bumper to body shutline and a corresponding freedom to give the lamps newer and sometimes ever more irrational outlines. At the same time the old function of the bumper is hinted at with the residual rub-strip (see the Laguna 2) that still runs horizontally along the assembly.

The body in white was receding and the graphics and forms were becoming ever more plastic, in the aesthetic sense. The shutline between the bumpers, lamps and body in white was now free to be placed more or less wherever the designer wanted it and the visible distinction between the body and bumper disappeared.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

18 thoughts on “Theme: Shutlines – The Body In White Recedes”

  1. I have covered plastic bumpers before. I hope the emphasis here is sufficiently different. The 406 of 1995 got rid of the remaining strip of metal above the bumper but formally looked like the old-school design. Does anyone know an earlier example?

  2. The 5 indeed had the first integrated wrap-around plastic bumpers; but the first car to actually feature that particular style of bumper (although rendered in steel) was the Porsche 911 of 1963-1973. The one-piece front bumper was fully integrated into the body, forming the complete lower portion of the front overhang with a horizontal shutline parallel with the ground, exactly like the R5. The three-piece rear bumper was similar at the corners, except there was no centre section.

    They were so integrated into the design that the F.I.A. required them (along with the Ford Mustang) to compete with bumpers intact as they were considered part of the bodywork.

    1. For the last few minutes I have been staring at images of the 1963 Porsche 911. It is indeed an integrated bumper with what looks like a bumper shape sculpted into it. And it´s made of steel as you point out. This is old technology in service of a new form. I had been thinking that what happens is that new technology is used in service of old forms for a while. Then the possibilities of the new technology allow new forms.
      The Porsche is a fascinating example. I had utterly overlooked it, possibly because it looks so “normal”. The Renault 5 bumper wears its technology on its sleeve, as it was unpainted. I think I must be splitting hairs. How about we award the Renault 5 the honour of being the first mass-market car with a plastic, integrated bumper?

  3. A splendid idea! From a functional point of view, the molded-in-colour flexible plastic bumpers ushered in buy the 5 were hard to beat. Another trend started by the 5 was the ribbed plastic side molding (matching the bumpers in contour and colour) later copied by others including the W126 Mercedes-Benz S-Class.

  4. I should mention, as I have before, the 1968 Pontiac GTO fitted with a body coloured Endura front bumper, though not rear. Not strictly wrap-around, I suppose, since there is a metal front valance beneath it, but it is certainly integrated. There’s a video of John DeLorean taking a sledgehammer to the GTO’s bumper. It’s unlikely Renault’s CEO would have done that since the 5’s was relatively low-tech polyester, whereas the GTO’s was deformable and would spring back after a small impact, like a dashboard. The GTO also set another trend that no-one followed, the bonnet (hood) mounted rev-counter (tach).

  5. The Pontiac looks like it has no bumper at all. Is it fair of me to claim it’s really plastic trim and not really there to protect much? I like the appearance though and conceptually it is the same as a modern “bumper”.

  6. One could think of the bonnet-mounted rev-counter as an early form of the increasingly popular Head Up Display (HUD) many of which do include a readout of RPM.

    1. I was an avid Car & Driver reader at the time and, although my ultimate loyalties probably remained with the European industry, I was in awe of marketing tricks like the hood mounted tach. So sad that just 5 years later the US industry would be trotting out lame devices like the Mustang II.

  7. Fortunately Carrozzeria Ghia cannot be blamed for this. The once proud design house was purchased by Ford in 1970, who thereafter used the name and badge to delineate high-end, often rather garish models of various Fords. In the U.S this included the Mustang II shown above.

    The Ghia-spec Mustang II included such embellishments as a vinyl roof capping with opera-style windows and faux spoke-effect wheel covers. The inside treatment included deep-pile shag carpet, faux woodgrain trim and a digital clock.

  8. Having got over the shuttering of Ghia, I have accepted and indeed embraced the Ghia touch on high-end Fords. I have a Jekyll and Hyde approach to good taste. Bearing that in mind I find Ghia versions to be good fun. They are not for everyone. I can understand and appreciate austere good taste (I have a Lancia fetish) while also feeling that if you want some chintz nobody should prevent you exercising that choice. So I also like the Lancia Lybra and Ford’s Ghia X Granadas. Platinum? That’s a tad to cool for me.

    1. Also, I find Audi’s stringent discipline very compelling too. It’s so intellectually refined yet it is the work of designers passionate about rationalism.

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