People have been driving into things for about as long as there have been cars. That’s a problem for many reasons, not least of which is that cars have always been expensive. Bumpers were invented in an effort to reduce repair costs and protect pedestrians, but car manufacturers quickly turned them into decorative features.

Practically all cars and most trucks today have complex plastic molded bumpers. If you’ve ever damaged one you’ll know they are expensive to replace, which seems to negate their original purpose. Some vehicles, though, and fire trucks are a great example, have stuck with metal bumpers. While sometimes painted or chrome-plated steel, on some vehicles you’ll spot a polished stainless steel bumper. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each, prefaced by a little bumper history.

The Origin of Bumpers

In 1906 Frederick Simms was granted a patent for a device he called a “buffer.” This was to be fitted to the front of a motor vehicle, and if desired, also to the rear. The patent tells us its purpose was to, “… prevent damage to lamps, wings, radiators, and other parts of the vehicle should the latter come into collision with an obstacle and also to guard against damage to persons or vehicles on the road.”

Today we call these devices bumpers, and NHTSA regulations require every vehicle to be fitted with them.

Modern Bumper Options for Trucks

Here we’re going to talk about three types of bumpers that could be fitted to fire trucks, utility trucks, other work vehicles, or even RV’s. These are:

  • Painted steel bumpers
  • Chrome plated bumpers
  • Polished stainless steel bumpers

Painted Steel Bumpers

Regular steel is relatively easy to form and also quite strong. Its big negative is that it rusts. Rusting can be postponed by painting, although getting a really sound coating takes a lot of preparation. Plus, painting releases potentially harmful Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) into the air that need capturing by expensive filtration equipment.

The biggest problem though is that as soon as that paint gets chipped or scratched, or cracked when the bumper is bent out of shape, moisture will get in. Rust inevitably follows and within months the paint will start lifting off.

Chrome Plated Bumpers

Think of cars from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and you probably picture huge chrome bumpers shaped to look like jet or rocket engines. Especially when buffed and polished they can look gorgeous, but they have two issues: they’re not very durable and the chrome plating process is complex and hazardous.

Chrome-plated bumpers start out as steel bumpers which are then electroplated with one or more layers of nickel. That’s topped with a very thin layer of chromium. This withstands stone chips and weathers better than paint, but it’s not flexible. If the bumper gets bent, the chrome plate cracks, moisture gets in, and, well, you know the rest.

In addition, chrome plating involves hexavalent chromium, which has a host of associated health hazards. As a result, places that perform chrome plating are getting harder to find.

Polished Stainless Steel Bumpers

Stainless steel can be polished until it looks almost like chrome. Unlike chrome-plated or painted bumpers, though, there’s no risk of unsightly corrosion. If scratched, it just forms a new oxide layer. If bent, it can just be pushed back into shape and re-polished.

Stainless steel is stronger and more expensive than regular grades and takes more skill to form and weld. Factor in the finishing costs and lifetime though and it can easily come out cheaper overall.

Improving On the Original

The Simms patent describes his “buffers” as being constructed “… in a manner similar to that used with pneumatic tires, or they may be made of solid rubber or of stuffed leather.” Apparently, the idea of a polished stainless steel bumper hadn’t occurred to him. We can’t help thinking he’d be impressed by ours.