Crumple zones are safer than "rigid" steel. The passenger area in a modern car stays rigid, the front and rear ends crush in, absorbing the impact, slowing the car more gradually and keeping the people safe. It is simple, throw your "common sense" away and know this, a 2004 car is safer than every 70s car. Doesn't matter how strong an old car is. At highway speed, SOMETHING has to give and I would rather the front end crush in than the passenger area (where I am sitting).
I have seen what happens when older cars run into modern "safe" cars in my life and the results contradict what you just said. Sure modern cars are safer if you hit a wall head on etc.etc. But when a much bigger and much heavier older car hits a newer car the newer car gets turned into a crumpled up piece of foil. I do agree that older cars aren't particularly safe, but I wouldn't say that newer cars are all that much better.
I would like to add that in high speed impacts, new cars are a lot safer then older cars are, but new cars are also more costly to repair. I had a 72 Dodge Dart and at slow speeds I hit a Lexus, and the Lexus has severe damage where as my car only had a little spot of paint on the bumper.
This doesn't mean that at low speeds old cars are safer, it just means they don't sustain as much costly damage and are frequently still drivable where as a new car would be in the shop. Safety wise new cars always win, but in repairs, old cars don't have the same damage.
Well, there you go. An old car that gets in an accident is more likely to still be drivable.
Too bad you would be less likely to be in any condition to still drive it tho.
That would have been hilarious to see the top-of-the-line Lexus taken down by the lowly '72 Dart! Your experiences certainly match what I've seen--'83 Diplomats knocking Hondas right out of their ball joints leaving the wheels laying in the street, and the Dodge drives away unscathed; '72 Newports getting sideswiped by new Oldsmobiles, with the result that the Chrysler had a small dent and the Oldsmobile had the whole front end caved in. I've seen the same examples over and over! Even so, there's that faction that will continue to preach how new cars are made so much better, and imports have such higher quality than junky old American cars. Let them rant, I guess.
Back in the late 70's when my mom was driving a mid-70's Honda Civic CVCC, she got rear-ended by an old guy in a Lincoln Continental at relatively low-speed. The Lincoln was basically unscathed, while the Civic had minor damage to the rear, and my mom suffered whiplash.
BTW, I think modern cars are safer for drivers and passengers than older cars. Extreme imaginary example car crash (medium force) : 1955 Bel Air vs. 2005 Taurus. Relatively the same size.
Bel Air: no seat belts, no power brakes or ABS, etc. Sure, the outside might be all right, but the inside occupants would get shaken around/thrown through windshield/suffer major whiplash, possibly be killed, etc.
Taurus: HAS seatbelts, power/ABS brakes, airbags, crumple zones, etc. Sure, the Taurus may LOOK all crushed and crumpled and broken, but the passengers (assuming they wear seatbelts and have not de-activated the air bags) would suffer minor to medium injuries and would likely still be alive.