What Are Those Circles and Squares on My Car’s Bumper?

Turns out, those weird shapes actually serve a pretty big function.
Turns out, those weird shapes actually serve a pretty big function. / Icy Macload, Moment Collection, Getty Images (inside bubble); Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

Imagine you’re at a stoplight—what feels like the longest stoplight. As the unblinking red orb continues to glow, your attention wanders to the cars around you, and you can’t help but wonder, “What’s the deal with those funny shapes on that bumper?” 

As it turns out, they’re more than just a cosmetic oddity. The circle and square shapes you might see on the front, rear, or possibly both bumpers are actually tow eye covers (also called tow hook eye caps). Once these little plastic panels are popped off—don’t worry, they snap back into place—you’ll see a weld-nut, which is part of the vehicle’s bumper beam. Through it, you can screw in a tow eye (also referred to as a loading eye bolt). Cables or rope can be attached to the tow eye, ideally allowing the car to be safely pulled onto a rollback tow truck without causing damage to the bumper.

Generally speaking, they’re not good for long-haul towing or for pulling a vehicle out of a muddy ditch. This is because tow eyes don’t have much side-force strength. “Loading eye bolts have minimal strength for side force. They’re just designed to pull straight ahead, and only if the vehicle is still in an adequate condition to roll, i.e. still has 4 wheels/tires,” Larry Muzamel, former executive director of theCalifornia Tow Truck Association, told Slate in a 2013 interview. If you’re unsure about how to use one (or if it’s even wise to do so with your car), be sure to talk to your tow truck operator first.

Now that you know what tow eye covers are, you might notice that there are more of them on modern cars than there were in the past. Why the proliferation? For one thing, there’s stylistic appeal: Some fancy cars in the 1980s were designed for tow-eye use, and this became more popular in the 1990s, particularly with imported vehicles that were lower to the ground or had “lower front body panels (spoilers or air dams),” according to Muzamel.

Another reason why they’re more commonplace now could be because tow points are required on the front and rear ends of all passenger cars in Europe. As Jalopnik reports, they’re not required in North America, but car manufacturers use them on vehicles intended for “multiple markets” as a way to keep things simpler, more affordable, and to make transporting vehicles easier. And according to Mike Sweers, senior vice president and executive chief engineer for F platform vehicles at Toyota, these “recovery points” may have also become more widespread due to market demand for a safer way to pull cars without damaging them.

Now that you know those funky geometric shapes on a car’s bumper aren’t just for show, you may want to learn more about what the symbols on your dashboard mean, or why some rear car windows don’t roll down all the way.

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