Some of the biggest changes to cars over the years have been in the safety department – but if you’re restoring your classic car, what should you do? After all, installing updated safety equipment would certainly compromise the historical accuracy of your vehicle and, in some cases, a retrofit to current safety standards would simply be impossible. These are five areas in which you may encounter safety issues with your classic car.
If your vehicle dates back to before 1964, chances are that it didn’t originally come with a seat belt. In fact, many states still allow those riding in pre-’64 cars to skirt around seat belt laws due to the fact that manufacturers were not required to install safety restraints in their cars until that date.
This is a serious safety issue if you plan to do any road driving in your car. The statistics regarding unrestrained passengers – like how seat belts reduce fatal injuries by 45% and how 64% of car crash fatalities involve unrestrained passengers – are a testament to how bad of an idea it is to drive without a seat belt at any speed.
While very rudimentary airbag systems have existed since the 1950s, and some manufacturers began to offer true airbags on certain models in the 1970s, modern airbag systems didn’t become a requirement in cars until 1998. This means that the vast majority of classic cars, especially those manufactured before the mid 1970s, have no airbags whatsoever. While airbag retrofitting is possible for some 1980s models, there isn’t much of an option for older classics.
If your car dates from the mid-50s to 1970, there’s a decent chance it’s made with an X-frame chassis. This type of frame left cars particularly vulnerable to side-impacts and tended to be fairly fragile at the crossing point of the X. As Ralph Nader famously noted in Unsafe at Any Speed, there were a number of popular news stories featuring X-frame vehicles that simply cracked in half upon impact. While replacing an X-frame chassis is possible, it’s not a particularly simple retrofit.
Understanding of the way that crash forces are distributed throughout the body of a car dates back to a Mercedes-Benz crumple zone patent in the 1950s, but this technology wasn’t fully integrated into cars in any widespread manner until much later. For that reason, your classic car may not have
been developed to “crumple” in certain areas and would be more likely to transfer the force of impact to the passengers within the car rather than allow external aspects to absorb the shock.
High-end Chrysler, Ford, and GM cars were the first to receive initial anti-lock brake technology in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until a decade or two later that traction control and other aspects of modern braking really started to become common. It’s tricky but possible to retrofit an older vehicle with an anti-lock brake system, as long as you can locate a “donor” car with similar size, weight, and distribution specs.