Many of us think of our vehicles as a convenient means of transportation from point A to point B, but to those who collect classic cars, they are much more. Antique vehicles were designed and manufactured by artists and craftsmen in an age when form took precedence over function. Many classic cars now reside in private collections or museum exhibits as the works of art they truly are. Some are bought, showed and sold as valuable investments, and others are maintained and driven regularly by hobbyists and collectors. The timeless beauty of vintage automobiles may be unrivaled by models in mass production today, but they remain far behind when it comes to fuel economy, reliability and – most importantly – safety.
It’s estimated that nearly half a million lives have been saved by two simple devices that most classic cars lack: seat belts and front airbags, both of which met resistance from early auto manufacturers. The original vintage vehicle, Ford’s Model T, first hit the streets in 1908. It wasn’t until 60 years later, in 1968, that federal law mandated seat belts. (Though this was only for the driver. To this day, some states do not require seat belts to be worn by those in the back seat, or for passengers over the age of 16.) It took another twenty years for front-airbags to become standard in 1989.
Other notable technological advancements include turn signals, which Buick introduced in 1937, and the structural design of vehicles updated to include “crumple zones”. The elegant, sleek lines of vintage cars were constructed of rigid steel not intended to buckle, although doing so greatly absorbs the impact of a crash otherwise transferred to the passengers.
Thanks to modern technology, there are now many modifications that can be made to antique vehicles to increase road safety without sacrificing aesthetics or making permanent changes that might offend the purist or investor. This practice is called “restomodding”, and can involve making improvements from insulating the interior to swapping out the entire engine. Two of the most effective and simple solutions to drastically improve the safety of a classic car are installing seat belts and upgrading the brakes. It’s true that a retrofitted seatbelt may result in a point deduction at a car show, but unless the vehicle is only being trailed from showroom to showroom, it’s a small price to pay for a potentially life-saving addition.
Many classic cars only had rear brakes, despite their heavy, steel frames. These brakes were most likely drum brakes, which have a large surface area but wear down quickly and require frequent maintenance. Adding front brakes and switching from drum to modern disc brakes makes a huge difference in the stopping power and handling of your vehicle. Since disc brakes are standard today, this makes repairs and replacements much easier, with parts readily available at auto retailers. If you make this conversion, it’s also a good time to switch from a single to a dual master cylinder, which operates the front brakes separately from the rear. With a single master cylinder, a leaky or damaged brake line would result in total brake failure, but switching to dual ensures that even if something goes wrong, you will still be able to bring your car to a safe stop.
However, even with these “restomodifications”, antique vehicles were simply not designed with safety as the first priority. Today, manufacturers are able to draw upon decades of research and accident analysis during the development process and subject every model to rigorous crash tests in a laboratory environment. Modern vehicles are increasingly coming standard with technological advancements that enhance safety, like rear-view cameras and blind spot detection. There are a few devices available today that are compatible with vintage automobiles, such as Garmin’s nüviCam which detects lane departure and tailgating with a dash-mounted camera. Our very own splitsecnd device offers automatic crash response, pinpoint roadside assistance at the push of a button and real-time GPS tracking and analytics, and is compatible with any car manufactured after 1926, since it simply plugs into your 12V outlet and begins working immediately.
Even the most stringent collector can admit that these safety-enhancing modifications are worth the benefit of peace of mind if you drive a classic car. As vintage auto enthusiast Jay Leno said in an op-ed for Popular Mechanics, “I look at it this way: If it makes the car better, safer, more reliable and faster—and you can change it back to [original] stock whenever you want—why not do it?”