Easy ways to improve the safety of your classic

Photograph Courtesy Volvo

One of the most common reasons people cite for replacing their classic car with a newer model is improved safety. Advances in air bags, anti-lock brakes and traction control give drivers the impression of safety, both real and imagined. 

Sure, your Austin Mini might not fare too well if it's run over by a Canyonero SUV, but there’s more to safety than sheer size. These common-sense safety improvements can be done on the weekend with little head scratching, leaving you with a fun car to drive to work during the week. 

The first step in any program of safety improvements is to make sure that you can avoid an accident in the first place. This is often called “active safety.” It’s always better to avoid the problem, rather than running straight into it. (See what we mean about common sense?)

Active safety starts with having enough traction to avoid the problem. For the best grip, it pays to make sure that your tires are fresh and not dry-rotted. Since classic cars are typically not driven as much as newer ones, the tires will tend to age out before they wear out. A good rule of thumb is to replace tires every six years, even if they still have tread left. Also, make sure that your tires are suited to your climate.

Next up, make sure that your classic’s suspension is up to snuff. Replace any worn shock absorbers, fatigued springs, and tired bushings and ball joints as they become apparent. The suspension of any car is full of wear items that must be checked and replaced as necessary. 

The same holds true for brakes. Check, fix or replace anything in your braking system that doesn’t look or feel right. 

In addition to active safety, there are passive safety items to consider. By this, we mean having the ability to survive a collision once it’s already happened. Passive safety relies on two main engineering and physical concepts: body integrity and the controlled absorption of energy. 

The car’s body integrity is essential in protecting the passengers from crushing mechanical injuries. Rusty cars not only look like junk, but they can also be unsafe. Double-check frame rails, unibodies, floor pans and bumper supports for any rust-through, as cosmetic rust can quickly become structural. 

A properly designed roll bar that has been well covered with FIA-approved, high-density padding might also be a good addition to a small convertible or coupe. Keep in mind that once you bolt a roll bar into the back of a tin-top, the back seat will be off limits to any animate objects. 

Next, check that your seats are in good shape and are properly mounted to the chassis. Loosely attached seats can be torn from the floor pan, quickly rendering seat belts ineffective. 

If you’re not concerned about every last point on your concours score, consider updating your low-back seats to ones that have headrests. These became required equipment in the U.S. in 1968 and do a good job of lessening the chance of neck and back injuries in a collision. 

Finally, when you think of safety equipment, it’s hard to look past the safety belt as the primary piece in the puzzle. Lap belts were first used in airplanes in 1913 and were adapted to automotive use several decades later. Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point belt, and this safety feature was brought to market for 1959. Three-point belts disperse the energy of an impact over a greater area and thus help prevent serious injuries. A three-point belt also does a better job of securing occupants.

Seat belts do not last forever, however. Exposure to U.V. light, dirt and water can degrade their nylon or polyester webbing. For this reason, many racing sanctioning bodies require SFI-rated harnesses to be replaced every two years, while belts wearing the FIA patch can be used for five years from their date of manufacture. 

It’s no shocker that the belts in a street car should be replaced or renewed during the course of a restoration. While there is no standard replacement interval for factory seat belts, it’s probably a safe bet to replace anything that is more than 25 years old. We would also update any cars from two-point belts to a three-point setup.

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7aull New Reader
12/25/20 9:37 a.m.

Lighting- easy and invisible (no pun intended) to do, esp with new LEDs vs low-voltage generating older electrics. Just because your car is 60s (or 70s or...) doesn't mean the illumination has to match!


Stu A


Bardan New Reader
9/6/21 12:36 p.m.

The best way to improve safety starts with the driver. Take it seriously, drive like your life depends on quality driving!

Bardan New Reader
9/6/21 1:16 p.m.

In reply to wzayante :

Yea, driver training for teens has degraded since the 80s down to filling a square on a page. IDK about your state but AZ would issue a license to a monkey for $12. The only real form of safety comes from situational awareness and avoidance of that monkey.

Tim Suddard
Tim Suddard Publisher
9/9/21 9:00 a.m.

We switched the Tiger to LEDs. It was easy.


WebFootSTi New Reader
1/11/23 2:28 p.m.

I can testify to the value of updating a lap belt to a 3 point.  The update literately saved my life when I rear ended an illegally parked semi on black ice in a 1967 VW bug.  The front end was crushed so bad that the windshield popped out.  It also moved the left front tyre back about one foot!

Fortunately, I had installed a 911 steering rack and some universal joints and I still broke a bone in my left hand with a collapsible hub Momo steering wheel.  My chest was one BIG bruise and my knee had a laceration that needed a trip to the emergency room that needed to be stitched up.

Naturally the fuel tank ruptured and since it was after dark ~8 gallons of gas ignited.  Fortunately the drivers door was sprung and I was able to get out.  The car left a burn mark in the pavment for years as the transaxle case melted in to it.

My face wasn't rearranged and I couldn't sleep on my chest for a week.  The codeen that I got for my knee help too...

P.S.  I bought that seat belt for $1.00 at a rummage sale and it took a year for my hand to fully heal.

MGWrench New Reader
3/29/23 12:01 p.m.

I had always thought that Nils Bohlin 'invented' the 3 point seat belt until I started reading old Hot Rod magazines.  In the October 1952 Hot Rod 'What's New' column is an advertisement for 3 point seat belts at that time called 'Sam Browne-type' belts made by Air Associates in Teterboro, NJ and sold at Sears.  

MGWrench New Reader
3/29/23 12:01 p.m.

I had always thought that Nils Bohlin 'invented' the 3 point seat belt until I started reading old Hot Rod magazines.  In the October 1952 Hot Rod 'What's New' column is an advertisement for 3 point seat belts called at that time Sam Browne-type belts made by Air Associates in Teterboro, NJ and sold at Sears.  

bosswrench New Reader
9/16/23 12:16 p.m.

Riding motorcycles in CA commutes trained me to simply stay away from other vehicles. If that wasn't possible, watch their front wheel- its the first sign of someone about to do something stupid. Many are so 'entitled' or distracted that they literally don't see others (or don't care).

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