How to Make a Classic Car More Safe

How much worse is a classic car in an accident than a modern car? In 2009, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety celebrated their 50thanniversary by conducting an offset crash test between a then-new Chevy Malibu and a 1959 Bel Aire. Had it been a real accident, the driver and passengers in the Bel Aire would have suffered multiple lethal injuries. Meanwhile, the driver in the Malibu may have broken an ankle, while the passengers would only have had bruises.

Clearly, safety technology had come a long way in the 5 decades since the IIHS’s inception. However, even 25 years is still a long time in terms of vehicle safety. In 2016, they conducted a similar test, pitting a Nissan Tsuru against a Nissan Versa. While the Tsuru was still in production in Mexico, it was essentially identical to the 1991 Sentra. Had it been a real crash, the Tsuru driver would have been crushed by the car’s collapsing passenger compartment, leading to life-threatening injuries. Meanwhile, the Versa driver would only have minor injuries.

Crash tests aside, claims that older vehicles are safe because they’re heavy soon fall apart when you start working on them. It’s easy to see why hollow doors, metal dashes, solid steering columns and rigid frames are a recipe for disaster. Instead of absorbing impacts and keeping the cabin intact, these vehicles transfer force to passengers and crumple in the worst possible places.

How do you enjoy driving your classic car, without putting yourself at risk in an accident? While you can’t add crumple zones, air bags and many other design features found in a modern car, there are still plenty of ways to upgrade vintage vehicles with modern safety technology. What safety upgrades can be made to collector cars to reduce the risk to yourself and those around you?

Seat Belts

Wearing a seat belt is the most effective way to reduce the risk of injury in a car crash. The NHSTA estimates seat belt use alone saved almost 15,000 lives in 2017, while using one cuts the risk of death and moderate to critical injuries by 45-60%, depending on the vehicle.

Seat belts weren’t required in American cars until 1966. Even if you have a car built after the mandate came into effect, it may have an older design that only has a lap belt, or doesn’t have an automatic retracting mechanism. Fortunately, there are kits available that let you retrofit three-point belts to your vehicle. These require drilling holes into the B or C pillars and sometimes the floor of the vehicle to mount the components. If a three-point harness isn’t feasible, you can still install a lap belt. This is a great option for classic convertibles that don’t have any sheet metal above the doors.

Despite offering modern protection, seat belt kits can blend into your car’s interior design. They use buckles styled to look like they’re from decades past, and you can choose from a variety of belt colors to match your vehicle’s interior.


Modern brakes are a must have for performance builds, because they offer the stopping power needed to keep up with big horsepower. However, even if you plan on using your car for cruising, adding modern technology can greatly improve safety.

Disc Brake Conversions

In the past, all cars used drum brakes. These have one or two C-shaped shoes held in place by a series of springs. Pressing on the brake pedal pushes out the pins on the wheel cylinder. This moves the shoes outward until they make contact with a metal drum, slowing the vehicle. They react slowly as the slack from the springs is taken up, and they’re prone to locking up. With the components inside the drum, it’s hard to dissipate heat. Fading is common, making them a poor choice for racing or spirited driving.

These problems were addressed with the development of disc brakes. While first used on cars in the mid-1950s, front disc brakes didn’t become standard on cars until the mid-70s. These brakes use a hydraulically-operated clamp to push a pair of brake pads against a rotor. By eliminating springs and keeping everything in the open, these brakes act faster and stay cooler than drum brakes. That means more braking power with each stop. There are numerous kits on the market that let you fit these brakes to classic cars.

If you’re converting a car from four wheel drum brakes to front discs, you need to add a proportioning valve. Since drum brakes have to take up slack in the springs, they take a little longer to engage. This valve sends fluid to the back first, so the front and rear brakes operate at the same time.

On some cars, fitting disc brakes isn’t feasible. However, you can still improve braking performance by installing high performance brake shoes. These shoes use modern compounds that grip better and are more heat-resistant than

Dual Chamber Master Cylinder

Another way to improve the safety of your classic car is by switching from a single chamber to a dual chamber master cylinder. A single chamber master cylinder has a single line and reservoir leading to the brakes. If there’s a leak anywhere in the system, you lose all braking power. A dual chamber cylinder has two fluid reservoirs, each linked to a separate brake line. This splits the braking system in half. If one side fails, two of your four brakes will still work.

There are conversion kits available to fit dual chamber master cylinders to vintage cars, as well as options for retrofitting a modern master cylinder to a stock pedal setup. Connecting the brakes is fairly simple, since there’s usually a junction block next to the master cylinder that sends fluid to separate lines running to the front and back of the vehicle. It’s just a matter of connecting those lines to the new master cylinder.

What about ABS? This requires an anti-lock brake valve body, wheel speed sensors, reluctor wheels and a computer to control it all. While there have been ABS systems installed on resto-mods, the amount of modification required puts installation out of reach for most classic car owners.


Tires are the easiest, most effective way to improve the performance of any vehicle. Good tires improve handling, reduce stopping distances, maintain traction under hard acceleration, and improve ride quality. Tire technology is constantly evolving: a new performance tire riding on wet surfaces has as much grip as a tire from 20 years ago had on dry surfaces. Upgrading from tires designed 30, 40 or 50 years ago, and you can totally transform the driving experience.

The biggest difference comes from switching to a different tire design. Until the early 1970s, most cars came with bias ply tires. A bias ply tire has a belt made by interleaving steel strands at a 45 degree angle. The result is a tire with scooped sides around a narrow tread. Bias ply tires don’t flex as well as radials. This makes them wander around the road, rolling into dips and breaks in the pavement.

Radial tires use cord stitching that runs 90 degrees from the bead. This creates a belt that flexes easily, helping the tire tread conform to the road. It also creates a wider area for the tread, increasing the size of the contact patch, and allowing for more siping to direct water away from the tread surface. The result is more precise handling and greatly improved wet traction.

In the past, classic car owners had to choose between the performance of a radial tire versus the authentic look of a bias ply. If you don’t care about having a period-correct look, it’s relatively simple to fit modern wheels and tires to your vehicle. This lets you run wider rubber, or use larger wheels to reduce sidewall flex and accommodate larger brakes. In the past few years, classic tire companies have introduced narrow tread radials. These look like bias plies, while offering most of the benefits of a new radial tire.


Sealed beam headlights were required on vehicles in the U.S. until 1983. This uses a combination headlight bulb and housing that has to be replaced as a unit. With the government pushing for increases in new vehicle fuel economy, automakers requested the option to use different headlight designs. This allows designers to shape the light housing to better fit the profile of the front end for a lower drag coefficient.

Modern composite headlights separate the housing and bulb. When the bulb burns out, you don’t have to replace the whole unit. This law change allowed automakers to switch from glass to polycarbonate plastic, which shrugs off rocks and road debris that would destroy a glass sealed beam light.

Upgrading to a modern headlight is surprisingly easy. Sealed beam headlights came in four common sizes, so it’s trivial for aftermarket companies to design modern replacements for sealed beam bulbs that fit a range of vehicles. This means you can buy a drop-in replacement for your car’s stock lights, and get the brightness and wide throw of a modern design.

These replacement headlights come in several designs with a choice of halogen, LED or xenon bulbs. High discharge xenon lights require the addition of a ballast to supply high voltage current, while LED and halogen bulbs will usually plug directly into the stock wiring harness. There are several designs available, including fluted lenses that look like classic bulbs, shiny rear reflector lenses, and housings with a series of projector lenses. All of these choices offer increased nighttime visibility.

Collapsible Steering Columns

In the NHTSA crash test between the Bel Aire and the Malibu, one of the lethal injuries suffered by the Bel Aire’s driver was caused by the steering column striking the chest. Old vehicles connect the steering wheel directly to the steering box using a solid metal shaft. While simple in design, it’s also dangerous in a front-end collision. As the front end collapses, the shaft launches toward the driver, like a spear. Modern cars avoid this problem by using a steering column that collapses during the crash. This style of column is readily available from aftermarket manufacturers, increasing safety while maintaining the look and fit of the original steering column.

Backup Cameras

According to a study by the NHTSA and the Department of Transportation, 210 deaths and 15,000 injuries are caused by back over accidents each year, with 31% of these fatalities involving children less than 5 years old. To reduce these deaths, backup cameras were mandated on vehicles starting in 2018. Despite being a new technology, it’s easy to add a camera to your classic car. This lets you see what’s directly behind the vehicle below the edge of the rear window. It’s also a great way to see behind you when driving a vehicle with poor rearward visibility, like a custom van.

You have a few choices for installing a backup camera. The camera itself can be mounted to a bracket that fits alongside the license plate. From there, the video signal is sent to a rear view mirror with a built-in screen, or a head unit with camera support. The output device is wired to your car’s reverse lights. When the lights turn on, it tells the output device to turn on the camera on and switch views. Installation is only as difficult as installing a car stereo.

Radiator Overflow

Safety for yourself may be your top concern, but what about the safety of your pets and other animals? Until the mid-1960s, most cars had a radiator with an overflow tube that dumped excess coolant on the ground. Upgrading to a new radiator doesn’t just improve your car’s cooling abilities, it also lets you add an overflow tank. This keeps coolant in the car and away from animals.

What About Vintage Racing?

Vintage racing bodies require the same safety equipment as newer vehicles. That usually means installing a roll cage, modern racing seats, multi-point seat belts, a fire suppression system and a HANS device. You will also be required to wear a modern, certified helmet. Since all of these items are custom fit to racing vehicles, putting them into an old car isn’t any harder than putting them in a new car.

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