Do Classic Cars Have Airbags? (And Are They Safe to Drive Without?)

Do classic cars have airbags?

There’s little doubt about the safety benefits afforded by driver and passenger airbags, and safety can be a sticking point for any car enthusiast looking to buy a classic car.

They were only mandated as a legal requirement for new cars in the 1990s, so do classic cars have airbags?

Most classic cars do not have airbags, but a small number of classic cars built after 1973 are fitted with them.

The majority of old cars missed out on airbag technology, but why weren’t they fitted with them, and is it safe to drive a classic without airbags?

Why don’t classic cars have airbags?

The majority of classic cars on the roads today were launched either before airbags were invented, or had become commonplace in new vehicles.

The first car the public could buy that was fitted with airbags was the Oldsmobile Toronado in 1973, and the first car to have them fitted as standard was the Porsche 944 in 1987.

In between these times there were a handful of cars that came with airbags, many of which we’d now consider classics, but some US-based manufacturers spent years fighting the impending legislation that would mandate fitting the safety devices as standard.

Without these manufacturers lobbying against the life-saving devices, we may have more classics fitted with airbags today, but they unfortunately remained uncommon until the late 1980s.

By the time we reached the 1990s, the big manufacturers had realised that airbags were here to stay, and many modern classics from this era are fitted with airbags. Like our 1996 BMW 840, which has both driver and passenger airbags.

BMW 840 Airbag
BMW 840 airbag

Can you put airbags in classic cars?

It’s not possible to install airbags in a classic car. It would be impractical and dangerous to retrofit the sensors, control modules, and other essential components in a car that wasn’t designed to accommodate an airbag.

Whilst it may seem like airbags are not much more than a piece of fabric that inflates to form a cushion of air, the work that goes on in the background to ensure they only trigger when absolutely necessary is much more complex.

An airbag is an essential part of a car, and needs to be carefully designed by the manufacturer to ensure it’s safe and effective.

If somebody tried to retrofit an airbag to a classic or vintage car, there’s a high likelihood it would make the car less safe

Jaguar E-Type interior
The majority of classic cars were not designed with airbags in mind

Airbags essentially explode out of the steering wheel or dashboard, and have been known to cause injuries.

They are precisely calibrated to cushion the driver or passenger at the point the seatbelt restrains them. Even the slightest miscalculation could lead to serious head injuries.

If it’s not designed and fitted with the utmost regard for safety, then there’s also a fair chance that it would unexpectedly deploy, injuring the driver and potentially causing a crash.

Not only this, but there’s a good chance installing an airbag in a classic car would be illegal where you live. There are understandably very strict regulations that manufacturers have to abide by to make their cars street legal, and they spend millions of dollars developing the systems and crash testing the cars.

All in all, it would be an extremely dangerous and costly idea that would do more harm than good with regards to the vehicle’s safety.

Is it safe to drive a classic car without airbags?

Driving a classic car without airbags is not as safe as driving a modern car that has them fitted as standard, but you can adjust your driving style to compensate for the lack of safety equipment if you do want to drive a classic.

It’s a personal choice as to how much of a risk you want to take when driving. Some people would never consider buying an older car with no airbags or other safety features when modern cars can be purchased for the same amount of money.

But other people value driving something a little more special than a standard modern car, and are willing to make the sacrifice to be able to own a classic car they’ve always dreamed of.

Some people buy a classic car as a second car, and only use it at the weekends or on special occasions. They tend to have a modern car for daily driving. 

This provides the best of both worlds. You complete the majority of your ‘boring’ mileage (e.g. to and from work) in a car with airbags, and then get to enjoy your classic when the roads are quieter. This means there is less chance of being involved in a crash.

Those who drive classic cars without airbags often adjust their driving style to match. One driving style to perfect in a car with no airbags is defensive driving.

Although you can never control how other motorists will behave on the road, defensive driving can significantly reduce the chances of being involved in a crash, or reduce the chances of being seriously injured if you are.

Should I still buy a classic car if it doesn’t have airbags?

If you love classic cars and have understood the elevated risks involved in driving a car without airbags, then you should absolutely go ahead and buy one.

Classic cars have many benefits over modern cars. Unfortunately safety isn’t one of them, but don’t let that put you off.

Car crash test
Modern cars are tested to destruction before being allowed on the roads

Carry out your own assessment of the risks first. There may be some tradeoffs, but owning and driving a classic or vintage vehicle can be extremely rewarding.

Here at The Car Investor we own and drive classic vehicles without airbags, and modern classics which do have airbags. 

We tend to refrain from using the cars without modern safety features in bad weather and at busy times, but of course this doesn’t always happen.

We’re happy that the reward outweighs the risk involved for us, and we don’t let the thought of crashing ruin our enjoyment of the cars.

Ultimately, previous generations of motorists didn’t have a choice but to drive cars without airbags. Road safety has moved on and airbags have saved tens of thousands of lives since then, but if you’re happy to take the same risks that previous generations took, then go for it!

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