Vintage Cars Are Death Traps

And yet, we still drive them.

Vintage Car Safety
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

It's no secret that modern automotive technology has made cars safer than ever. Crumple zones, airbags, semi-autonomous accident avoidance technology—it all works together to keep the humans inside a vehicle isolated from the violent forces of kinetic energy that unfold during a wreck.

There are still plenty of people who drive older cars, though. In fact, the average car on the road in the U.S. right now is about 11 years old. Safety technology has come a long way in just a decade. If someone tells you, "They don't make 'em like they used to," they're absolutely correct. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety debunked the myth that old, heavy-looking cars are safer than newer ones a few years back.

Still, some of us—myself included—prefer to drive cars that are even older than that. Call it a stylistic choice, a point of pride, a throwback to when America was supposedly great—whatever. I only began thinking of the safety implications of driving an antique car after I recently got into an accident in one.

There I was, sitting in a viscous flow of cars a few hundred yards behind a stop light in my 1965 Chevrolet Malibu. The radio was playing, the windows were down. I was wearing my lap belt and had my right arm draped over the back of the bench seat, which had never been equipped with headrests. Traffic was stop and go. Through the tiny disc of my single side-view mirror, I could see that whoever was behind me in line for the light was following a little close for comfort. Then the inevitable happened. The car in front of me stopped short, and so did I. I let off the brakes for a split second to give the driver behind me enough space to react, but to no avail. Perhaps she didn't see me stop, or maybe she couldn't see my car's tiny brake lights in the afternoon glare.

The result was a thud that sounded a lot like when a truck runs over one of those big steel plates covering a repair area on the road.

"WHOOM!"

Fortunately, the other car didn't hit the Malibu with much force, but the dainty chrome rear bumper, which had been affixed before the federal government began requiring bumpers that absorbed the impact of a 5-mph crash, had been smooshed in.

It was then that I began to consider all the other safety advances that had been institutionalized since the Sixties. Three-point lap and shoulder safety belts – lap belts only keep you in your seat, but can't prevent your face from smashing into the steering wheel. Collapsible steering columns, which keep you from getting impaled on the steering column when you aren't held back by the shoulder belts you don't have. Breakaway engine mounts, which help the engine slide back, down and under the car in a forward collision, rather than smashing upward into the passenger compartment and splattering its occupants all over the nice vinyl upholstery. Fuel tanks farther away from the rear bumper, to protect them from rear impact energy.

Byron Bloch, who has served as an auto safety expert and advocate for past 50 years, said that most classic car owners are unaware that the cars they're driving are complete death traps.

"In anything pre-'68, you can get harpooned by the steering column ramming into your face, neck or chest," he explained in a phone interview. "I like the nostalgia and appearance of the cars from the Fifties and Sicties, but they're mostly lethal."

Motor vehicle safety standards improved a lot in the early Seventies, but the popularity of smaller, more efficient cars throughout the Eighties made for cars that subjected their occupants to more risk in crashes.

"Japanese cars from the Eighties and Nineties are very minimal in terms of safety," Bloch said. "Automakers' emphasis was not on safety, but on fuel efficiency, reliability and affordability."

G.M. built a number of Air Cushion Restraint System Impalas in 1973 (A.C.R.S. is just a fancy name for airbags, and Bloch owns one of the few still on the road), but automakers didn't start using them until the early Nineties. That's really when the industry seems to have gotten serious about automotive safety. It's been on the up and up ever since, although Bloch contends that there are still improvements to be made – such as installing stronger seats that are better able to hold up to the force of a rear impact.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

Which brings us back to the accident I had in the old death trap Malibu. It's a good thing I was driving in slow traffic. Without headrests – the seat back ends mid-scapula – I would almost certainly have suffered from some form of whiplash in a high speed collision. Bloch talked a lot about fuel tanks and their rearward orientation in pre-Seventies cars. A rear impact could skewer the tank, ripping it open and exposing fuel vapor to sparks from ripping metal.

Sure enough, when I looked under the car the day after my accident, I noticed that the bumper had pushed against another piece of steel, which had in turn jammed into the fuel filler tube, which can be found by flipping down the rear license plate. The tube was bent to one side, and showed signs of metal fatigue where it connected to the tank. If I'd been hit just a little bit harder, the tank could have been punctured and, maybe, just maybe, FOOM!

Just so you can get an idea of how long it took to standardize automotive safety features, here's a brief timeline:

1886: Karl Benz introduces what has become recognized as the world's first production car.

1910s-1930s: Motor vehicle ownership proliferates; drivers, pedestrians and befuddled scientists come to grips with the presence of ever-faster cars; auto safety efforts focus on driver and pedestrian behavior and (hah!) discipline, as well as driver training.

Late 1920s: Safety glass introduced; quickly becomes common.

1930s: Brake lights, turn signals, all steel car and truck bodies and hydraulic brake systems become standard on most vehicles.

1930s-1960s: More powerful cars force automakers to improve handling and outward visibility; Automakers vacillate on eliminating protruding interior knobs and handles, which could cause lacerations and impalements in a crash.

1948: Preston Tucker outfits his 50 production cars with padded dashboards, pop-out safety glass and directional lighting (he leaves out seat belts so that potential buyers won't think his car is unsafe).

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

1950s-1960s: Crash testing becomes more involved.

1950s: Safety belts optional in some American cars, but not many motorists buy or use them.

1959: Safety belts become standard equipment on some of Volvo's cars.

1961: Wisconsin becomes the first government entity to require safety belts in cars.

1964: Federal government requires padded dashboards and seat belt anchors in new cars.

1965: Ralph Nader publishes Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile.

1967: Federal motor vehicle safety standards established, initiating requirements for collapsible steering columns, lap and shoulder safety belts and dual circuit brake systems; front disc brakes become common.

1973: Congressional testimony brings about requirement to crash test fuel tanks for rear impact integrity.

■ 1984: New York becomes the first state to require motorists and passengers to wear seat belts.

1998: Federal government requires dual front airbags in new passenger vehicles.

■ 2005: Tire pressure monitoring systems required by federal government.

2008: Federal government requires electronic stability control on new vehicles.

2011: Government adds rollover air curtain requirement.

None of this is meant to discourage anyone from driving classic cars. As Bloch pointed out, auto manufacturers were much more concerned with styling and aesthetics when cars like the Malibu were designed. It shows. There's nothing quite like sitting on that bench seat, one finger on the giant, thin steering wheel as the car floats over the road. The openness of an interior that hasn't been subdivided by tall, safety-enhancing seats is stunning. It makes the car feel more communal.

"The people who buy classic cars don't focus their number one priority on safety," Bloch said. "It's more about how it looks; whether it has sexy styling and the big engine."

He's right. That's why we drive classic cars. We may be putting our lives at risk, but as anyone who rides a motorcycle can tell you, it's worth it. Just be careful.