Safety Improvements in classic cars

If one is not interested in show competition, can drum brakes on classic cars be replaced with disc brakes or does one have to replace the entire wheel?

On same topic, can an air-bag equipped steering wheel be installed to replace the original? And if yes, is the firing trigger easy (and safe) to install?


Regarding drum replacements, it depends on the car. It may require some replumbing and a proportioning valve to truly become effective. There’s nothing wrong with well maintained drums, tho.

I don’t know whether you’d want to mess with air bags on an old vehicle. If it is an original steering column, it may not even have a collapsible column so suspect bags will not help you anyway. I guess you could add a new column but that looks so stupid on an old car.
Just do what I do: keep it stock, drive slow and keep distance.

Yes, drum brakes on older cars can be replaced with disc brakes–as long as one of the manufacturers of these conversion kits makes one for your mystery vehicle. For example, Wilwood Engineering makes a conversion kit for 1941-1956 Packards. ( or 805-388-1188)

I recall seeing ads for conversion kits for older Chevies also. If you pick up a copy of Hemmings Motor News (available at Barnes & Noble and some other large news stands), you should find display ads for companies that make these conversion kits.

As to air bags, you are out of luck. When a car company designs the safety systems on their cars, the development work includes the destructive crash testing of multitudes of cars before they can finalize the placement of the deceleration sensors/triggers (usually more than one, and the placement and sensitivity adjustment of these components is critically important). These companies have the resources to destroy scores of cars before they get it right, and–even then–there are sometimes recalls (as in the case of Jeep Grand Cherokees) because the original calculations proved to be less than good.

So…unless you can match the engineering resources of the major car companies, and unless you can obtain multiple cars of the same model as yours for crash testing, then…no…you can’t add air bags yourself. This is not something that you buy in aisle 9 of Wal-Mart and just install in a car.

But I did put seat belts and a shoulder strap in a '52 Chevy, and it did save my face in an accident.

Thanks all,

I would not go beyond seat belts, disc conversions and better tires.

I’m putting disc brakes into two mid '60s Cutlasses now, so yes, it is possible. the only thing you have to think about is that the original wheels might not quite clear the calipers.

Every once in a while you see someone driving an old car down the interstate or high-speed highway…Everyone in the car, including the driver, looks terrified…If these cars don’t at least have radial tires and seat belts, they have good reason to be terrified…

We all have fond memories of how great these old cars were, of how how much fun they were to drive…Until you actually get to drive one today that is…Suddenly, they are not so great…

I agree. Seat belts for sure, tires and maybe brakes. Most people don’t drive them out of town much but I did see a nice 56 Ford Victoria on the road going through Iowa last week. Clipping along about 65 or so. The wife was even driving. Most people I saw killed in the old cars were from being thrown out, going through the windshield, ending up under the dash, and so on. Even in a roll over most of the cabin was still intact if you can just stay in the car. In a head on though all bets are off when the engine gets pushed into your lap. I was taught though to avoid a head on at all costs and its something I think about all the time when going over potential evasive defensive action.

There are many “improvements” that can be made to classic cars but airbags are not one of them. The airbag system is controlled by the vehicle computer. Classic cars and trucks do not have vehicle computers.

The airbag system is controlled by the vehicle computer

Airbags have been in production vehicles since the 70’s…LONG BEFORE micro-chips capable of controlling the system. And a modern vehicle has MANY computers (to use that term loosely). The SRS system in most vehicles is a independent system/computer.

Besides the safety features…a good thing to upgrade is…

Replace the old distributor with an electronic ignition system. And if they make it…replace the carb with a fuel injection system.

If you make these changes, then you don’t have a classic car anymore. The best thing is to maintain the original systems and keep them in top order.

No matter what you do, you cannot put in the crush zones that have made todays cars so much safer than the older cars.

And the most important thing, DRIVE DEFENSIVELY.

When I had my 59 T-bird which I sold about a year ago ( car condition was a 9 out of 10,) I did put seat belts in. Could not add a shoulder belt due to no center post…Got rid of the big white walled bias ply tires and put radials on it. ( what a difference ) The major thing done was, the entire braking system was redone getting rid of the single master cylinder to the dual braking system. I could of had the fronts converted to discs but was way over my budget.

With the single system one leak and you had no brakes. This car had plenty of power with a rebuilt 4 BBL 390 from a 64, replacing the tired smoky 352. Would never go any faster than the speed limit and stayed in the slow lane. Not to much else can be done with these older cars, except making sure all the front end components are sound and allow extra space with the car in front of you as they did take longer to stop than today’s cars.

If you make these changes, then you don't have a classic car anymore. The best thing is to maintain the original systems and keep them in top order

That’s the one philosophy…but not the ONLY philosophy. There are many beautiful classic cars that have been updated to modern features. Yes it’s no longer a OLD classic…but they are still beautiful machines. Many vehicles have been saved from the junk yard this way.

Yeah, that’s true. It depends on what makes your boat float. I’m with @keith. I like 'm original and am not all that excited to - for instance - see an old 50’s truck body sitting on a modern S10.

I like 'm original and am not all that excited to - for instance - see an old 50's truck body sitting on a modern S10.

I’m not excited to see a 50’s truck on a modern S10- either…and that’s NOT what I’m saying…and I believe you know it.

Do a google search for restorations. There are some fine examples of some old classic cars saved from the crusher and restored to new condition. Yes it does cost some money…but IMHO…if you have the money…it’s worth it.

Oh, to new condition - yes, that’s a great thing to do. You’re right - definitely not cheap. People that do that rarely get the money back out of it. That’s really a labor of love, it seems.
I thought you meant tearing into everything under the sheetmetal. I see that a lot and it makes me sad.
If someone add mods that add modern conveniences or safety, it would be nice if they are at least reversible with some work. Brakes/engine/transmission/rear end – all ok. All those changes are pretty easily changed back, should some car nut a hundred years from now wants to do that.

Airbags have been in production vehicles since the 70's...LONG BEFORE micro-chips capable of controlling the system.

First generation airbags were almost as likely to kill you as save you.

That said, modern airbags could be fitted to a classic car, but by the time you got that done, you’d have spent enough money to buy a much nicer classic car.

I have no problem with folks updating, say, a '65 Mustang with disc brakes, electronic ignition, etc. I thought about that, but by the time I’d be done it’d cost something close to a new Mustang, which would be better in every way…just not bit by the old car bug, I guess.