Hobby experts say collectors drive their cars very cautiously and old-car insurers say that the number of annual accident claims is extremely low. Of course, that doesn’t mean that your collector car won’t be in a collision some day. The chances are low – but it could happen.
This raises the question of whether it’s wise to install seat belts in your collector car or truck. Before you answer yes or no, let’s look briefly at the history of seat belts, discuss the safety aspects, talk about the “originality” factor and discuss actual installation procedures.
When Preston Tucker announced his ’48 Tucker, he said it would be the safest car ever made. Early Tuckers came with safety belts. Later, Tucker decided that using seat belts when no one else used them gave the impression his car wasn’t safe.
Ford advanced automotive safety in 1956 with its “Lifeguard Safety Equipment” option, which included seat belts. Although backed by heavy advertising, the package flopped and the government stepped in. By the early ‘60s, seat belt laws were passed in several states. In 1962, automakers voluntarily added anchors for at least two front-seat lap belts to all cars.
President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Highway Safety Act of 1966 was a landmark piece of federal legislation that gave Washington sweeping powers over car design. The act specified mandatory safety standards for 1968 models. In addition, the government “convinced” Detroit to add six standard safety features to all 1966 domestic cars that included seat belts. Starting in January 1968, lap-belt anchorages for each front and rear seating position and upper torso-belt anchorages at each forward facing outboard seating position were required. On January 1, 1972 , the same requirements went into effect for U.S.-built trucks.
Federal laws hold cars and trucks to the standards that were in effect at the time of their manufacture. Therefore, pre-1966 cars aren’t required by federal law to have seat belts. State laws do vary, however.
Some hobbyists like that they can drive vintage cars and trucks without seat belts. Others install seat belts as soon as they get their first vintage car. In most states, both groups have a legal right to their opinion. Therefore, it’s up to you to install seat belts in your collector vehicle. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration studies tell us three things: 1) Every 12.5 minutes, someone dies in a car accident (42,000 a year) and every 9 seconds a person is injured; 2) Three of five people killed in car accidents would survive if they were wearing a seat belt; 3) Seat belts save an estimated 9,500 lives in the United States each year.
As a car collector and a 25-year veteran as an Emergency Medical Technician, I have seen both points of view. My EMT experience took me to countless motor vehicle accidents. With this, I can say that you’ll be safer with seat belts.
Seat Belts and Originality
As far as I’m aware, there is no collector car club or car show organizer that will deduct points for the installation of seat belts in a vintage car. Most hobby organizations encourage the installation of seat belts as a way to save lives. The Antique Automobile Club of America maintains strict standards for training judges and judging cars at shows. AACA guidelines specify that points should not be deducted for adding seat belts to a car.
If you have a 1950s or 1960s car that was originally marketed with seat belts as a factory accessory, you may be lucky enough to locate original-style safety belts for that car. A number of hobby vendors are restoring or reproducing original equipment belts.
Installing Seat Belts Old-Car Style
Installing lap-style seat belts in a steel-floored vintage car is simple. There are two belts per passenger. Each belt must be securely anchored to the floor. Use a backing plate to reinforce the floor. A backing plate can be fashioned out of a piece of 11-gauge steel with an area of about 6 square inches.
Common practice is to run the two outermost straps directly from the anchor to the person's lap without passing between the two seat cushions. Inner belts are run through the seat. Belts should be anchored with 7/16 UNF Grade 5 bolts. These come with large steel washers that you position under metal floor and backing plate. Some anchors have captive nuts to make the installation easier. After securing each strap in its anchor, it should be adjusted for length.
If the rear seat is under 4-feet wide and you want to install rear belts for three people, it’s wise to cross the inner four straps at the anchor belts like automakers do in compact cars.
If your old car has a wooden floor, anchoring the seat belt to the wood is useless. Chuck Conrad, president of the Classic Car Club of America, says, “Bolting yourself down to a 70-year-old piece of wood isn’t really going to stop anything.” Seat belts in wood-floored cars must be anchored to the vehicle’s metal frame. This requires extra drilling and fabrication. If brackets are added, remember that mild steel brackets must be painted to keep from rusting.
Some hobbyists install belt retractors and shoulder belts. Usually, retractors are fastened to the floor using L-shaped mild steel brackets. Anchor plates for shoulder belts must be welded to the roof post or door pillar – not sheet metal. It’s difficult to install shoulder belts in cars with wood-framed bodies.
Note: Hagerty recommends the use of any safety device for the protection of your life as well as your collector car's.
Ssnake-Oyl Products, www.ssnake-oyl.com
Seat Belt Pros, www.seatbeltpros.com
Cadillac King, www.cadillacking.com
John “Gunner” Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola , Wis. , and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.