How to Make Sure It’s Safe

There are safety issues associated with any vehicle, but when you’re building one from scratch – especially from a collection of parts from various sources – safety can be a much larger issue. In this chapter, you’ll learn about the safety features every rod should have, items to keep in your car in case of emergency, and things to keep in mind for the future that can become safety issues. Even if you’re hiring a professional for some of the work, there are plenty of things you need to think about as the owner of a street rod.

Every Rod Should Have…

The National Street Rodding Association (NSRA), the oldest nationwide association for street rodders, has developed a vehicle safety inspection for rods. A team of 75 safety inspectors stationed across the country conducts inspections at local rod runs and NSRA-sanctioned events. Rodders don’t have to be member of NSRA; they simply need to ask for a safety inspection. The NSRA Safety Team inspects about 17,000 rods annually using a 23-point inspection process. Rodders who pass the inspection receive a sticker to place in their window that is valid for one year. The idea behind the inspection program is to have another set of eyes give your rod a once-over, identifying any possible dangers before they cause a problem.

While some items on the NSRA’s inspection list are only logical, such as a horn, lights, speedometer and four-wheel brakes, others require a bit more thought. For example, the inspection requires that every rod have power windshield wipers and a lock-out feature in an automatic transmission so the car will start only in Neutral or Park. Safety inspectors crawl under the vehicle checking for the fuel and brake systems for leaks, routing and the components used. Inspectors will make sure your emergency brake works properly and will inspect the chassis fasteners to ensure they have a locking design of some kind.

Inspectors also want to check that no components fall below the “scrub line” of your vehicle. To check this, the NSRA suggests stretching a string from the bottom of each wheel rim to the bottom of the other three tires at the road surface. The string should be taut. No parts of the steering, suspension or chassis should be below the string. The only items allowed below the string are body sheet metal, bumpers, exhaust system, and oil and transmission parts.

The NSRA also recommends four additional items to help ensure the safety of the rod and its occupants: a third brake light, dual master cylinder, seat belts and fire extinguisher. A complete list and a description of each requirement can be found on the NSRA website at

Things to Consider

As you build your car, there are certain features that you may want to consider adding to help reduce the chances of an accident and injury to you and your passengers. They include:

  • Seat belts: Ideally it’s best to install three-point harnesses, but even lap belts will provide some protection. The key is to make sure that the belts are anchored properly to a surface that will not deform in a collision. If you aren’t sure how to do this, consult a professional.
  • Bear-claw door latches: The original style of door latches were not very secure and doors could fly open unexpectedly. Consider swapping out any original latches for newer style bear-claw latches, which will keep the doors from popping open in a collision.
  • Double master-cylinder: Also known as a dual master cylinder, this braking component will ensure that, should your brakes develop a problem, you’ll still have at least half the system, the front or the rear, to bring you safely to a stop.
  • LED brake lights: While small taillight and turn signals may be attractive on your rod, it’s important that the people behind you be able to see when you are applying your brakes. Consider installing the largest taillights you feel comfortable with or using LEDs instead of bulbs, so your lights are brighter. Better yet, use both.
  • Kill switch: A master switch that disconnects the power from the battery is a handy feature for when your car will be parked for extended periods and is useful in some types of emergencies. If you hide it out of sight, it can also prevent the theft of your rod.

To Keep in Your Rod

Like any specialty vehicle, a street rod can break down. Whether you’re a few miles from home or in another part of the country, it’s a good idea to have a small collection of items to help combat any problems that arise. Gather these items, and then add other things that make sense for your rod and driving situation:

  • Fire extinguisher: Don’t bury it under other items in your trunk. Instead, store it in a place that’s easy to reach from the driver’s seat.
  • Socket wrench: Add the two or three sockets that are most common on your vehicle.
  • Other items that can serve a multitude of uses in a pinch include adjustable pliers, wire ties, hose clamps and duct tape.
  • Lug wrench, breaker bar, jack and wood support for jack: If you need to change a tire, these items will come in handy. Consider a scissor-style jack if you’re short on space. The lug wrench is also useful in tightening loose lug nuts, which can sometimes work loose on a long trip.
  • Fix-A-Flat: A can of spare tire sealer can eliminate the need to change a flat tire in many instances.
  • Spare fuses: Gather a small assortment
  • Extra lubricants: Oil, transmission fluid and power steering fluid can be stored in a plastic bag to prevent leaks.
  • Cell phone with charged battery and power cord or Portable CB radio: If you break down, you’ll be reluctant to leave your rod anywhere and walk to get assistance, plus it may not be safe to get out of the car. If you plan on relying on your cell phone, be sure to add a 12-volt power source somewhere in your rod during the build process.
  • NSRA Fellow Pages: All NSRA members receive a printed directory of members who are willing to help out a fellow rodder. Organized by city and state, this guide is a handy resource when you’re far from home and need a place to work on your car, advice about a local repair shop or a reliable mechanic.
  • Towel: Helpful for keeping your clothes clean, provides some cushioning if you need to kneel or lay on the ground.
  • Gloves: For handling something hot.
  • Cleaner: Waterless hand cleaner or pre-moistened wipes so you have clean hands before sliding behind the wheel again.

Watch Out For…

As you put some miles on your rod, things will loosen and wear and problems may begin to develop. As the team of NSRA safety inspectors does their work each year, there are a handful of problems that they notice more frequently. Giving your rod the once-over on a regular basis will help reduce the possibility of these issues affecting your rod. Here are some of the most common issues that safety inspectors notice:

  • Check that your emergency brake is holding by setting it and shifting your vehicle into gear. Your rod should not move when it is idling.
  • Confirm that your neutral safety switch is operating correctly by attempting to start your rod in gear. If it starts in anything other than park or neutral, the safety switch either hasn’t been installed properly or needs adjustment.
  • If you have a Mustang II independent front suspension with rack-and-pinion steering, check the control arm bolts periodically. They can work loose or show signs of wear, causing the rack to shift from side-to-side. Also look for signs of wear on the top hat, which connects to the upper control arms. Some older top hats, which are still available at swap meets, didn’t use heavy enough metal and can wear excessively during driving as a result, possibly resulting in a dangerous situation.
  • Wheels that loosen are a fairly common issue and can be the result of several things. First, don’t use spacers or modify the wheel in order to correct a clearance issue. Even with wheels that fit correctly, be sure you know the correct torque readings for the diameter of your studs as well as the proper seat angles on your lug nuts for your wheel style. These numbers are usually provided in the instructions that come with a new set of wheels. If you buy used wheels, contact the manufacturer for the specs. Both should be checked periodically, using a torque wrench to ensure the settings are correct.

While the safety items mentioned here are in no way comprehensive, if you keep these issues in mind when building and driving your car, you’ll at least be on top of the most common problems rodders face.

Next month, we will address “Getting It on the Road,” which will tell you what you need to do at the next stage to get out there and have some fun.

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