Can Airbags Be Installed In Older Cars? (Explained)

Newer cars nowadays are full of different safety features that people 50 years ago could only dream of. That is why, in case you haven’t noticed, classic cars don’t have the basic safety features that are standard in any car today.

One such feature is the airbag, which may not have been commonplace during the 60s, 70s, or even the 80s but has become mandatory since the late 90s.

So, considering that older cars don’t have airbags, can you still install airbags in them?

Install airbags on older cars

You cannot install airbags in older cars because you are not only installing the airbags but the entire system. This includes the sensors, control modules, and other similar components. Older cars and the way they were constructed are not made to accommodate all the components required by an airbag.

Audi A6 front passenger airbag
Audi A6 front passenger airbag

As useful as an airbag is, what you need to know is that trying to install one in an older car can be dangerous.

That’s because these cars weren’t designed to hold these components in the first place. Timing is essential in an airbag system.

And if there is a minor mistake when you try to install an airbag in an older car, you are most likely carrying a ticking timebomb than a safety feature.


When did airbags become mandatory?

Audi A6 A-pillar Airbag
Audi A6 A-pillar Airbag

Airbags are no doubt some of the most important safety features that are standard in today’s automotive industry.

The reason is that airbags are so effective that they can prevent up to 50% of passenger injuries in any car accident. And there have been plenty of different studies that will support how effective airbags are.

That said, it is no secret that almost all of the cars we see on the road today have airbags. This is due to the fact that airbags are mandatory in vehicles, and that means that car manufacturers should make it a point to install functioning airbag systems in the cars that they sell.

Then again, we did say “almost all” cars have airbags. That is because there are still cars that don’t have airbags because they were sold and manufactured before airbags became mandatory.

So, with that said, when did airbags become mandatory?

It was on September 1, 1998, that the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 went into effect. Basically speaking, this law required that all cars and light trucks sold in the United States have airbags on both sides of the front seat. This means that all cars that were manufactured and sold after September 1, 1998, have airbags.

But while airbags did become mandatory just two years before the dawn of the new millennium, what you should know is that airbags have already been around in the industry long before they became mandatory.

It was in 1953 that a certain technician from Pennsylvania named John Hetrick patented the design of the first airbags, which were inspired by the inflatable covers that were used by the Navy for their torpedoes. While Hetrick was prompt enough to send his sketches to all of the major automobile companies in the US, they didn’t respond. 

In 1966, seatbelts became mandatory in cars, but not everyone wore them. This prompted companies such as Ford to adopt the airbag as a failsafe that would protect people regardless of whether or not they were wearing their seatbelts. This went on during the 70s, but not all car companies adopted the feature because there were still issues regarding its overall safety.

But as the technology used for airbags improved, more and more car manufacturers began installing airbag systems into their vehicles. And the support for airbags grew when it was estimated that they had saved more than 10,000 lives since the 1980s. 

As such, in 1991, the law regarding airbags was passed and did not become fully effective until 1998. So, while it did take long for airbags to be mandatory, the fact of the matter is that all cars manufactured and sold in the US require airbags.

Then again, it still is important to note that there are some old cars that are still sold between people and through dealerships today. These old cars do not have airbags, but they are exempt from the law because they were manufactured way before the law on airbags became effective. That’s why there are still some older cars that don’t have airbags today.

Do old cars need airbags?

Now that you know that older cars don’t have airbags because the law only became mandatory in 1998, you might be wondering if old cars actually need airbags.

Frankly speaking, there is no law that states that older cars should be retrofitted with airbags. And the truth is that these older cars probably don’t need airbags, even though we can all agree that airbags are effective.

Airbags may be effective at decreasing fatalities and the rate of serious injuries in car crashes, but the fact is that airbags are supplementary only. That means that they are not entirely required for a car to be considered safe, as cars with or without airbags can still be safe, depending on the circumstances. After all, there are some cars that are being driven even if their airbag lights are on and their airbags aren’t properly working.

The most important safety feature for a driver and passengers is still the seatbelt. That’s because the numbers that support the safety of seatbelts are staggering. In 2019 alone, nearly half of the people who died as a result of a car crash did not wear seatbelts. And, in a study, it has been proven that seatbelts alone are effective at preventing serious injuries regardless of whether or not the airbag is deployed.

As such, what we can say for sure is that the airbag is only supplementary to the seatbelt, which is the primary safety feature in any car. That is why older cars don’t need airbags as long as they have seatbelts that are properly functioning.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the best of both worlds. The fact that airbags are also effective at reducing injury and fatality rates was what pushed Congress to make them mandatory.

That is why, if you can, you should always make sure that your car has a working and functioning airbag system coupled with effective seatbelts. Then again, if you have an older car without airbags, you should still be fine as long as you wear your seatbelts and you are driving safely.

Is it possible to retrofit airbags into older cars?

So, while older cars are not required to have airbags, is it still possible for you to retrofit airbags into these older cars?

After all, it is better to have the best of both worlds, right? If you can retrofit airbags into older cars, you would be able to benefit from your seatbelt and your airbags.

But the problem here is that, when you are talking about airbags, you are not only talking about the inflatable bags themselves, but you are also talking about all of the different components that go into the airbag system.

That means that you should also look at the sensors, control modules, and other essential components. These are all important in making sure that the airbag works.

If you account for all of the different components that go into the airbag system, it becomes easier to understand that it is going to be very difficult or even impossible to retrofit or install airbags into older cars.

That is because older cars were designed and built to not have airbag systems. When you build a car with an airbag, its overall construction should be designed to fit the airbag system.

The reason is that the different components that go into the airbag system work together with the other systems of the car.

For example, the sensors are capable of working together with the car’s engine or with the ECU to detect whether or not the car decelerated rapidly enough such that a crash was responsible for the sudden deceleration.

It would be very difficult to install these sensors and allow them to work with the older technology and construction of a classic car.

On top of that, it might be very difficult to find the space to fit the airbag system’s components in a classic car. There are plenty of different components that go into the airbag system, and not all classic cars have enough room for those parts.

Of course, the most important thing to take note of here is that airbag systems use explosive chemicals that are safely installed in cars with airbags. These chemicals, when ignited, are the ones responsible for inflating the airbag.

If you try to retrofit an airbag and these chemicals in a car that was not designed to have an airbag, you are only flirting with danger here.

There is a good chance that you might end up igniting these chemicals accidentally while you are driving.

This can either harm your car or inflate the airbag at a time when you don’t even need it. And that means that you are driving with a bomb in your car instead of a safety feature. 

You are only going to do more harm than good to your car and yourself if you try to install an airbag system on a vehicle that wasn’t supposed to have an airbag.

The risks are not worth it, especially if you consider that airbags can be as dangerous as they are safe.


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

It’s Possible to Retrofit Modern Safety Tech to Old Cars