Taking Kids in Unsafe Old Cars

Should we really take our kids in our old cars?

I got word last week that Chip Star’s Race Car Resurrections, the shop that has Bradley’s 1960 Bugeye, located a 3.7 rear end and was rebuilding it. Stock ratio was 4.22, and 3.9s are common. So scoring a 3.7 was a find.

However, the installation of the 3.7 rear end caused me to think about the increased cruising speed — it will now be comfortable at 65 mph instead of 55 mph — and whether I want my 9-year-old son in the car on the freeways.

Old cars and safety are a contradiction in terms. My everyday driver (“the scooter”) is a 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT. It has about 600 airbags, antilock everything, a backup camera and more. I don’t have a second thought when I pick up Bradley from school. He gets in the back seat, belts in, plugs in his iPad and away we go.

Much of today’s traffic consists of hulking SUVs and “Crossover” vehicles, often driven by distracted drivers who are texting as they go down the city streets. In the Hyundai, we have a fighting chance of survival if one of these behemoths ploughs into me.

That’s not the case in the Bugeye or any of my vintage cars. Nearly every economy car on the road today can accelerate, brake and corner better than they can. They have no airbags, crumple zones or antilock brakes. With many of them, the steering column is a straight piece of metal that goes from the steering box at the front of the car to the horn button. “Safety by Lancelot” we call it.

Further, in most old cars, it is impossible to easily fit three-point shoulder harnesses. I’m not so worried about rollover protection — statistically the number of cars that end up on their lids after a crash is very small. But it would be nice to not do a face plant into my toggle switches in a collision.

I don’t have a good answer here. Living involves risks, and if you remove all danger from your life, you’re going to be in a bubble.

So what do I do? Do I not allow my son to ride in my vintage cars? Do I have him join me on the outskirts of town where it is far safer, driving on country two-lane roads? Frankly, the joy of having him next to me in the car would mean nothing compared to him being injured.

A year ago, I sold my daughter Alex’s 250 Ninja motorcycle and my Suzuki 650S for exactly the same reason. As much as I loved riding with her, the thought of seeing her go down on the highway through an accident (a thrown tire tread from a truck, a careless lane-changer) far outweighed any pleasure I might get from the riding experience. We’ve kept our dirt bikes, as you have much more control over your riding environment in an off-road park than you do on city streets or freeways. But we’ll never ride on the streets again.

Perhaps you can provide some guidance here. How do we introduce our children to the joys of vintage cars while minimizing the dangers? Where is that happy medium? Let me know in the comments below.

 

Keith Martin

Keith Martin has been involved with the collector car hobby for more than 30 years. As a writer, publisher, television commentator and enthusiast, he is constantly on the go, meeting collectors and getting involved in their activities throughout the world. He is the founder and publisher of the monthly Sports Car Market and bi-monthly American Car Collector magazines, has written for the New York Times, Automobile, AutoWeek, Road & Track and other publications, is an emcee for numerous concours, and has his own show, “What’s My Car Worth,” shown on Velocity.

Posted in Keith Martin

21 comments

  1. It’s an excellent question and a credit to you as a concerned parent. However, the same question applies to any number of other activities you may (or may not) allow your son to participate such as contact sports, skiing, snowboarding, mountain biking, etc…etc… I think that as long as you drive defensively (something I practice religiously in a Europa)when in a congested urban environment and reasonably when on the open road, the risk is more than offset by the reward.

  2. Tongue in cheek Question #1: I thought the Bugeye was Bradley’s car? Won’t he just tell you what he’s going to do with it? More seriously, the events and situations we drive our rickety collector cars to and in are more frequently becoming group gatherings, so there is the attendant safety in numbers as a benefit. Visibility and recognition by others of the cars involved. 50 motorcycles together are more insulated in many ways than 1. (This is a plug for marquee clubs) When he goes out solo, the brief you already will give him that “Operate like everyone is potentially out to do you harm, so leave yourself an escape plan.” will have to suffice. As you have mentioned, life involves risks. All you can do is attempt to prevent or mitigate them while enjoying that life. Tongue in cheek question #2: What makes you think he’ll get off his iPad long enough to want to actually drive it in the first place?

  3. Our Z-3 roadster and the R100rs are Sunday, go-to-breakfast, low-traffic condition, fun vehicles. For the Interstate a Cayenne. Daily driver, a touring. All high milers, all bought for a specific situation. A Bugeye (and I’ve owned and loved ’em) is a death wish in today’s urban environment in which the average driver thinks coffee drinking, texting, smoking, eating, applying make-up, talking, reading and surfing the net take precedence over driving intelligently.
    The US Navy was nuts enough to station me in Europe where I REALLY learned to drive. The average American driver could never pass the strict European driving tests.

  4. Totally understand where you are coming from – after avoiding a big rear ending in a 356A from a F250, I would have been “lanceloted” on the steering column and the kids in the back would have been gone… My take on it was that the kids ride in a tank 95% of the time (Wife’s Land Rover) and I’ll take my chances with them in the oldies on week ends for shorter trips on less populated roads, and/or driving very defensively. They love those cars and I think it’s worth the risk in small doses. Another thing I’ve done is either modify slightly or only keep those oldies that do keep up with modern traffic and have a little more safety built in (think early 911 – articulated colum – with sticky rubber or a souped up BMW 2002 or Alfa GTV). After that, when it;s your time it’s your time, you have to live a little… which brings up a point: a Hyundai? Really ? You ? I’d rather risk the impalement… 😉

  5. I’m with you on this one. Last week I thought I might drive my 4 1/2 year old grandson to cars and coffee in my ’67 Morgan 4/4. I thought I could strap his child’s seat in the car using the car’s seat belt but the hole thing did’t look very safe. ALSO, I’m not sure that it would be legal under Florida law. I decided we would drive our modern car and he would be in the back seat.

  6. If parents don’t take their children driving, the hobby will die out. Furthermore, it is, IMHO, the responsibility of individuals to live full, rich, passionate lives and demonstrate that vitality to children. If you give up any pastimes that may have an element of danger to them, and only participate in “safe” and online activities, you impoverish your offspring. They don’t get to see their real fathers and mothers, only hollowed-out shells of who they used to be. Better to die doing something you love than live in a suppressed, depressed state of being.

  7. I think it is good to remember how most of us likely grew up. That is, in cars that at the time, had no air bags, no seat belts or shoulder harnesses, had drum brakes, no ABS, no side impact beams etc. Somehow, most of us managed to survive and are still here to tell the tale. One of my first cars was a ’69 Triumph GT6+ which was a pretty tiny car in of itself, and I managed to survive and avoid the many large behemoth cars on the road back in the day, some of which are much larger than today’s cars. With that said, we want to protect our children and there are far more distractions today with cell phones and infotainment systems in cars than there were in the past. I say drive defensively and show Bradley the joys of his Sprite. I have an AC (Autokraft) Cobra Mk. IV which is very open to the road like the Sprite. I have yet to take my 12 year old daughter for a ride, but plan to. I will do so at times when there is less traffic on the road and will take secondary roads. I find that while people are curious about my car, they give me a wide berth at times and are respectful when I try to change lanes etc. as they realize I am in a much smaller and “different” car. I say, take a chance, live life and take risks. The chances of a major injury accident are likely small and the rewards will likely be much greater!

  8. Legitimate question. But you might as well be as safe as you can while enjoying your old ride with your kids. Three point seat-belts are not that hard to engineer into a lot of old cars. We have them in two 356s, one coupe and one cabriolet, and they seem to work fine. Fortunately we have never had to test them in a crash.

  9. Life is to be lived…with family. There are all sorts of ‘dangers and hazards’ out there, but to dwell on them will cause paralysis. With due concern for defensive driving and taking as many roads less traveled as available, you should share those experiences with the children. I took all my grandchildren out in my Lotus 7 and it’s far more vulnerable than even the Sprite. They enjoyed every moment of the rides and actually gained knowledge of the car and how to drive. Same applied to the Lotus Elite, albeit with a few more creature comforts. The bonds formed from any of these types of interaction with the younger generation are priceless. The ‘educational opportunities’ provided are of immense value and will, hopefully, lay the foundation in them for an involvement with our automotive passion later in their lives.

  10. Thank you, Keith, for raising an important issue. The New York Times today includes a story that highway fatalities increased more in the past year than they have in the previous 50 years, and the primary culprit is suspected to be tech-enabled distracted driving. My kids are ages three and six, and as far as I am concerned, old cars of the kind I like (sports cars) are off limits. I live in a high density population state, and no matter how defensively I drive, the risk of someone texting while driving an enormous SUV is too great. To me this is not a matter of raising my kids in a bubble. Rather, being a parent means my kids rely on me to make the right risk/reward decisions. I know other responsible parents may come to a different conclusion. I am also fortunate to have a couple fun modern cars, and do enjoy taking my kids along for rides, belted in appropriate child seats, of course.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/16/business/tech-distractions-blamed-for-rise-in-traffic-fatalities.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0

  11. Great question, as it’s one I’m dealing with as a parent of a pre-schooler and an infant. Old cars are a passion for me, and I can’t imagine simply excluding my children from that. I’m not sure there’s a perfect answer, and with all due respect, the “we survived it, why can’t they” response is a platitude – I survived those cars too when I was a kid, but my odds were worse. So what do I do? My approach so far has been no infants in the old cars, and when my 4-year-old rides in one, it’s in the back seat, in her car seat, and that is restrained by a new safety belt. Another thing I’ve done is caravan to events like cars & coffee – my wife & kids in the new car, me in the old car – avoiding the freeway risks while still sharing the actual event. Again, no perfect answers – like with anything else, I think the prudent approach is to minimize risk as much as possible while still letting them take part.

  12. It’s an interesting point that you feel safer out on the open road. I took my Miata out for a nice run and wound up at the outlet mall to make my copilot happy. The road was great – the parking lots were terrifying. My car is well below the window sills of these gigantic SUVs, and so is invisible to their (typically oblivious) drivers. At least any collisions here would be low speed. I feel safe on the open road, though, but I would never risk driving aggressively with a kid aboard.

  13. Perhaps I was lucky. When my daughter was smaller, I found by coincidence that her child seat, with its own belts, wedged beautifully into the bucket seat in my ‘race’ car, so that she was belted in to her seat and then the four-point harness closed over both as if it was made for the purpose. She used to go running into pre-school shouting ‘we’ve come in the silly green car’. We also had a six-point roll cage around us (which is also why you need to be belted in: don’t want to hit your head on a roll cage). But… it was (is) a Mk1 Escort… tiny. If we’d been hit by a Rangie driver on the phone (or anything bigger: we’ve had a few of these recently on the A34 in Oxfordshire), both toast, likely. I am horrified by the recent standards of driving, but what do you do? Can’t wrap us all in cotton wool. Best I can offer is teach Bradley defensive driving (ie how to stay out of the way of idiots by way of road positioning, always leaving himself somewhere to go) and hope…

  14. In 2012 my 9 year old grandson and I flew my 1964 Mooney single engine aircraft from Nevada, across the US, down through the Caribbean, on to French Guiana, across Brazil, and settled into Uruguay for a few months, with occasional flights over to Argentina. I few the airplane back about six months later.

    Dangerous? Some might say extremely, while others would agree with modestly dangerous.

    Possibly the greatest danger was the necessity of me home-schooling him for the month we were in transit.

    But, I promised him we’d visit the piranha petting zoo, and promises must be kept.

    Knowledge, growth, and wisdom do not come from the arms of comfortable chair.

  15. As for riding motorcycles I stopped twice, once when my children were young, then again when I realized my reaction time was not what it used to be. Plus of course the number of distracted drivers on the road. As for taking children in cars, I worry even taking myself in a vintage car. I have a nephew who got t-boned in a late model Miata on the drivers side by a Dodge Durango running a red light, it hit from the A pillar forward. He walked away but the car was totaled. You just have to be defensive and be aware of your environment, you cannot let your guard down.

  16. I was driving my Lotus Elise in town with not much traffic. A pickup ran a red light, nearly hitting a pedestrian in the crosswalk, struck a car, then T boned me from the passenger side. I was not injured. Consider if I was in a Bugeye with a young child in the passenger seat. Unless we lock our kids up till they are 21 we cannot completely protect them. We, as parents, must weigh being able to challenge, instruct and give the excitement of life and all that it offers to our kids versus protecting those we love. My dad was in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy in WWII. I started skiing at 18 months and taught my kids to ski at 2. I skied for years without a helmet. Michael Schumacher grew up on skis and wore a helmet. Life is fragile. We as individuals and especially as parents must weigh the risk and benefit, the freedom and the responsibility of all we do for ourselves and our love ones. We then live with the consequences.

  17. I also have a 060 Bugeye, and other small vintage sports cars. I do take my wife in our Porsche 356 Coupe on long drives. Not so the Bugeye. I can’t say where the line is drewn however. I also gave up motorcycles a number of years ago. Same reasons we all come to that point in our lives.

  18. It seems to me that many more opportunities for death on the highways exist today than ever before. The major cause in that drivers have the opportunity to involve themselves with activities not related to controlling their automobiles. Then you have a large group of older (read rich) people who are driving vehicles that exceed their ability to anticipate and control. Others who think air bags will keep them from dying and finally states that allow Marijuana and alcohol without SEVER penalties for their use while driving.

  19. As with other hazardous activities I engage in (with or without my kids) I take a statistical approach: Risk=p(harm)*t, where the right side of the equation is probability of harm per hour of that activity times the amount of time spent. If the p(harm) driving an old car is five times as high as a modern car, but I only spend 5% of my time driving my ’57 Alfa vs. my modern daily driver, then the total risk is STILL lower for the Alfa. Everything in moderation–including moderation. You could also die from a heart attack on the couch while watching Game of Thrones. Carpe Drivem.

  20. I think about this a lot, especially when I read this blog. I have a 5-year-old daughter and two Alfas, a 1970 Giulia sedan, and a 1974 Spider. I don’t buy the “we survived” platitudes and have seen the articles about the spike in traffic deaths over the last couple years, from distracted driving. On the other hand, everything is a calculated risk and I do want to share my passion with my family. We have taken several long (1,000+ mile) road trips in the Giulia and generally use it as a fair-weather family car around town. While I have no illusions that it is as safe as a modern car, for it’s time it was relatively safe and strong. Believe this and other factors (upgraded three-point belts, collapsible steering column, etc ) so help mitigate the risk somewhat–all collector cars are not created equal in terms of safety. But I do make her ride in the center of the back seat of the Giulia and the front seat of the Spider is only for very short trips on slow roads. Both include a top-notch Britax car seat, which she has just about outgrown. Will need to investigate booster seats and eventually think about whether 3-point inertia reels in back are feasible. The current ones are static belts. Anyway, long winded but that is where my line (more accurately described as a gray area?…) is. It is so much fun to have them along but, if I’m being completely honest, does keep me up a bit at night….

  21. I had similar concerns, so I am restoring a 78 Porsche 928 – a good compromise between safety and fun to drive with a back seat for grandkids – all at a reasonable price!
    Scartan

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