When it comes to customising cars, especially my own, I tend to not bother these days, nor did I when I was younger. I say that, but not in the sense most of you may be thinking. When friends were trying to make their Ford Cortinas or Escort Mk2s louder, faster, noisier or lower to the ground, I’d be found trying to make my cars smoother, quieter or more luxurious inside. Given the choice of a tubular exhaust manifold and a twin-choke Weber or a complete compliment of burr walnut, you’d find me tinkering with timber every time. Being able to hit 60mph in second gear may float some folks’ boats, but having a cigar lighter and ashtray that subtly illuminate at night is my idea of motoring perfection.
When it comes to safety-related items like airbags or anti-lock brakes, it’s pretty much taken as read that you don’t muck about with them unless you are building a track car or wish to avoid serious injury or, at worst, being killed. That said, there are some hilariously stupid people out there whose ham-fisted and ill-advised high-jinx serve only to educate the rest of us how avoid injury or – using that phrase our parents would use when it came to pain – ‘that’ll come keen’. I remember witnessing a bloke in a breaker’s yard trying to remove some lower suspension component from a Talbot Alpine once only to hear a loud bang, a scream of pain and his ratchet fly 100 feet into the air as one of the torsion bars immediately unwound it pre-tension. He left the scene in an ambulance.
For sure, we have all injured ourselves before. A burned wrist on a hot manifold, a self-inflicted stab in the hand with an electrician’s screwdriver or even a good old-fashioned wallop with a hammer on a forefinger and thumb when driving home an awkward roll-pin. As an old schoolteacher used to tell us in our woodwork lessons ‘a little bit of pain never hurt anyone’ – Mr Todd, if you are reading this, I salute you, Sir. Life is all about learning and every day is a school day as the saying goes, with one important skill we hone and develop with advancing years – risk assessment, or so you would think. Like the afore-mentioned tit working on the Talbot, some folks are clearly clueless when it comes to self-preservation.
A tale of woe was recalled to me just the other day from a long-time acquaintance of mine colloquially known in our click as ‘blood ‘n guts Bob’… who also just happens to be a time-served paramedic – yes, kids buckle yourself in and grab the Ginger Nuts for this one. Now when it comes to improving the look and feel of your post-2002 Rover 75, what tends to be the most common job any keen enthusiast will undertake? You have it in one, it is of course changing the imitation plastic wood facia over to the earlier pre-Project Drive real walnut affair. Those ‘in the swim’ of this job may be hearing a faint alarm bell ringing now, so feel free to nip outside and come back quietly in a paragraph or two’s time. Anyway, for the rest of you who aren’t too squeamish, let’s carry on.
A car had been involved in a relatively minor collision with another vehicle somewhere in the Midlands with one of them being a Rover 75. All the necessary airbags had been deployed during this minor urban shunt, but the passenger of the Rover required immediate hospital attention and surgery. Not to go into the details, but the passenger had received some pretty hefty facial and dental injuries which was soon to be proven as the immediate result of the nearside airbag being deployed. In almost all the cases when an airbag is deployed at lower speeds, injuries caused tend to be a minor cut or bruising and or, in some cases, very minor skin burns nothing more than that mentioned, ‘but there’s more‘ as Jimmy Crickett used to beckon us.
The owner of the car had, at some point, replaced the plastic wood effect panels on the dashboard for the real wood earlier bits. Where he had gone tragically wrong was by not having the correct anti-tamper Torx bit tools, he had cut through the webbing of the airbag trapdoor with a Stanley blade – which is there to work as a hinge so he could fit the replacement cover. When the airbag is fired it erupts from the front of a cassette unit, blows the trapdoor out and upwards via the hinge that’s made of two strips of webbing like a seatbelt, for your face and chest to be cushioned by the deflating airbag – all this taking place quicker than the blink of an eye.
This trapdoor or cover if you like is made of a single 2mm pressing of alloy with a 1.5mm thick wood veneer and a millimetre thick resin varnish coating. The part roughly weighs about the same as an average smartphone if you bounce it in the palm of your hand. By cutting the hinge webbing of this part, you have rather brilliantly turned a lifesaving component into a roadside IED that the Taliban army would be proud of. Ipso facto, the airbag fires as normal when required, but rather than the cover be thrown upwards for the airbag to deploy outwards, it rather spectacularly becomes a projectile that hits you in the face with the same after effect of being whacked in the mush with a rounders bat.
It’s funny really to digress for a moment, I remember potential customers looking inside the Rover 45 or MG ZS and baulking at the installation of the passenger airbag. Clearly, it was little more than a large rectangle cut out of a Honda Civic dashboard with an airbag system hastily retro-fitted. This, of course, was very true but the brilliant idea here was that, if the airbag did deploy, you only had to replace the airbag cassette unit rather than the whole facia itself – the difference being a three figure bill rather than four.
In some cases, this could be enough to tip the balance and write a car off completely in some accident cases. The 75 and ZT also used a system that avoided major parts replacement and excess costs, too – those clever Brits, eh? Once you threw that into your sales pitch the customer often went from being slightly aghast to being rather impressed at the ‘Heath Robinson’ ingenuity of it.
So, I guess to conclude, if you are looking at purchasing a later Rover 75 or MG ZT that has gone through the modification of retro-fitting the genuine wood trims to the inside, prize off the nearside airbag cover at the bottom edge with a blunt screwdriver – it really is that simple to check. If it unceremoniously drops into the passenger footwell, you have potentially saved your future passenger or loved one a session under the knife of your local Maxillofacial Surgeon.
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