- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

DETROIT (AP) — At a time when thousands of Americans were standing in bread lines, the luxury automobile of the day, the Duesenberg, sold for more than $15,000. The car — miles ahead of the typical $500 family car of the day — weighed more than 3 tons and was bigger than a modern Suburban.

But like many pre-World War II cars, Duesenbergs were made without one of the basic safety features mandatory on modern cars: seat belts.

And that might have contributed to the deaths over the weekend of a man, his wife and their 8-year-old son. Police say a 2001 Volvo ran a stop sign near Ann Arbor, Mich., and struck their newly restored 1929 Duesenberg while they were out for a drive near their home.

The family of five was thrown from the car, and the two other children were injured. The driver of the Volvo, who was not injured, could face charges.

The Duesenberg, like many vintage cars, is nearly impossible to bring up to current crash safety standards. And many classic car owners believe that trying to do so would spoil a vehicle’s authenticity.

Federal law holds cars only to the standards that were in effect at the time of the vehicle’s manufacture. But many states have come up with their own regulations for classic cars, and often prohibit their use for routine transportation.

“When you’re driving to a show, the guy in the modern car thinks you can start, stop and maneuver just the same as he can. But if you have an open car and it flips over, you’re in big trouble,” said Chuck Conrad, president of the Des Plaines, Ill.-based Classic Car Club of America.

Crashes — especially fatal ones — involving classic cars are rare because the owners are so cautious with them, said Matt Short, executive vice president of the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind. Owners do most of their driving to and from classic car shows, conventions and parades.

Seat belts were introduced on cars in the early 1960s. In 1968, the federal government made them mandatory. But there is no federal requirement to add them to cars that did not come with them.

Most states, including Michigan, New York and California, let classic car owners register their vehicles with a “vintage” license, but with restrictions.

In Virginia, a classic car owner can obtain a standard registration that allows the vehicle to be used like any other model as long as it meets current safety standards. Or, the owner can obtain a vintage license that limits its use to car club events, parades and exhibits as well as occasional pleasure driving no more than 250 miles from home.

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