Airbags & Starlets - What Do You Reckon 441

By: Glenn Torrens

Presented by

airbag safety tech airbag safety tech

Bad batches of safety tech could blow holes in the ranks of our classic cars, reveals Glenn Torrens

If you squint, Toyota’s late-1990s baby-car Starlet looks like the original Austin Mini. For two decades, the little Toyota has been terrific transport for pizza delivery drivers and bowling club members, just like the original Mini was. And even though it might never be mentioned with the same jovial respect as the original Mini, the Starlet is probably a better modern Mini than the modern MINI.

But lately I’ve seen litters of Starlets at Toyota dealers, huddled behind wire fences like pound-bound puppies, eventually to be put-down.

It’s because their airbags are faulty. And it’s a bit of a worry.

Airbags are fitted to everything these days, but they were something of a novelty 25 years ago with television ads for 1990s cars often showing the you-beaut airbags deploying in slo-mo. The tech really was (and is) terrific and chances are, if you’re looking at one limp in your lap, you’re not injured – or not injured as badly as you would be if you’d head-butted the speedo.

However, those slo-mo TV ads sort-of led people to think that crashing with an airbag was like having a pillow fight in your pyjamas with your sexy new girlfriend. Uh, nope. It’s an explosion that occurs in the split-second after the car has hit something hard enough to become bent enough to be a write-off… so no, you’re not having a good day if you’re looking at an airbag.

Unfortunately, it’s been recently discovered some older airbags have deteriorated so won’t work the way they’re designed to. Some shoot-out metal fragments, like a shotgun blast. Like a shotgun blast, this has killed people.

Thankfully for Starlet enthusiasts (and although I have an infamously broadminded outlook to cars, I’ve not yet woken up one morning and decided I want a Starlet) the driver’s airbag was an option that not many buyers chose. Because they don’t have the dangerous airbags, it means plenty of Starlets remain scurrying around so they may survive to become the happy little H-plate cruisers they deserve to be.

It’s not just Starlets. Some BMWs have been affected, too: for instance, Morley’s brother Stuart – another car nut who I’ve had plenty of beers with - recently had to relinquish his BMW 3 Series daily driver. Just down the street from my house, there’s a tidy 1997-ish Mitsubishi Pajero, exactly what I’d like to replace my yellow ’89 Pajero when these later series become H-plate eligible and owning one becomes inexpensive fun.

But like all those poor fenced-in little Starlets I’ve seen, there won’t be a forever home for this Pajero: it has dual airbags, of which the driver’s side is known to be fatally flawed. That’s probably why the one near my house hasn’t moved for months.

The first Aussie-made car to have an airbag was the 1993 VR Holden Commodore: standard for the fleet-and-family Acclaim and the top-spec Calais and various HSVs. As the decade progressed, the safety tech was added to more models.

In 1994 Ford’s EF Falcon was launched with a driver’s airbag on all models, including the Tickfords and by VT (1997) and AU (1998) everything had at least a driver’s bag. That means most interesting Aussie cars of the past 25-plus years feature - at least - a driver’s airbag.

Let’s hope like heck the airbags in these Aussie legends don’t eventually suffer the same corrosion/explosion issue that has caused all those cute-as-a-puppy Starlets, bush-capable Pajeros and classy, competent BMWs – and others – to be put-down.


Unique Cars magazine Value Guides

Sell your car for free right here


Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for more unique car reviews and features plus see the latest unique and classic cars for sale.

Subscribe to Unique Cars magazine
- Print edition
- Digital edition