At the Bonhams collector-car auction in Greenwich, Connecticut in early June, there were many highly regarded classic cars for which the well-heeled bidders might raise their paddles: a 1931 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron CG Sport Phaeton, a ’32 Cord convertible, a ’34 Bugatti Type 57, an early Maserati, a smattering of shapely Jaguars, several impressive Packards (including Clark Gable’s), an Auburn boattail Speedster, a selection of Rolls Royce cars (one of which had appeared in the motion picture “The Great Gatsby”), and a pea-green ’73 Chevy Impala.
;You might think that last one would more likely be found at a police impound auction rather than a “sale of collectors’ motorcars,” but this Impala had a rare option that, to its consignor at least, allowed it to hang with the automotive swells. That option? Factory air bags.
In 1973, air bags—or “air cushion restraints,” in GM parlance—were fitted to about 1000 Impala fleet cars as a real-world test of their effectiveness. The air bags were rather sophisticated, two-stage units, and they covered all three front seating positions. By all accounts, these early passive restraints worked well, and the option became available on full-size Oldsmobiles, Buicks, and Cadillacs. But the take rate was abysmal, and the option soon was dropped.
The Impala was offered for sale by one Byron Bloch, who works as an automotive safety expert, testifying for plaintiff’s lawyers in personal injury lawsuits. It was represented as being perhaps the earliest surviving air-bag-equipped automobile, and was offered with a set of spare air bag components and period sales materials. Bonham’s pre-auction estimate was $70,000 to $90,000 (at least 20 times the price of a ’73 Impala without the $235 air bag option), but that proved optimistic. The bidders at Greenwich judged the “air bag Impala” to be not quite the classic its seller thought it was, and the car failed to meet its reserve.