As I do more research for the Riviera Project, I’ve been getting into the weeds with some details. One of the areas that I’ve spent some time researching is early airbags, one example of which showed up in 1974-1976 Rivieras. These driver and front passenger airbags—designated Air Cushion Restraint System (ACRS) by General Motors—were also available in other full-sized Buicks, Cadillacs, and Oldsmobiles over the same three model years. They were marketed as a replacement for shoulder belts, and ACRS cars had only lap belts in the front seat. In 1974, they were also a way to avoid the much-despised and soon to be repealed seat belt starter interlock system.
For the mid-seventies, the Air Cushion Restraint System was bleeding-edge technology, and General Motors spent $80 million on their development. The airbags themselves were dual-stage, which didn’t return to airbag design for almost 25 years and wasn’t mandated until 2007. They were also far more substantial than modern airbags are, with the passenger airbag extending across more than half of the front seat. General Motors piloted the ACRS in 1,000 fleet-purchased Chevrolet Caprices and Impalas in 1973.
Choosing the ACRS led to many changes inside the car—the factory fitted a different four-spoke steering wheel with horn buttons mounted on each hub and a substantial padded hub in the center which held the airbag. Further changes located a small storage compartment on the left side of the steering column, moved the glove box to the lower center section of the instrument panel, and both redesigned and relocated the ashtray below the radio.
Only 329 1974 Rivieras—less than 2% of production—were made with the Air Cushion Restraint System, and it seems to have been about the same for other models. General Motors produced a total of 10,321 vehicles with airbags over the three model years, and many that were so equipped sat unsold on dealer lots. In general, the public was not ready for airbags, and the American Automobile Association (AAA) and other similar organizations offered little encouragement, with the AAA claiming that airbags were being sold “irresponsibly and prematurely.”
Bitter in its typical corporate way over the failure of an expensive new technology to find a substantial number of buyers, General Motors would not offer airbags again until the 1988 model year. At that point, driver’s side airbags were offered an option in Oldsmobile’s Delta 88 Royale sedans and coupes. By then, GM was no longer a leader in technology or safety.
Interestingly, the seventies General Motors airbags turned out to be very well built, with substantial longevity. In 1993, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash-tested two of the original 1973 Chevrolet fleet cars. Both cars had over 100,000 miles and were in bad shape otherwise, but all four airbags worked perfectly.