MAX Update No. 41: New, Safer Seats

Reader Contribution by Staff
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MAX just got some important safety devices installed — a pair of Kirkey aluminum racing seats. 

These seats offer more than just comfort and style. In fact, on the safety equipment list, they are second only to seat belts. If you’re wondering why this took me so long, well, I’m a slave to fashion I guess, and modern racing seats don’t look quite right in classic sports cars. The classic look is bucket seats, which is still the look for production sports cars, but modern racing seats wrap around the occupant and are a distinctive departure from what you see when you hop in a Corvette. Unless, that is, you hop in a Corvette that’s been prepared for the race track. 

But the most obvious departure from tradition is the height. These seats are quite tall. From the back of the car, you can barely see the driver’s head. 

Head restraints — commonly called “head rests” — have been required in American production cars since 1969, which is surprising since head restraints weren’t even universal in Formula 1 cars before the ’70s. 

The objective of head restraints in road cars is to prevent whiplash, a malady that can occur when the guy behind you doesn’t notice the red light in front of you. When a car gets hit from behind, the car suddenly accelerates forward, as does the driver’s torso, and if there’s no head restraint, the head lags behind. From a medical standpoint, it’s not much different than having the head suddenly slammed backward, and the neck injuries generated thereby can be substantial. 

The problem is the mandatory head restraints didn’t actually have to work until 40 years later, in 2009, when practical height and gap standards were established. Most earlier production cars have adjustable head rests, and to quote Colin Chapman (the founder of Lotus, and whose Lotus Seven was the inspiration for MAX’s basic design), “Anything that can be adjusted can be adjusted wrong.” 

Most cars are driven with the head restraints too low to be beneficial: A restraint that is lower than the center of gravity of the head (found 3 or 4 inches down from the top) allows the head to roll over the restraint. While that does limit how far the head can be thrown backward, the head’s travel is actually being limited by how much the neck can stretch. As we all know from watching Western movies featuring frontier justice, necks can’t stretch very far.

The solution is simple: Head restraints should be high enough to restrain the entire head, not just the lower part of the head. MAX’s new seats fit the bill.

For those who are thinking, “Wait a minute! In an accident, a roll bar has got to be more important than a good seat,” well, not hardly.

Before I put these seats in, MAX was probably safer without the roll bar than with. MAX has a relatively low center of gravity and it’s much harder to turn MAX over than it is to hit MAX from behind. Without a head restraint, the roll bar is going to hit the driver on the noggin.

Now if you hit your head with a steel tube that’s heavy enough to support the weight of your car (which describes the roll bar quite nicely), whiplash will be the least of your problems. I’ve been wearing a helmet when I drive with the roll bar installed, but a helmet and a head restraint is a sensible belt-and-suspenders approach to the problem. 

Kirkey Racing makes a nice product. The seats I chose for MAX are their 15.5-inch-wide Economy 20 Degree Layback seats, part number 09400. They cost a bit less than $200 each, including the red nylon seatcovers (part #09432, also available in blue and black).

Photo by Jack McCornack