Chevrolet was seldom the first General Motors division to offer new safety equipment; that honor typically was shared with or assigned to Cadillac or Oldsmobile.
But safety advances -- the electric starter, antilock brakes and energy-absorbing steering columns, for example -- often migrated quickly to Chevrolet's lineup.
Chevrolet did introduce the industry's first one-piece all-steel roof beginning with the 1935 model year. And it played a key role in the development of one of the biggest safety advances of the past 50 years: airbags.
In the past, safety was often a delicate proposition for Chevrolet and its rivals.
In his 1984 autobiography, Lee Iacocca, who was part of Ford Motor Co.'s marketing group in the 1950s, recalled what happened when Ford offered seat belts and other safety features in 1956 models: "While we were selling safety, Chevrolet, our chief competitor, was promoting jazzy wheels and high-powered V-8 engines. Chevrolet clobbered us that year.
"By the next year," he wrote, "we had switched our strategy to 'hot' cars with fast acceleration. Instead of safety, we marketed performance and racing, with far greater success."
But both Ford and GM were experimenting with inflatable restraints by the late 1950s -- about a decade before the U.S. government began efforts to legislate safety requirements.
GM and Ford faced two technical hurdles: first, accurately and reliably sensing the need for crash protection; and, second, inflating the airbag in roughly 40 milliseconds.
In 1971, Ford says, it became the first automaker to field test passenger side airbags -- on a fleet of Mercury Montereys; and in 1972, it was the first automaker to equip a vehicle with an optional passenger airbag, also on the Monterey.
GM, for its part, built about 1,000 1973 Chevrolet Impalas equipped with experimental airbags and allowed fleet customers such as Allstate Insurance to test them.
GM offered airbags as a $180 to $300 option on select vehicles from 1974 through 1976. The 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado is said to be the first GM production vehicle to offer a driver's side airbag as an option.
The automaker invested $80 million and planned to build about 100,000 airbags a year, but it sold only about 10,000 airbag-equipped vehicles in the three years before dropping the option.
At the time, GM's first-generation airbags were the most sophisticated electromechanical system engineered for a car, according to Brian O'Neill, former head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts crash tests.
The airbags on those 1973 Impalas proved durable, too.
Years later, the insurance institute located two of the cars that had driver and passenger airbags and tested them. O'Neill, in a Feb. 7, 1993, letter to The New York Times, described what happened.
In one test, a 1973 Impala, which had more than 100,000 miles on it and had been stored in a shed for years, had to be towed to the test track. It needed a new battery. When the car was crashed into a barrier at 30 mph, both airbags deployed perfectly.
In a later test, conducted at the institute's new vehicle research center on Dec. 15, 1992, an Impala built in 1972 was crashed head-on into a barrier at 25 mph.
The car also had more than 100,000 miles on it. It was found in a junkyard and needed only to be washed and cleaned, O'Neill told Automotive News. Neither the clock nor the radio worked, but the airbags worked perfectly.
"General Motors has a long history of being on-again, off-again when it comes to air bags," O'Neill wrote in the letter to the Times.
"It pioneered the bags in production cars during the 1970's. But it then fought them for the next 20 years. What's important to remember at this point is that the air bags G.M. put into those early cars worked fine -- and so do the bags in the cars of today."