Though it is the most exciting thing in a driver's life the moment things go wrong, vehicle safety is not, in isolation, a sexy topic. Given the proper packaging, however, it can be.

That is the thinking behind a 1973 Chevrolet Impala sedan dressed up with a custom paint scheme, 20in chrome wheels  and a public-address system. It is not quite a "donk" – a large American sedan typically from the 1970s or ‘80s shod with comically oversize wheels – but the old Chevy projects an impression of donk-lite that is difficult for passersby to ignore.

It’s also, improbably, a rolling billboard for vehicle safety.

"Trying to raise public awareness of safety-related defects is very important," says Bruce York, a division chief for the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "The way we do that is the way anyone else does it – by handing out literature and talking to people. The car draws people in."

The ’73 Impala is a prop in NHTSA’s arsenal to draw attention to the agency’s website, safercar.gov. With more eyes on the website, York says the agency can direct consumers to technical service bulletins and recall information about vehicles they own or are considering purchasing.

"If you're buying a car or you're having problems with a car, you definitely want to look up the vehicle and see if there are any technical service bulletins," he says, suggesting that a dealer may not voluntarily raise the spectre of an outstanding recall on a particular model. "If you have a technical service bulletin and you show the dealer that it's a problem, you can save some money."

Before the agency had the Impala customised for duty as an eye-catcher at auto shows and other events, York says it relied on a staff member's drag racing-prepped Chevrolet Nova to test the waters. The classic car did what it was supposed to: it drew attention.

The agency, however, owned the Impala outright. The sedan had been mouldering – like the titular artefact of Raiders of the Lost Ark – in the basement of the US transportation department’s building in Washington DC for decades. But this wasn't just any Impala. It was one of General Motors' Air Cushion Restraint System test cars – the first to be mass-produced with front airbags.

General Motors (GM) built 1,000 of the cars, all equipped with bumper and dash sensors, and airbags intended to protect the driver and two front passengers. The airbags were concealed within a modified instrument panel borrowed from now-defunct GM division Oldsmobile, and the sedan also featured police-car suspension and chassis upgrades, the same 350-cubic-inch V8 engine used in the Chevrolet Corvette and a heady ’70s iridescent green-gold paint job.

York was uncertain how the agency came by the car, but Byron Bloch, an automotive safety expert and longtime advocate of airbag use who has owned two of the cars, says that GM distributed all of them to government agencies, police departments, insurance companies and the like.

"They were not sold to the public," he says, adding that he purchased his models second-hand.

York reinforces that assumption, noting that NHTSA used other restraint-system Impalas in crash testing. But with all the principal players in the initiative having long since retired, no one is entirely certain of the vehicles’ fates.

Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an advocacy organisation financed by the US automotive insurance industry, says that his employer performed a crash test on one of the Impalas – there is photographic proof – and did so before it began crash testing production cars on a regular basis.

As a conversation starter and magnet for eyes, the Impala is much improved over the original car. York said the agency’s car was subjected to a year-long makeover performed at a shop in Virginia beginning in 2010. Apart from the custom paint and wheels, the car benefitted from the installation of three-point safety belts (the original had only lap belts), headrests, child safety seat anchors in the back seat and four-wheel disc brakes.

How effective has the Impala been in bringing visitors to safercar.gov? Though NHTSA cannot cite direct referrals, York notes that staff members who have worked at the agency’s booth during auto shows have observed a marked spike in foot traffic when the gleaming Impala has been on view.

"I've staffed the booth many times, and it's a very effective tool," York says. One passerby may tell him about the time he had a wheel fall off, while another may mention a friend whose wire housing smoldered ominously beneath the hood. A customised 1973 Chevrolet may or may not prompt US drivers to notify NHTSA of potential safety defects, but at least it serves to remind motorists that their cars – like the drivers themselves – change.

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