Paul Collins, one of those writers whose name always arouses my interest in a table of contents, revisits the seminal days of car safety with an appreciation of Liberty Mutual and Cornell University’s open-source “Survival Car” in the latest New Scientist.
Edward Dye, director of Cornell’s crash injury project, noted that the design philosophy behind the car was the same as that for packaging any delicate object for shipping: “Use a strong packing case, fasten lid securely, pack tightly, and remove hard objects from the padding.” A conventional if sleek-looking saloon, the Survival Car sported a decidedly futuristic interior. Bucket “capsule seats” were firmly mounted to withstand a force of more than 2 tonnes, each featuring an integral head rest and roll bar and, of course, seat belts. The driver sat in the middle, with the passengers behind. Gone was the spear-like steering column and out went the lethal radio and heater knobs. In their place was an extraordinary hydraulic rudder control – a floor-mounted housing between the driver’s knees, with two stubby handles projecting out from the sides – and a padded dash with rounded and recessed knobs.
This proved a bit too radical — and expensive as it wasn’t a standard production car — so the team went back and overhauled a 1960 Chevrolet Bel-Air with inexpensive safety features.
American car firms were still not interested. A safe vehicle like the Survival Car was “completely unrealistic”, proclaimed John Gordon, president of General Motors. “This company is run by salesmen not engineers,” an engineer at Ford observed later. “The priority is styling, not safety.”
What happened next has become all too familiar. Spurning the opportunity presented to them, American car makers watched as others forged ahead. The first car on American roads to embody the Survival Car ideal was not from Detroit but from Solihull in the English midlands. It was the Rover P6 2000 of 1963, whose seat belts, thick padding, safer steering wheel and crumple zones moved consumer campaigner Ralph Nader to declare it “probably the safest car now available for general sale”.
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