1970s / American / AMF / British / Fiat / Ford / German / Italian / Japanese / Mercedes-Benz / MG / Swedish / Toyota / Volkswagen / Volvo

Developing the death-proof car

volvo-vesc-1The United States Department of Transportation (DoT) launched the Experimental Safety Vehicle program in 1970 in order to combat the rise of fatal traffic accidents.  The program was billed as a way for automakers to learn more about passive and active safety and consequently apply the knowledge gained to production cars launched over the next ten years.

The DoT asked automakers to build prototypes that met certain requirements: They had to keep passengers alive in a 50 mph (80 km/h) head-on crash into a solid obstacle, withstand side impacts at up to 30 mph (48 km/h), protect occupants in a 75 mph (120 km/h) rear-end collision and survive two complete rollovers at 60 – 70 mph (96 – 112 km/h).

Some of the guidelines dealt with the prototypes’ handling so manufacturers couldn’t simply turn an economy sedan into an armored tank that destroyed everything in its way.  The prototypes had to come to a complete stop from a speed of 60 mph (100 km/h) within 155 feet (47 meters) on a dry road, accelerate from 30 to 70 mph in less than 12 seconds with a 60 percent load and make a sudden 180-degree turn at 70 mph without rolling over.

The test cars were organized by weight classes: 1500 pounds, 2000 pounds, 2500 pounds and 4000 pounds (680, 907, 1133 and 1814 kilos, respectively).  In order to comply with the DoT’s guidelines, the cars’ weight had to fall below their class’ weight limit but a lot them couldn’t because of the large amount of extra equipment that was bolted on to them.

These prototypes were remarkable in both the effort and resources put forth to develop and build them, but also in the far-fetched ideas that some manufacturers came up with in order to make a car safer.  Popular Mechanics hit the nail on the head in June of 1972 when it observed that “the world may never want to place an ESV in production, but we sure want the answers they can give us.”

We picked a few ESVs to take a look at but there were many others that are not listed here.

American Machine & Foundry AMF 2

Since its inception, AMF has manufactured a vast variety of products that range from bicycles, tennis rackets, golf clubs, snowmobiles and even Harley Davidson motorcycles.  Conspicuously absent from that list are cars but the company gave the ESV program a shot nonetheless.

Its prototype fell into the 4000-pound category but it weighed a whopping 5791 pounds (2620 kilos).  It had a steel body and aluminum bumpers with thirty inches (!) of travel, and rear visibility was assured by a submarine-like periscope that is visible on the roof.

The AMF 2 had airbags to protect the occupants and it was equipped with automatic fire extinguishers.  Although hopelessly heavy, it is remembered as one of the best ESVs built by an American company.


Fiat ESV 1500

Eager to strengthen its position on the U.S. market, Fiat went all out and built ESVs for the 1500-, 2000- and 2500-pound weight classes.

The 1500-pound prototype was powered by a rear-mounted 126-sourced two-cylinder engine that had a larger displacement in order to counter the added weight.  It passed most of the DoT’s tests, including fire protection, safe driving in foggy weather and pedestrian safety, but it didn’t meet the weight requirement – it tipped the scale at a little over 1700 pounds (771 kilos).

Ford ESV

Unlike a lot of other ESVs, Ford’s prototype was based entirely on an existing model, the full-size LTD.  In its transformation from a production car to a safety prototype, the LTD gained a longer hood to increase its crashworthiness, a shorter trunk lid, hydraulically-retractable bumpers and an ABS system that only acted on two wheels.

Like the aforementioned AMF 2, the LTD was designed for the 4000-pound category but it weighed considerably more.

Although building an ESV cost a small fortune, General Motors and Ford each charged the United States government $1 for the development of their prototypes.


Honda ESV

Honda didn’t develop an ESV in the true sense of the term.  Instead, the firm tried to modify an existing mass-produced car to comply with DoT standards, roughly the same path that Ford opted to take.  Ford did a much better job than Honda but it was starting with a big and heavy car; Honda engineers were working with the tiny Civic.

Honda strengthened the Civic’s body all around and installed beefier door pillars to increase rollover protection. The prototype was powered by the same 55 horsepower four-cylinder unit that was found in the regular Civic.

Because of miscellaneous setbacks attributed to the car’s small size, Honda took a year longer to complete its ESV than other manufacturers.


Mercedes-Benz ESF 22

Often at the forefront of automotive safety, Mercedes-Benz was very active in the ESV program.  The ESF 22 was the company’s third safety prototype after the ESF 5 in September of 1971 and the ESF 13 in 1972.  The first two cars were based on a w114 250 sedan but the ESF 22 borrowed most of its components from the larger w116 450 SE.

The ESF 22 used ABS brakes all around and was equipped with airbags.  Although its long hood kept occupants alive in a head-on crash, the prototype did not pass many of the programs tests and it was reportedly criticized by the DoT.  Mercedes engineers built a fourth prototype dubbed ESF 24 (visible in the last two pictures below) which was very close to the 450 SE but the company eventually called it quits and focused on its own research.


To prove that safe motoring can be fun, British Leyland built a 1500-pound ESV based on the Pininfarina-designed MG B GT.  Called SSV 1, it featured a heads-up display for the speedometer, airbags, big rubber bumpers and a self-leveling suspension that was outlawed by the DoT a couple of years later.

Interestingly, MG drunk driver-proofed the car by having a little colorful sequence show up on a screen when the key was inserted into the ignition barrel.  The driver had to correctly reproduce the sequence in order to be able to start the car; if by the third attempt the correct sequence had not been entered, the driver had to wait an hour to try again.

The idea behind the system was that if the driver was drunk enough he or she wouldn’t be able to reproduce the sequence in the right order.  How the British Leyland tested the feature is not known.

The drunk-proof color sequence and the heads-up display never made it past the prototype stage but the SSV 1’s rubber bumpers were later transferred to both the B and the Midget.

Toyota ESV

Toyota developed a 2500-pound two-seater coupe that was powered by a 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine.  The mill was bolted to an automatic transmission that was said to be safer than a manual because it was controlled by a computer and not a human.

The prototype was packed full to the brim with electronic gadgets, including a system that automatically adjusted the brightness of the headlights based on the car’s speed and a radar that scoped the road ahead to detect obstacles.  If a collision with an object was unavoidable, the radar sent a signal to a module that deployed gas bags that acted more or less in the same fashion as modern airbags.

Toyota’s ESV also used a primitive on-board computer that monitored the brake fluid level and the engine oil level, among other vitals.


Volkswagen ESVW-1

Staying true to tradition, Volkswagen’s ESV was powered by a rear-mounted 1.7-liter air-cooled flat-four that developed 100 horsepower.  It was fully compliant with the emissions standards that came into effect in 1973.

Volkswagen chose not to equip the car with airbags and instead opted for shoulder, lap and knee belts that used gas-fired pistons to restrain passengers in the event of a crash.  Another highlight of Volkswagen’s prototype was the “silent co-pilot” system that calculated how much crosswind was hitting the car and electronically compensated the steering.

The ESVW had smaller bumpers than most other ESVs and Volkswagen boasted that it had a “nearly normal” appearance.

In 1974, the Wolfsburg-based automaker built a second ESV called ESVW – 2 that was based on the Rabbit/Golf.  Volkswagen left the program soon after because it concluded that it would cost far too much to apply ESV technology to production cars.

Volvo VESC

Volvo has always been a leader in auto safety so it is no surprise that it started developing the VESC in 1969, a full year before the DoT started the ESV program.  The car was not developed with any of the program guidelines in mind but it excelled in most of them nonetheless.

Volvo lifted the veil off of the final version of the VESC at the 1972 Geneva Motor Show.  The front and rear bumpers had seven inches of travel to protect the car against low-speed impacts and the motor mounts were designed to push the engine under the floor in a frontal collision, a feature that Mercedes debuted on the w168 A-Class in 1997.

The VESC’s occupants were protected by airbags front and rear and the steering column was designed to retract the wheel away from the driver.

Many of experimental features that were found on the VESC were engineered into the 200-Series that was launched in 1974.

6 thoughts on “Developing the death-proof car

  1. Pingback: Four-Links – death-proof cars, Philly Auto Show, Laguna Garage, Richard Stephens collection | Resurrected Restorations

  2. Thanks for writing this — I first read about the ESV cars in ’73, and suspected that those innovations have become the norm today. A couple of years ago I tried to get my favourite car mag to write up a similar article, but they were’t interested. Your story shows them up.

  3. Pingback: 40-years ago: Volvo introduces the 200-Series | Ran When Parked

  4. FYI the quote “the world may never want to place an ESV in production, but we sure want the answers they can give us.” comes from Popular Science page 56, not Popular Mechanics

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