The crumple zone man

The engineer who changed automotive safety

Courtesy of Mercedes Benz

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“Der Stern Ihrer Sehnsucht” was a classic advertising slogan used on posters produced by the Frankfurt Mercedes subsidiary and roughly equates to “The star of your dreams”. In early 1939, when the 32-year-old engineer Béla Barényi saw this poster for the first time, he must have idly wondered whether his own dream – to work for Mercedes-Benz, the brand with the star – was ever destined to become reality.

Seven years earlier he had knocked on a door in Stuttgart – the door of Kronenstraße 24, where he had applied to work for Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche had been Head of Development and a member of the board of the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) from 1923 to 1926 and went on to hold the same posts at Daimler-Benz AG until 1928. In 1930 he opened a design office in Stuttgart. But Porsche did not have any work for Barényi.

In 1938 Barényi applied to the Head of Design at Mercedes, Max Wagner, but received another rejection. After another year spent looking for work, Barényi contacted his former colleague Karl Wilfert, with whom he had worked at Steyr in Austria years earlier. Wilfert, then Head of Body Development and later Director of Passenger Car Development, helped arrange an interview for Barényi with Dr Wilhelm Haspel, a member of the board of management. Karl Wilfert impressed on his friend that he should not talk for longer than two minutes; important people do not have an unlimited amount of time on their hands, some find it difficult to listen and Haspel in particular was known not to appreciate long discussions.

However, when his interviewer asked him about the car of the future, a two-minute response was simply out of the question. Barényi spoke for 22 minutes, without seeming to pause for breath. He was highly critical of the cars then on the roads and used their faults and numerous weaknesses to outline ideas for the future.

“You’re doing everything wrong,” rumbled Barényi, before going on to explain in detail how the steering, steering column, steering wheel, suspension and body should, in his opinion, be designed in order to enhance safety for the occupants of the car.

Wilhelm Haspel was won over by Barényi’s conviction. He hired the unemployed visionary, justifying his decision with the words, “A company like Daimler-Benz can’t afford to live hand to mouth. Mr Barényi, you are thinking 15 to 20 years ahead. In Sindelfingen you’ll be working in a world apart. Whatever you invent will go directly to the patent department.”

Barényi was given carte blanche and, released from the constraints of series production, he was able to concentrate on developing his ideas and setting them down on paper. He took up his position at the Mercedes plant in Sindelfingen on August 1, 1939.

Previoulsy, in 1937, he had designed the “cell vehicle”, whose individual sections react differently to mechanical stress, with a rigid section in the middle and deformable sections at the front and rear. This essentially formed the basis for the body with safety cell and crumple zone, and ran counter to the customary quest of the time for a uniformly rigid body.

In January 1937 Barényi filed the patent for this “motor vehicle with body divided into three sections”. Supplements and enhancements followed in the subsequent years.

He developed a new type of platform frame for the Mercedes-Benz 170 V Cabriolet (model series W 136). This floor assembly was not only less susceptible to oscillating vibrations than the standard X-type oval tubular frame, but also offered better protection for the occupants in the event of a side impact.

During 1945 and 1946 he worked on two concepts: the “Terracruiser” and “Concadoro”. In these two models Barényi combined his visions of passive safety with forward-looking body designs. The six-seater “Terracruiser”, for example, had a high strength passenger cell in the middle. This was flexibly connected to deformable crash cells at the front and rear which were able to absorb kinetic energy in the event of an accident.

The three-seater “Concadoro” study had similar features. The body was a three-section cellular structure with a pivoting glass roof section above the single seat row. The study already featured a steering wheel with impact plate and a safety steering column; the windscreen wipers had a retracted “home” position.

The engineer pushed for his ideas to be realised in series-produced vehicles. The 1953 W 120 “Ponton” model series featured a floor assembly which provided a high level of protection in a side impact. Here Barényi finally saw his platform frame, patented in 1941, used on a series-produced model.

At the same time, he was busy working on turning his visionary designs into a safety cell for series production passenger cars. The first step was the patent for a “motor vehicle, in particular for the transportation of people”, which he filed in 1951 and which was granted in January 1952. This was the body with rigid passenger cell and crumple zones, which was now ready for series production.

The first Mercedes-Benz with a body developed according to this patent was the Mercedes W 111 model series of 1959, the legendary “Tail Fin” Saloon. The varying plasticity of the body was something that Barényi achieved primarily through the design of the longitudinal members: while these were straight in the centre of the vehicle and formed a rigid safety cage with the body panels, the supports at the front and rear were curved. This meant that they deformed in the event of an accident, absorbing part of the collision energy and protecting the occupants from the full force of the impact.

While working on this model, Barényi was promoted within the company: in 1953 he was assigned to Development and in 1955 he was made Head of the new Advanced Design department at what was then Daimler-Benz AG.

The safety body of the W 111 model was not the only feature that Béla Barényi had contributed to the development of the model series: the safety steering wheel also made its debut in this saloon. It features a large impact plate and a steering column with a deformable element between the impact absorber and the actual column. These damping parts were designed to protect the driver in an accident.

Béla Barényi was granted over 2,500 patents for his inventions, most of them describing innovations and improvements for the car. It must be said, however, that it often took years before his ingenious designs were ready for series production. Take, for example, the retractable windscreen wiper which the engineer designed in 1951 to help protect pedestrians from injuries from a passenger car. The system first featured on a series-produced car on the 1979 S-Class, model series W 126.

The worldwide significance of his inventions was underlined in 1994 when Barényi was honoured with a place in the “Automotive Hall of Fame” in Dearborn, USA. Here he ranks among such car pioneers as Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz.

Béla Barényi, who was awarded Germany’s Federal Cross of Merit in 1995, died in Böblingen on May 30, 1997 at the age of 90.

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