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Early Mercedes Safety

Some amazing archival material from Mercedes safety testing

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2006.

Mercedes-Benz is a world leader when it comes to automotive safety. The German company started passive safety engineering as early as 1939 and crash testing began in 1959. We take a look at some magnificent pics of Mercedes’ early safety development...

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From the late ‘50s, Mercedes came to the conclusion that full-scale testing was the most effective way to improve safety of their vehicles. This photo shows a 1951 170S following a frontal barrier test conducted at 50 km/h (note that the barriers were non-deformable until later years). The cabin shows good structural rigidity but, at the time, there was no consideration given to crumple zones and there was little to protect passengers.

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With poor road design and construction in the 1950s, it was relatively common for vehicles to roll over. So what better way to find out what happens than to high-speed barrel-roll a contemporary ‘50s Benz saloon? A special cork-screw ramp was used to get the car flying. This photo shows that the doors remained closed (partly thanks to Mercedes’ innovative ‘wedge pin’ locking system) though the boot lid has burst open.

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Also during the 1950s, Mercedes-Benz made seatbelts optional on the front seats. Initially, the objective was merely to prevent occupants being thrown out of the vehicle and, with this in mind, aircraft-type lap belts were deemed adequate. These lap belts were soon replaced by three-point seatbelts which also restrain the upper part of the body - this was particularly important at a time when there was little padding on the dashboard.

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This looks like trouble! In 1962, Mercedes adopted a steam rocket to accelerate the crash test vehicles to the desired speed. But things didn’t always go to plan...

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In this test, the rocket failed to brake at the correct moment and the car was slammed into the barrier at a higher speed than required. And, as evident by the crumpled rear-end, the wayward steam rocket also caused some damage of its own!

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In the mid ‘60s, following the introduction of crumple zones and a passenger-friendly interior, Mercedes developed the safety steering system. The new steering system involved locating the steering box further rearward (behind the front axle), a telescopically collapsible steering column and a large padded steering wheel boss. This arrangement went into production in 1968.

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Mercedes also introduced laminated safety glass windscreens to its passenger cars during the 1960s. Facial injuries (largely caused by people not wearing a seatbelt) were common in vehicles using a single-layer glass windscreen. This photo shows pendulum testing of a development windscreen.

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From 1972, the majority of crash testing was carried out in an indoor facility with controlled lighting. Offset barrier crash testing also become more common after Mercedes’ analysis of traffic accidents. The W126 S-class becomes the first car in the world designed from scratch to cope with asymmetrical frontal collisions.

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Vehicle occupants aren’t the only ones to benefit from Mercedes’ crash testing. A variety of different shape and size test dummies were run over by the late ‘70s W126 S-class. These tests enabled careful shaping of bumper bar, grille and bonnet emblem (with its spring loaded mechanism). And, as seen, the dummies were tested boots an’ all!

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The late ‘70s W126 S-class also benefited from adjustable height upper seatbelt anchorages and a host of safety features developed through Experimental Safety Vehicles (ESVs). Amazingly, airbag testing had begun as early as 1968 and, in 1980, a driver’s airbag was made available in the S-class. A front passenger airbag was added in 1987.

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