Airbags, seatbelts and mirrors didn't always come standard. At one time, they were experimental pieces of technology carmakers hoped would make the car safer. Those features stuck, but others, well, they just sucked.
Rubber noses, tails and body cladding
Articulated two-part cars
Directional "Cyclops Eye" central headlights
High-impact "safety colours"
Pedestrian airbags (also, transparent A-pillars)
"Simon Says" ignition games
Automatic fire extinguishers (also, aluminum bumpers)
procon-ten collapsible steering wheel
Bi-fold doors (also, handlebars)
Gigantic gull-wing doors
No-glare polarized headlights
Interior bulkheads (also, kneebelts)
- Rubber noses,...
- Vacuum-cup tires
- Reverse periscopes
- "Simon Says"...
- Automatic fire...
- Offset seating
- Bi-fold doors...
- Hydraulic bumpers
- "UFO brakes"
O’Leary Fender Company (1908)
The fail: New Yorker John O’Leary had a simple solution to pedestrian traffic accidents: install on the front of cars a mesh cradle or “fender” that would spring forward and safely scoop up a pedestrian when the vehicle struck him. People didn’t buy it not because it was crazy, but because it didn’t look good on a car. Other inventors pursued similar, better-looking devices into the 1920s.
1971 Fiat ESV 1500
The fail: Even Fiat jumped on the safety vehicle bandwagon in the 1970s, with several concepts of varying size. But from the smallest (the 1500-pound compact pictured above) to the largest, they all had black rubber Pinocchio noses and tails to prevent damage.
1950s Sir Vival car
The fail: If you want to cushion occupants in an accident, your best bet is to put them in a different car. Walter Jerome’s Sir Vival had two separate frames, hinged so that if the front car crashed, passengers in the second would be unharmed. It also had rubber bumpers, a raised driver seat, and a self-cleaning rotating windshield.
Pennsylvania Rubber Company (1917)
The fail: Most drivers know they should reduce their speed when driving through heavy rain, but if you had these tires you probably wouldn’t have to. The Pennsylvania Rubber Company boasted superior grip with these anti-skid octopus-esque tires. (image via Duke University Libraries)
1971 Nissan 216X
The fail: Automakers had been experimenting with reverse periscopes—to widen the driver’s field of vision and eliminate blind spots—since the 1940s, but no one used them more widely than Datsun-Nissan in the 1970s. This Nissan 216X concept car also features bumpers that would extend six inches while at speed.
1948 Tucker ’48 Sedan (Torpedo)
The fail: In 1946 plastic surgeon Claire Straith convinced automaker Tucker to pad its cars’ dashboards by showing president Preston Tucker images of the mangled faces of car accident victims. The prototype for his company’s first car included recessed instrument panel knobs, a padded passenger cavity or “crash chamber,” and a third “Cyclops Eye” headlight that turned with the steering.
1974 Bricklin SV-1
The fail: In its day, Malcolm Bricklin’s New Brunswick-built Safety Vehicle 1 was one of the safest sports cars you could buy, with an integrated roll cage, five-mile-an-hour bumpers and side impact beams concealed in its gullwing doors. It only came in overly bright “safety colours,” like Safety White, Safety Orange and Safety Green. I think the above example is in Safety Retina-Sear.
2001 Volvo Safety Concept Car
The fail: In 2001, after having basically perfected vehicle occupant safety, Volvo tried developing ways to protect people outside its cars. Their Safety Concept Car used a “cowl airbag” on the outside of the windshield to cushion a pedestrian’s impact. Other items that haven’t shown up in showrooms (yet): four-point seatbelts; see-through A-pillars; and self-adjusting seats that adapt to your eye level.
1972 British-Leyland MG SSV1
The fail: Who says safety can’t be fun? The British-Leyland SSV1 safety vehicle would start only if you agreed to play a little game of Simon Says. It would display a colour-coded sequence of lights, and you’d have to replicate it with a set of buttons. This tested the driver’s alertness, and his patience: three strikes and you’d have to wait an hour before you could try again. Oh, yeah, that’s a periscope on top.
1972 American Machine and Foundry AMF-2
The fail: When American Machine and Foundry joined the safety vehicle contest in the 1970s, they wanted to make something different. They failed. The only really unique safety feature on their 5,800-pound AMF-2 concept was an automatic fire extinguisher system that’d deploy after a collision. Okay, the 30-inch aluminum bumpers were also kind of funky.
1957 Aurora safety car
The fail: Connecticut priest Alfred Juliano turned down an internship with legendary designer Harley Earl for the church, which explains why his Buick-based safety car looks like this. Safety features included a protruding windshield to make up for a lack of airbags; a foam-filled front end to cushion pedestrians; and seats that would swivel rearward when a collision was imminent.
1905 Darracq 200HP
The fail: The French Darracq paired a 25-litre V8 with a chassis and some chairs. For added safety, the seats were staggered with the driver slightly ahead—so the passenger could hold on to his shoulders during violent cornering. This feature became obsolete with the invention of, um, car bodies.
1986 Audi 100
The fail: If you asked Audi in the late ’80s to mid-‘90s, the one thing better than having an airbag was having a collapsible steering wheel instead. If your car came with their procon-ten system (for “programmed contraction-tension”) thick cables all around the car would pull the steering wheel forward and tighten the seatbelts when the engine was pushed backward in a collision.
1957 Liberty Mutual-Cornell Survival Car
The fail: Doors opening in a crash was a problem in the 1950s, one Liberty Mutual-Cornell (yes, the insurance company and university, respectively) found a work around with their Survival Car project. They used closet-like folding doors, gave the centrally seated driver handlebars instead of a wheel, and locked a piece of the dashboard around him. And no, you’re not seeing double: there were four windshield wipers.
1972 Mercedes-Benz ESF 13
The fail: When it comes to safety, Mercedes-Benz has always been ahead of the curve. Many features on their Experimentier-Sicherheits Fahrzeug (German for “experimental safety vehicles”) were adopted into production, like seatbelt pre-tensioners, driver-side airbags and anti-lock brakes. The gimmick that didn’t catch on? A hydraulically buttressed bumper extension with more than 40 cm (16 inches) of travel.
1976 Minicar RSV
The fail: Gull-wing doors on modern cars aren’t often touted as a safety feature, but the ones on the Minicar RSV helped make it “the safest car ever built.” Minicar’s futuristic research car, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, came with a bubble-top, then-novel airbags, and freakin’ pterodactyl doors that spanned the entire four-seat cabin for easy emergency exit.
No seatbelts, though.
The fail: In the 1930s, Edwin Land, co-founder of the Polaroid camera company, almost convinced automakers to adopt his polarized headlight lenses. The technology would have basically eliminated glare from oncoming headlights without cutting down on headlight brightness, but because it cost just a little too much, it was abandoned. And that, folks, is why we have high-beam switches. (image via technologizer.com)
1973 VW Experimental Safety Vehicle
The fail: Hate adjustable seating? Me too. In 1973, Volkswagen decided to try fixing the front seats of their ESVW concept car to an interior bulkhead to help stiffen the chassis. If that wasn’t uncomfortable enough, they also had self-tightening shoulder and knee belts to restrict movement in a crash. Did I mention the hydraulic bumper system and side wind-correcting autopilot? In 1973, no less! (image via rastall.com)
1990 Audi V8
The fail: Before 19-inch rims became common fare, automakers struggled with getting bigger disc brakes behind smaller wheels. In the early 1990s, Audi came up with a system that tucked the caliper inside a large flying saucer-shaped rotor. The rotors allegedly warped pretty easily and were costly to fix. Back to the drawing board.
1952 Kaiser-Frazer Deluxe
The fail: Edgar Kaiser had seen the stats on accident fatalities, and in 1952 decided to build the world’s first “safety-first” car. When you got in an accident in his car, its windshield would pop out so the shards of glass would end up on the road instead of around the driver’s neck (they didn’t have seatbelts at the time, remember). The feature was dropped when safety glass was developed instead.