Few inventions have saved as many lives as the safety belt. It’s easy to take its benefits for granted, but safety belt technology has come a long way in five decades — thanks in part to efforts like the Volkswagen ESVW I.
In the late 1960s, as some 60,000 Americans a year were dying in car crashes, the U.S. Department of Transportation introduced an experimental safety vehicle project, asking carmakers and outside firms to develop vehicles designed with safety as the top priority. The goal wasn’t to develop production-ready vehicles – some models were barely able to move and weighed 6,000 lbs. – but rather to innovate new ideas for protecting passengers and to come up with ones that could affordably save lives. Thanks to these safety-minded prototypes, the DOT was able to establish several challenging passive-safety targets and determine future safety regulations.
Starting in 1955, Volkswagen was working on advanced body frames and launched its first crash tests in 1965. In late 1970, it began working on an experimental safety vehicle under the rules from the U.S. DOT, naming its vehicle ESVW I.
Specifically designed to protect its occupants from fatal injuries, the prototype had several standout safety features including anti-lock brakes and advanced side-crash protection. The frame was built from three sections, designed to transmit energy from a crash away from the occupants. Inside, occupants were cossetted by the first passive safety-belt systems including one for over their shoulders, and ones for their knees and midsections. Even the wiper system was designed to provide maximum visibility, with a second set of mini-wipers for the headlights.
Why was this important? Although cars had safety belts in the 1970s, not enough people were using them, and airbag technology was still in its early days. The ESVW I’s passive safety belt system was activated by the driver opening the car door and sliding into the front seat, and a horizontal strap would automatically wrap around the driver’s body for protection. All were designed to tighten automatically in the event of a crash.
Much about the ESVW I was unusual for a vehicle, then or now. Only the seat cushions moved in the vehicle, and only up or down; and a cockpit and pedals that could be moved closer or further away. Power came from a 100-hp flat-four engine in the trunk; the ESVW 1 had both a front trunk and storage above the engine in the rear.
After debuting at a global automotive safety conference in 1972, Volkswagen presented the car and its testing results, including 14 crash-test trials with the ESVW I passenger cell, countless handling and swerve tests, as well as 40 crash tests with production vehicles equipped with ESVW I safety components. The ESVW I met all U.S. safety standards; more importantly, it paved the way for many of its safety innovations to enter production. Passive safety belts would later be incorporated into models like the Volkswagen Rabbit, and the concepts of protecting passengers in crashes still drive Volkswagen today.