As his name suggests, Béla Viktor Karl Barényi, born on March 1, 1907 at Hirtenberg near Vienna, was a product of the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents were Eugen Barényi, a military officer, and his wife Maria, daughter of the industrialist Fridolin Keller. The young Béla was raised in an upper-class home with four siblings. While cars were not widely used for private transport purposes before the First World War, the automobile was part of the young boy’s environment, since his grandfather owned a luxury Austro-Daimler.
But this cosseted existence was destroyed by the First World War. The boy’s father died at the front in 1917, and the years after 1918 saw the collapse of his grandfather’s business empire. This affected the situation of his widowed daughter, Béla’s mother, and all his grandchildren. Before the war the Kellers had been one of the richest families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but in 1927 Béla had to seek state support for one of his patents. The Vienna municipal authorities accordingly issued him with a “certificate of indigence.”
The young Barényi became interested in improving the passive safety of motor vehicles at a very early stage. Even though this term did not exist at the time, he recognized the potential hazards from vehicle components, e.g. a pointed steering wheel hub. So on a home-made racing sleigh he fitted a steering wheel with a padded hub, displaying some of the features of the safety steering wheel he would later develop.
Barényi was fascinated by engineering achievements even as a child. This was partly attributable to his grandfather’s factories, but he was also growing up in an age of great enthusiasm for technology. In his adolescent years he decided to turn his hobby into a career, commencing the mechanical engineering course at the Vienna College of Technology in 1924. For his graduation assignment in 1926 he designed a six-cylinder engine developing 50 hp (37 kW) at 3600 rpm. He was awarded a degree with distinction on graduating.
While still a student, Barényi had been working on the concept of a modern automobile with a central tubular frame and air-cooled horizontally-opposed engine. This “people’s car of the future” (“Volkswagen” in German) even featured on the cover of the “Motor-Kritik” magazine in 1934. However, the visionary design, for which he produced the plans between 1925 and 1931, never made it through to the production stage.
After completing his degree, in 1928 Barényi took up a position as designer at Steyr, where he became acquainted with Karl Wilfert, who was the same age. In 1929 Wilfert left to become manager of the body repair department of the Mercedes-Benz branch in Vienna, and in that same year was transferred to the Mercedes-Benz research department at Sindelfingen, as assistant to chief designer Hans Nibel. This contact would prove crucial for Barényi’s career.
After his years at Steyr, the young engineer first worked for Österreichische Automobil-Fabrik AG (formerly Austro-Fiat), and then, after a brief period of unemployment, moved in 1934 to a position at the Adler plant in Frankfurt am Main. In the same year he was hired by the Technical Progress Society (Gesellschaft für technischen Fortschritt, or GETEFO), where, among other assignments, he was part of a team developing a silent block for engine bearings. In October 1935, GETEFO sent their young employee to Paris, where he transferred to the Société de Progrès Technique (SOPROTEC) in 1936. It was in Paris that he met his future wife, Maria Kilian, and he also gained his driver’s license at this time, while working on a SOPROTEC contract for Norton, the British motorcycle manufacturer.
The idea for a cell-based vehicle design
In 1937 Barényi moved back to Berlin, where he worked on his idea of a “cell-based” vehicle design, comprising sections that would react differently to mechanical stress: the structure would be rigid in the middle, but plastically deformable at the front and rear. This is already the basis of the car body with safety cell and crumple zone, completely contrary to the standard approach at the time, which aimed for a body of uniform rigidity. He filed a patent for this “motor vehicle with body divided into three sections” as early as January 1937, and additions and further refinements followed over the following years.
But which automobile maker should he approach to implement these visionary new inventions? There was no doubt in Barényi’s mind: he would take the idea to Mercedes-Benz. He applied for a position in Stuttgart in 1938. Initially he was rejected by Daimler-Benz AG, but in 1939 his former colleague Karl Wilfert helped to arrange a meeting with one of the directors, Wilhelm Haspel, subsequently Chairman of the Board of Management.
The 32-year-old engineer confidently presented his visions: “In the cars of the future, the axles, body, frame and steering are going to be different from what they are now,” he told the Mercedes director sitting opposite. As well as being faster, he said, automobiles would above all have to be safer. Wilhelm Haspel was convinced by the unusual ideas of the young lateral thinker, and hired him. He was given his own workshop at Sindelfingen, where he was able to research and build the future of the automobile, largely independently of the development work being conducted for current vehicles. This permanent appointment put him on a secure financial footing, and in 1940 he married Maria Kilian.
From his very first project, it was quite clear that the young engineer’s appointment marked the beginning of the passive safety era at Mercedes-Benz: He developed a new platform frame for the Mercedes-Benz 170 V convertible (model series W 136). The new floor assembly was less subject to vibration than the X-type oval frame then used in series production vehicles, and also provided better protection for the occupants in the event of a lateral impact. The design was patented in 1941, but never went into production.