August 1959: Mercedes-Benz introduces the safety body

Mercedes-Benz 220 SEb, (W 111)

220 SEb (W 111 series, 1959 to 1968): under the bodyshell there were curved side members which allowed controlled deformation of the crumple-zones

  • Series debut in Mercedes-Benz 220, 220 S and 220 SE models
  • Rigid passenger cell and front and rear crumple zone
  • Now the industry standard, with the goal also to protect other road users
Mercedes-Benz 220 SEb (111 series, 1959 to 1968), model of the bodyshell; the curved side members allowed controlled deformation of the crumple-zones.

Model of the bodyshell of the 220 SEb; the curved side members allowed controlled deformation of the crumple-zones.

Daimler-Benz AG first presented the new six-cylinder Mercedes-Benz 220, 220 S and 220 SE models in the fashionable fintail design at a press event on 11 August 1959. These were the first production passenger cars to feature safety bodies – having both a passenger cell with maximum stability (“rigid passenger compartment”) and front and rear crumple zones. These were designed to significantly reduce the impact of a collision on passengers and thus the consequences of an accident. Designed by Daimler-Benz engineer Béla Barényi, this concept found widespread acceptance and became an industry-wide standard in safety technology. The safety body also helped protect other road users – a stated development goal at Mercedes-Benz – since it absorbed some of the impact energy that would otherwise be transmitted to those with less protection on the road.

Mercedes-Benz 111 series (1959 to 1968) with crumple-zones, rigid passenger cell and seat belts

Barényi also used the W 111 series to launch other ground-breaking developments in safety technology. In it he premiered, for example, a safety steering wheel, which consisted of a large impact plate or steering column, with a plastically deformable element between the impact absorber and the actual steering column.

Safety Steering Wheel

These damping elements helped protect the driver in the event of an accident, for Barényi was well aware of the frequent serious injuries in earlier vehicle designs resulting from the so-called “lance effect” created by a rigid steering column and unpadded steering wheel. This occurred in frontal collisions when the steering wheel was projected towards the driver. Another innovation in the W 111 series was the design of the interior, which featured a padded instrument panel with controls that were both flexible and positioned lower.

Mercedes-Benz Wedge-pin door lock (W 111), 1959

The wedge-pin door lock

The wedge-pin lock also found its first series application in the W 111 series. This lock featured two safety catches that effectively prevented the door from springing open or jamming in the event of an accident. This was important for two reasons: first, it meant the passenger cell maintained its full rigidity, thereby protecting the survival space for driver and passengers; and secondly, it prevented occupants from being thrown out of the vehicle – this had been a cause of serious injury for decades. Although Mercedes-Benz introduced the safety belt in 1958, given the highly controversial nature of the issue at the time the Federal Republic of Germany did not make it compulsory until 1976. Somewhat unusually viewed from the current perspective, controversy over the seat belt initially meant there was no penalty for failure to comply with its use.  The fine of 40 DM was not introduced for driving without a seat belt until 1984.

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