- 35-hp Mercedes designed to be a decidedly safe car
- Powerful brakes for effective deceleration
- First ideas for safety research
The development of active safety technology stretches all the way back to the workshops of Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler. In around 1890, the inventors of the automobile were concerned with enhancing their designs in order to continuously improve the operational safety of the first automobiles. They were reacting to criticism resulting from the first accidents that occurred with the new motor vehicles.
In the early years, development was concentrated on active safety and particularly driving safety. The 35-hp Mercedes (1900) and Mercedes Simplex (1902) were, for example, designed also with safety aspects in mind. Driving a Daimler Phoenix racing car, Wilhelm Bauer, a master craftsman at Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft, had suffered a fatal accident in the Nice – La Turbie hill climb race on March 30, 1900. As a consequence of the accident, Emil Jellinek, who had entered the car in the race, pressed the Stuttgart-based engineers to design a safer racing car. In response to this request, Wilhelm Maybach designed the 35-hp Mercedes with a long wheelbase, low centre of gravity and an engine that was directly bolted to the longitudinal members of the frame. Along with a wider track and wheels of almost identical size on both axles, this resulted in a vehicle with considerably more stable driving behaviour. In 1902, a further developed version of this model was designated the Mercedes Simplex due to its simple operation. Maybach also improved the performance of the brakes on his new design. The 35-hp Mercedes featured large drum brakes on the rear wheels as well as a brake acting on the propeller shaft. In 1921, brakes on the front wheels were introduced to the 28/95 hp Mercedes. Other models of the Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft and of Benz & Cie. followed in 1923/24.
Then in 1931 Mercedes-Benz, as the brand was known after the merger of the two companies in 1926, designed the 170 model (W 15 series) – the first vehicle with hydraulic brakes and independent wheel suspension on the front and rear axles.
Stability as a safety feature
Improving comfort was an aim of automotive development at Daimler and at Benz from the early days. One of the reasons for this strategy was the realization that a car can be driven more safely if the driver is not exposed to stress caused by weather conditions or complicated vehicle operation. Since then, Mercedes-Benz has always worked on stress-reducing safety features for its vehicles.
However, specific safety research was not yet a feature of the automotive industry. The seat belt, for example, was developed in the USA before the First World War for aircraft but it was not adopted in automobiles because it was considered a potential source of injury. Efforts to achieve the safest possible vehicle designs did not lead to the introduction of restraint systems, but instead to vehicles that could be driven very reliably and were fitted with extremely robust bodywork. The high level of driving and operational safety was intended to exclude the possibility of an accident, and the prevailing opinion in the first decades of the automobile’s existence was that, if an accident did occur, a rigid body offered the best protection for vehicle occupants.
Closed-top vehicles with a body built on a sturdy frame were thought to provide optimum protection for driver and passengers in the event of an accident, much like an impenetrable suit of armour. Satisfied customers even sent thank-you letters to Stuttgart in which they highlighted the robustness of Mercedes-Benz automobiles and related their good fortune in surviving accidents. Nevertheless, accidents did not always turn out so well. The reason was that the solid vehicle structures transmitted the kinetic energy of a collision almost undiminished to the vehicle occupants.
Fortunately, Daimler-Benz AG then recruited a young engineer who would go on to solve this passive safety dilemma – Béla Viktor Karl Barényi who invented the rigid safety cell with crumple zones and numerous other innovations.