by Adrian Dorofte and Adrian Andronic

Mercedes-Benz-Blog TRIVIA: Béla Barényi: 100th anniversary of the pioneer of passive safety


Stuttgart, Germany, Mar 01, 2007

Béla Barényi - the pioneer of passive safety [PART 1]

* Béla Barényi admitted to the European Automotive Hall of Fame

* The engineer whose inventions revolutionized automobile passive safety

* Granted more than 2500 patents for his inventions

On March 6, 2007, Béla Barényi, the pioneer in passive safety development, will be admitted to the European Hall of Fame in Geneva. He would have been 100 years old on May 1.

Béla Barényi was the precursor of passive safety in automotive development. His patents, including the rigid passenger cell with crumple zones and the safety steering system, have had a lasting impact on modern automotive design. With over 2,500 patents to his name, Béla Barényi was one of the most creative and most productive automotive developers. The latest evolutionary milestone in a string of epoch-making developments for enhanced automotive safety in the history of Mercedes-Benz is PRO-SAFE™, a comprehensive safety philosophy representing the state of the art.

Barényi, born on March 1, 1907, was interested in cars right from his childhood days. This passion became a career, and later a vocation. As soon as he had completed his studies he started attracting attention with innovations for increased passive safety in automobiles. The idea quickly formed in his mind of dividing the structure of a motor vehicle into sections, so that the energy from a collision would be absorbed, protecting the occupants from the full effects of the impact. In 1937 he applied for a patent for a “motor vehicle with body divided into three parts,” which he then progressively refined over the following years.

In 1939 Barényi joined Daimler-Benz AG, where he was given considerable freedom to pursue his ideas. His first project was a new type of platform frame for the Mercedes-Benz 170 V convertible (model series W 136), providing greater protection for the vehicle occupants in the event of a lateral impact. But it was only many years later that the concept was implemented at series production level, in the W 120 “Ponton,” or three-box body model series, introduced in 1953.

The patent application for a passenger car body structure with rigid passenger compartment and crumple zones was filed in 1951, and the first vehicle constructed according to this patent was the Mercedes-Benz model series W 111 of 1959. In an accident, the front and rear frame structures are deliberately designed to deform and absorb the energy from the collision, leaving the passengers sitting in a strong, rigid cage structure.

The W 111 model series also saw the debut of another major Barényi innovation, subsequently incorporated in all Mercedes-Benz vehicles: the safety steering-wheel. The structure, based on one of the inventor’s very early ideas, is based on an impact plate with a large surface area and a steering column with a plastically deformable element between the impact absorber and the actual steering column. This forestalls the “lance effect” of the steering column projected towards the driver in a frontal collision. This was followed a few years later with the safety steering shaft. The complete safety steering system finally made its debut in the W 123 model series in 1976. Other developments ultimately based on Barényi's work included the recessed windshield wipers in the W 126 model series, and strong roof structures (as in the “Pagoda” car, model series W 113).

The theory of passive safety

Béla Barényi’s contribution to passive safety technology was not limited to practical innovations. He also formulated the technical concepts that still underpin automotive safety engineering today. He initially took up the concepts of “active safety” and “passive safety” as used by Luigi Locati, and extended their scope to include the area of “preventive safety.” Within these general concepts he then addressed specific aspects such as driving safety, psychological safety, external safety and internal safety.

And in 1966, together with Mercedes-Benz development manager Hans Scherenberg, Barényi formulated the distinction between active and passive safety that is still applied today. According to this definition, active safety describes aspects such as driving, psychological and operating safety, i.e. the safe driving behaviors that prevent accidents. The passive safety of a vehicle, subdivided into internal and external safety, denotes measures to protect the vehicle occupants and other road users from the effects of an accident.

Mercedes-Benz is still operating on the basis of Barényi’s theoretical and practical advances. Current solutions combine elements of active and passive safety under the overarching concept of integrated safety, and the PRO-SAFE™ safety philosophy is an outstanding result of this ongoing development and enhancement process.

Béla Barényi's life [PART 2]

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.

Terracruiser and Concadoro

The effects of a hip disease in childhood meant that Barényi was never drafted for military service. He did join the NSDAP in Austria as a young man, however, and was therefore dismissed from Daimler-Benz after the war, under the regulations imposed by the Allies. He was initially assigned to a job as a street sweeper, but then worked at home as a self-employed engineer, developing vehicle components, and also toys and household appliances.

In 1948 Barényi actually registered a commercial engineering business, but in October that year he was again employed by Mercedes-Benz, and returned to Sindelfingen. With him he brought two visionary designs, produced mainly in 1945 and 1946: the “Terracruiser” and “Concadoro”. These combined his visions of passive safety with revolutionary new body designs. The six-seater Terracruiser had a very rigid passenger cell in the middle, elastically connected to plastically deformable crash cells at the front and rear, designed to absorb kinetic energy in the event of an accident. This was the first realization of Barényi’s idea of a non-deformable safety cell with crumple zones. Another measure to improve passenger safety was the centrally placed driver’s seat.

The design of the three-seater Concadoro had similar features. The driver was again placed safely in the middle, an idea taken up many years later by Mercedes-Benz in the F 100 research vehicle (1991). The bodywork of the Concadoro was a three-part cell structure, with a pivoting cockpit over the single row of seats. The design already featured a safety steering column with an impact plate, and the windshield wipers retracted into recesses when not in use. The engineering details of this design in particular anticipated development innovations in Mercedes-Benz models many years into the future.

Safety cell and crumple zone in series production

Barényi urged his employers to implement his ideas in production vehicles. Accordingly, the W 120 model (“Ponton”) of 1953 was built with a floor structure offering a high level of protection against lateral impacts. Barényi had finally succeeded in getting his platform frame design into production.

At this time he was also working on developing his visionary ideas into a safety cell for passenger cars to the stage of readiness for serial production. The first step in this process was a patent application for a “motor vehicle, in particular for the transport of persons” filed in 1951 and granted in January 1952. This patent, No. 854157, was for nothing less than a production-ready car body with a rigid passenger cell and crumple zones. The first Mercedes-Benz vehicle with a body based on the patent was the W 111 model series of 1959. Barényi achieved the required variation in plastic characteristics at different points of the body structure mainly through the design of the longitudinal members. Linear members in the middle section the car combined with the panel structures to create a stable safety cell, as opposed to the curved members at the front and rear. In the event of an accident, these curved members would deform, thereby absorbing some of the collision energy and protecting the occupants from the full effect of the impact. And so the Mercedes-Benz “fintail” model becomes the first passenger car with a modern-style safety body.

While he was working on this model, Barényi continued to rise through the ranks within the company. In 1953 he was transferred to the Development department, and in 1955 he was appointed head of the new Advance Development department for the then Daimler-Benz AG. In this role he was again given plenty of freedom to continue working on his passive safety designs for Mercedes-Benz automobiles. He and his team often worked on the basis of the new concept designs developed in the Research department, headed by Rudolf Uhlenhaut.

Safety steering system

The safety body for the W 111 “fintail” car was not his only development contribution to that model series, since the safety steering wheel also made its debut in the vehicle. The combination of these innovations made the “fintail” car a true milestone in the story of passive safety. Another feature was the interior design eliminating all dangerous edges.

The safety steering wheel design, patented in 1954, incorporated a steering wheel with a large impact plate and a steering column with a plastically deformable element between the “impact cup” and the actual steering column. These impact-absorbing components were designed to protect the driver in an accident. Barényi realized that the rigid steering column structures then in use, with a solid hub without any form of cushion or padding, regularly caused severe injuries through the “lance effect.” This situation occurs in a frontal impact, when the steering column is projected towards the driver. The further the steering is placed to the front, the greater is the risk.

Barényi took the first step towards reducing the hazard represented by the steering system as early as 1947, with a steering wheel featuring a deformable “impact absorber,” designed to yield under stress. Then in 1959 he divided the steering column into sections, which was a major advance towards the steering systems in use today. But the designer was not fully convinced by the merits of a telescopic steering shaft on its own. While such a structure might collapse in an ideal frontal impact scenario, it would rapidly lose its flexibility on a lateral impact.

So as an alternative, he invented a “safety steering shaft for motor vehicles,” patented in 1963. This design featured a non-rotatable tubular shaft with low buckling resistance as the link between the steering column components. In the event of an accident, this component was designed to yield in several directions, thereby preventing the projection of the steering column into the passenger compartment like some sort of deadly lance. The complete safety steering system was first used in 1976, in the W 123 model series.

2,500 patents

Béla Barényi received more than 2,500 patents for his inventions, most of which related to automotive innovations and enhancements. It often took several years for his outstanding designs to get to the production stage. For example, he developed a recessed windshield wiper design in 1951, to protect pedestrians from injury in a car accident, but the system only came into use in 1979, in the W 126 S-Class.

On the other hand, the extremely strong, stable roof structure he developed for a test car for the Mercury-Benz W 111 model series (the “fintail”), was implemented without delay, as the hardtop version of the new Mercedes-Benz SL 230 (model series W 113). The characteristic roof combines outstanding strength with attractive esthetics, and led to this Mercedes-Benz sports car becoming known as the “pagoda” model.

Along with his commitment to passive safety, Barényi also developed other pioneering automobile design concepts such as the Mercedes-Benz large touring car camper, and the K 55 compact. As a dedicated camper himself, he planned add-on tent structures for Mercedes-Benz sedan cars, and tested his prototypes on trips as far away as Italy. And since he was also an opera connoisseur, he and his wife took the opportunity to buy a plot of land at Terracina, for use as a private camping site.
Barényi’s inventions from his time at Mercedes-Benz were recognized internationally for the great achievements they were, but during the 1950s he had nothing but problems from the design he produced during his student days. His plan for the “people’s car of the future”, produced at the end of the 1920s, anticipated numerous features that Ferdinand Porsche subsequently introduced in his Volkswagen (or “people’s car”). Yet in 1951, when he sought recognition as the originator of the Volkswagen concept, this claim was repudiated by many publications, and he was even accused of plagiarism! To protect his reputation, Barényi brought a legal action against his detractors. The issue was eventually settled out of court.

Honors received [PART 3]

After his retirement in 1972, and particularly after the death of his wife in 1980, Barényi devoted himself to building up his personal archives. During this time he received numerous awards for his life’s work as the inventor and pioneer of passive safety (and indeed he had already received the Rudolf Diesel medal from the German Inventors’ Association in 1967).

In 1981 he was awarded the Aachen and Munich Prize for technology and the applied sciences, and in 1986 the Deutsche Museum in Munich honored him with a special exhibition entitled “Barényi – and his design concept of 1925 for the people’s car [Volkswagen] of the future.” This was followed by another Deutsche Museum exhibition the following year, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, entitled “Béla Barényi, automotive pioneer.” And in 1987 he received the Badge of Honor of the city of Sindelfingen and the freedom of the town of Terracina. His portrait was placed in the Inventors’ Gallery at the German Patent Office in Munich, and the Museum of Technology in Vienna devoted several display cases to his achievements – a fitting gesture of recognition from the country of his birth. He was also appointed as an emeritus professor in Austria in 1989, and received the city of Baden’s Culture Prize for outstanding scientific achievements. In 1991 he even became the main character in a Mercedes-Benz publicity film on automotive safety.

The international significance of his developments was highlighted in 1994 by his induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, USA. This puts him alongside automobile pioneers like Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz. Béla Barényi received the Federal German Cross of Merit [Bundesverdienstkreuz] in 1995, and died in Böblingen on May 30, 1997, at the age of 90.

The man who pioneered passive safety is commemorated by plaques in Germany, Austria and Italy, and particularly by the Béla Barényi Prize, introduced in 2005. This prize is awarded by Bosch and the Austrian Vintage Motor Car Association for special achievements in working for the preservation of the automotive heritage.

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