May 30, 2011

Developing the death-proof car.

As a result of rising death rates in auto crashes, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched the Experimental Safety Vehicle program in 1970. The program was intended as a way for various automakers to learn more about both passive and active safety in cars and apply that knowledge to production cars in the next ten or so years.

It consisted of building prototypes that met certain requirements: they had to keep passengers alive in a 50mph crash into a solid barrier, withstand side impacts at 30mph, protect the car’s occupants in a 75mph rear end collision, and survive two complete rollovers at 60-70mph.

Some of the guidelines revolved around handling so manufacturers couldn’t simply turn an economy sedan into an armored tank that destroyed everything in its way. The prototypes had to stop from 60mph within 155 feet on a dry road, accelerate from 30 to 70mph in less than 12 seconds with a 60% load and make an abrupt 180 degree turn at 70mph without rolling over.

The test cars were organized by weight classes: 1500 pounds, 2000 pounds, 2500 pounds and 4000 pounds. Part of the guidelines was, of course, that the cars actually respect the weight limit in each class, something most of the participating manufacturers had a hard time doing given the extra equipment they bolted on to each car.

These prototypes were remarkable in both the effort and resources put forth to develop and build them but also in the far-fetched ideas that some manufacturers came up with in order to supposedly make a car safer. Popular Mechanics hit the nail on the head when in June of 1972 they observed that “the world may never want to place an ESV in production, but we sure want the answers the cars can give us.”

We picked a few ESV prototypes to take a look at but it’s far from an exhaustive list. Looking at all of them would take ages; lots of manufacturers took part in the program including Opel, Renault, GM and Nissan.

American Machine & Foundry AMF 2

AMF has manufactured a vast variety of products: bicycles, tennis rackets, golf clubs, snowmobiles and even Harley Davidson motorcycles, just to name a few. Conspicuously absent from that list are cars, but they gave the ESV program a shot anyways. Their prototype was part of the 4000 pound category but weighed a whopping 5,791 pounds. It had a steel body with aluminum bumpers that had a thirty inch (!) travel. Rear visibility was assured by a submarine-like periscope, visible on the roof.

Like many other ESV prototypes it had airbags to protect the occupants and AMF took it further by adding automatic fire extinguishers. It is remembered as one of the best ESVs built by an American company.

Fiat ESV 1500

Fiat’s ESV for the 1500 pound category was one of the three the company built in the early 1970s. The other two were in the 2000 pound and 2500 pound category, respectively.

To develop the 1500 pound ESV Fiat used crash test data from the 500. The prototype uses a 500 running gear with a slightly bigger engine to counter the added weight, though the use of 126 parts is noticeable as well. This one met most DOT requirements for its weight class including fire protection, safe driving in foggy weather and pedestrian safety. The requirement it didn’t meet was the weight – it weighed a little over 1700 pounds in a weight class limited to 1500 pounds.

Ford ESV

Unlike a lot of other ESVs Ford’s prototype was based entirely on an existing production car, the LTD. Compared to the car found on dealer lots, the LTD ESV had a longer hood and a shorter trunk. Like the AMF above it was part of the 4000 pound category and also like the AMF, it weighed considerably more: the Ford tipped the scales at almost 5,300 pounds.

Compared to a stock LTD the brakes and suspension were modified to comply with the DOT’s handling requirements, including the addition of an ABS system that acted only on two wheels. The bumpers were hydraulically retractable to withstand a 10mph crash.

Both Ford and GM charged the government $1 for the development of their ESVs.

Honda ESV

Honda’s ESV was not an ESV in the true sense of the term. Instead they tried to build a mass-produced car to ESV standards, the same path that Ford followed. Ford did much better than Honda but they were starting with a bigger and heavier car; Honda was starting with a Civic. Honda strengthened the Civic’s body all around, including the door pillars to increase protection in a rollover. The engine was the same 55hp unit found in the production car.

Because of miscellaneous setbacks revolving around the Civic’s tiny size, the prototype took a year longer to complete than the other ESVs.

Mercedes-Benz ESF 22

Mercedes was very active in the ESV program: the ESF 22 was their third prototype after the ESF 5 in September of 1971 and the ESF 13 in 1972. First two prototypes were based on a w114 250 sedan but the ESF 22 was based on the w116 450 SE.

The ESF 22 used ABS brakes all around and experimented with airbags. Although the ESF 22’s long hood kept occupants alive even in the event of a 40mph crash against a solid structure, Mercedes’ prototypes did not comply with all of the DOT-mandated requirements in the program. Mercedes built a fourth and final one, the ESF 24, and called it quits.


This was another small car entry. MG started with a B GT body and added equipment such as a heads up display for the speedometer, airbags, big rubber bumpers and a self leveling suspension that would be later outlawed by DOT.

MG drunk driver-proofed the car by having a little colorful sequence show up on a screen when the key was inserted. Before the car would start, the driver would have to reproduce the sequence. The driver had three tries; if by the third the correct sequence had not been entered, the car would be impossible to start for an hour. The idea was that if someone was drunk enough, they wouldn’t be able to reproduce the sequence in the right order.

One of the few features from the SSV 1 to make it on a production MG are the huge rubber bumpers, though certain MG owners have reported seeing a sequence of flashing lights on the dash followed by their car not starting.

Toyota ESV

Toyota took a smaller approach to the ESV prototype: they developed a 2500 pound two-seater coupe. It was powered by a 1700cc mated to an automatic transmission, seen as safer than a manual transmission since it was run by a computer and not a human.

The prototype was packed full of electronics, including a system that adjusted the brightness of the headlight based on the car’s speed. The car also had radars to scope out the road ahead for obstacles. If one was found too close and the radar judged that a collision was unavoidable, it would send a signal to deploy the “gasbags”. The car also used what Toyota called failure warning board, a sort of on-board computer that monitored brake fluid level, engine oil level, etc.

Volkswagen ESVW-I

Staying true to Volkswagen tradition, their ESV had a 1700cc rear-mounted air-cooled engine. It developed 100 hp and was fully compliant with U.S. emissions.

Interestingly enough Volkswagen opted not to use airbags. Instead, they had seatbelts that automatically restrained passengers in the event of a crash thanks to gas-fired pistons. The car was equipped with what Volkswagen called a “silent co-pilot” system that calculated how much crosswind was hitting the car and from what side and electronically compensated the steering for it.

On the outside the bumpers didn’t stick out near as much as other prototypes and period Volkswagen literature bragged that their ESV had a “nearly normal” appearance, as opposed to other cars in the program.

Volkswagen built a second ESV in 1974, the ESVW – II, based on a first generation Golf/Rabbit. They exited the program soon after because they realized that the safety features would be too costly to implement in a production car.

Volvo VESC

Volvo has always been a leader in auto safety so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they started developing the VESC in 1969, a full year before the DOT started the ESV program. With that said it was not developed with any of the program guidelines in mind but excelled anyways. It weighed a few pounds shy of 3,200 pounds.

The bumper had a seven inch travel distance to absorb shock and the engine was designed to get pushed under the floor in the event of a front collision, something Mercedes introduced on their W168 A-Class in 1997. To effectively stop the car ABS was fitted on all four wheels. On the inside, occupants were protected by both front and rear airbags.

May 25, 2011

What's in your garage?

The links at the top of this page titled "Ronan's Garage" and "Ian's Garage" showcase what we drive around in or spend our time under.

We want to start featuring reader cars on the site, about one per month to start off with. If you have one (or more!) you'd like us to feature, send us an email at ranwhenparked at hotmail dot com with a brief history of it (how long you've had it, etc) and three or four pictures we can use.

This is new and we don't know how many folks will actually be interested. If you send us an email and we don't choose your car this month, don't worry, it will have its fifteen minutes of fame another time.

Thanks for reading.

May 20, 2011

Test mules.

For as long as the automotive press has existed journalists have been trying to get a peak at new models before their official launch. Some folks even make a career out of it, chasing camouflaged BMWs down a French back road to get that one good shot of a future model that no one has seen yet. When pictures are not available journalists sometimes illustrate what they think new models will look like with varying accuracy.

In response to that and in an effort to keep details of a new car secret until the last minute, manufacturers have camouflaged their cars in various ways that range from stickers to an entire new body. We're taking a look at some past test cars from this cat and mouse game.

Mercedes-Benz w114/w115.

This 1965 illustration was published in Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper to give readers an idea of what the upcoming w114/w115 stroke eight models would look like. The w114/w115's official launch didn't come until 1968 so not many details were available when the illustration was drawn and it relies on w113 SL styling cues. The end result looks like a 1960s CLS.

Production car:

Fiat X1/9.

The doors are recognizable as being the same ones on the production model and the air vent gave away that the engine was not in the front but the rest of the car was given a new body. Fiat must have done a remarkable job at fooling the press: at the time they called the car the 127 Spider when it was based on the 128.

Production car:

Alfa Romeo Alfetta GT.

This early test car gives away the general shape of the Alfetta but it doesn't give away any of the mechanical bits (DeDion rear suspension, rear-mounted transaxle) that would surprise the public in 1972, the year the Alfetta was launched. The front and the wheels look like they’re from a 2000 GTV.

Production car:Alfa Romeo Alfasud Sprint.

By the mid-1970s rumors of an Alfasud coupe were materializing and a spy photographer shot these pictures on a test track about a year before the car’s 1976 launch. The picture shows a car that is close to the production model but heavily camouflaged. Still, the basic window and door lines are there.

Production car:

Fiat Ritmo/Strada.

The first illustration was drawn by French magazine Auto Journal in 1977. Their design is a bit too futuristic but all things considered, it’s surprisingly close to the production model. As a side note, when this image was published the magazine's headline read: "the new Fiat 138, an Italian Renault 14!" The second illustration is a factory prototype. The front is mostly free of camouflage and reveals the production car’s face but the rest is kept a secret. Fiat even went as far as masking the Ritmo’s round door handles.

Production car:

Mercedes-Benz w126.

The first photo was taken in Tunisia, where the w126 was undergoing hot weather tests. The design is pretty close to the production model but the front is heavily camouflaged with trim on the headlights and a bull bar. All Mercedes emblems were stripped off the car. The second photo was taken on an unidentified test track and looks to be a prototype: the shape is slightly more angular than a production w126 and the taillights are completely different.

Production car:

Citroen BX:

While at first glance this looks like a GS prototype, it was taken in 1979 and hides a BX drivetrain under the hood. Careful observers will notice the BX/C15 four-lug steel wheel, a dead giveaway of what the GS body is hiding.

Saab pulled a similar trick to test out the 99’s chassis and drivetrain: they used a widened 96 body and figured no one would notice the difference.

Production car:

Seat Toledo:

The Volkswagen badge on the hood does a very good job at camouflaging what this is. The first guess that comes to mind is an mk3 Jetta and that’s close but no cigar: it’s a Seat Toledo. The badge is not as random as it might seem since the Toledo was the first Seat designed entirely by Volkswagen and shared its A2 platform with the mk2 Golf and Jetta.

Production car:

May 10, 2011

Caption contest: Renault 6.

Just for fun, how would you caption this picture from a late 1960s Renault 6 brochure? Leave us a comment below or on our Facebook page.

May 6, 2011

Offbeat offroader: the Citroën AX 4x4.

The European 4x4 market in the late 1970s was essentially limited to expensive offerings like the Range Rover, the Land Rover Series III and the Mercedes Geländewagen. Buyers who couldn’t afford those flocked towards the Lada Niva, a cheap and seriously capable 4x4 launched in 1976 and still in production today.

In its first few years of existence the Niva had almost no competition. Fiat fired first in 1983 with the Panda 4x4 and again in 1986 with the Lancia Y10 4WD i.e. (based on the Panda 4x4). Volkswagen followed suit in 1990 with the Golf Country.

Citroen’s turn came in 1991. They killed two birds with one stone that year: they facelifted their AX line and introduced two new models to inaugurate it, the GTI and the 4x4. Both were powered by the same 1360cc four-cylinder gas engine but the 4x4’s was detuned to 75hp (vs. 95hp for the GTI). It took 12.9 seconds to reach 62mph.

Both three-door and five-door AX 4x4s were available. This gave the car a slight advantage over the Panda and the Y10 since they were only available as three-doors. Compared to a standard AX the 4x4 sat 2.5 centimeters (about an inch) higher off the ground and had specific plastic trim on the side. A discrete 4x4 emblem on the hatch gave away the presence of a rear axle.

The AX 4x4 was the most expensive affordable four wheel drive on the market. In 1993 a three-door cost 80,900 francs and a five-door cost 83,900, significantly more than the Fiat Panda 4x4’s 62,800 francs. By comparison, a base model Golf sold for 73,900 francs that same year.

Under normal driving the 4x4’s rear wheels spun freely. The rear axle was hydraulically engaged at the hit of a switch located on the center console. Because the system had no central differential Citroen recommended not driving over dry pavement for prolonged periods of time with the four wheels engaged. While the AX 4x4 was excellent on slippery terrains and dirt roads, its limited ground clearance meant that it couldn’t be used for serious offroading like a Niva or a Panda.

The four wheel drive system made the AX 4x4 the heaviest of the lineup, tipping the scales at 825 kilos (1818 pounds), or 300 pounds more than a base AX. Another disadvantage was that body had to be modified to accomodate the rear axle, eating up precious trunk space.

Like many French cars the AX was available in various special editions that ranged from economy to luxury. The 4x4 wasn’t spared from this and the Piste Rouge edition was introduced in 1992. It was a limited edition of 400 cars that were better equipped (and consequently more expensive) than a standard 4x4, though an A/C was still not available. It was only built in red and with three doors and kept the same 13” wheels as the standard model. A sunroof, a three-spoke steering wheel and tinted windows all came standard and it had the AX Sport’s bumpers with integrated fog lights up front.

Production of the 4x4 carried on until July 1996. By that point Citroen had launched a replacement for the AX, the Saxo, and AX sales slowly declined until the final one rolled off the assembly line in 1998. The AX 4x4 is far from common today but there are still some putting around the mountainous regions of Europe.

All photos copyright Ran When Parked 2011.

May 5, 2011

Ran When Parked forums.

We launched the Ran When Parked forums a few weeks ago. It's a great place to talk cars with like-minded people. You can show us your projet(s), get tech advice, look at car-related collectibles or share your own, etc.

You can find the forums by clicking
here or on this link:

Registration is absolutely free and there are no subscriptions fees to speak of, we promise. We're not going to ask you to give us a credit card number or to send us flat-twin parts in exchange.