Der Lebensretter

Thousands of motorists owe their lives to one man’s quest to design safer motor cars. We pay tribute to a engineering pioneer. 

Béla Barényi. (c) Mercedes-Benz

The Mercedes-Benz legend was built on principles of engineering excellence; its reputation founded upon the work of legendary engineers, names which include Fritz Nallinger, Josef Müller and Rudolph Uhlenhaut. However, there is another name – one to whom every motorist ought perhaps to say a silent prayer of thanks – that of Béla Viktor Karl Barényi, engineer, inventor, known to some as the lifesaver. Over a lengthy career, primarily at Mercedes-Benz, his innovations led to more than 2500 patents, some of which have gone on to save countless thousands of lives.

Born in Hirtenberg near Vienna in March 1907 to one of Austria’s wealthiest families, Béla Barényi grew up amid the dawn of the motor car. Automobiles were a part of his life from an early age, his family owning an Austro-Daimler, which he is said to have adored. But fate and geopolitics would change his life dramatically, the combination of the Great War (in which his father was killed) and the ensuing depression which saw his family’s fortune dwindle, meant he was forced to drop out of school, as his family could no longer pay his fees.

In 1924 Barényi enrolled as an engineering student at the Viennese Technical College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering. Here in 1924/25 he created sketches for a modernist, streamlined rear-engined car, which would prove remarkable in its prescience. Indeed, later in his career, in a legal case which took place over three years, a decision was made in his favour, demonstrating that he was indeed the intellectual father of the basic design of what would become the Volkswagen.

Having graduated in 1926, Barényi found it difficult to obtain full-time work in depression-era Austria, the 1929 financial crash only making matters worse. For a decade or so he survived on temporary contracts and freelance work, before finally being offered a position with the Gesellschaft für technischen Fortschritt (GETEFO, Society for Technical Progress) in Berlin, where he was responsible for the registration of 150 patents, including one in 1937, for a ‘Vehicle with Three Part Body Shell’. However, in 1939, he was once again made redundant.

Despondent, he applied to Mercedes-Benz and on his second attempt, was interviewed by Chairman, Wilhem Haspel. Barényi, seizing his chance, is said to have spelled out in no uncertain terms what he thought was wrong with Mercedes-Benz’s engineering, and what he could bring to the table. Impressed by his passion, keen mind and forthright manner, Haspel is believed to have offered him a job there and then, exclaiming, “Mr Barényi, you are fifteen to twenty years ahead of your time. You will be put under a bell jar in Sindelfingen. Everything you invent will go straight to the patent department.

Barényi’s career at Stuttgart would be interrupted by the outbreak of hostilities and the somewhat febrile environment of the immediate post-war era, but by 1948 he was back in Sindelfingen’s experimental department, as busy as ever, alongside chief body engineer, Karl Wilfert, heading Mercedes’ efforts in what would later become termed, passive safety. Earlier in his studies, Barényi had discerned that in the event of an accident, kinetic energy when dissipated by progressive deformation, would result in reduced harm to the centre cell, where the occupants were contained.

Therefore, in 1951 he registered patent DBP 854.157 which resulted in what he called the “safety-enhanced body”. This would form the structural basis for a new series of Mercedes saloons which entered production in September 1959, known internally as the W 111 model series or fintail. A new terminology would also enter the lexicon – the crumple zone.

That some month, Barényi’s engineers carried out a crash test using a full-sized car – the first of thousands which would subsequently take place. The W111 Heckflosse would prove a landmark in motor car design, employing a host of safety-related innovations which would subsequently become universal. These included the wedge pin door lock design, which prevented the doors from being forced open during impacts, and the first use of retractable seat belts. Complementing this was the soft interior design, with a lack of sharp-edged controls, the steering wheel with a large padded impact plate and plastically deforming structural element positioned between the impact absorber and steering column.

Barényi would over the years become responsible for a wealth of innovations and patents, which would encompass the Ponton body, and Pagaoda roof of the W113 SL; from the deformable steering column, to the disappearing windscreen wiper. In 1966, Barényi, working in conjunction with Mercedes’ Board Director of Development, Hans Scherenberg, separated automobile safety in two primary areas – active and passive safety – a stratification which has since become the industry standard.

1973 ESF 22 safety concept. (c) Mercedes-Benz

Another innovation which Barényi enacted saw Mercedes-Benz engineers employ data taken from actual traffic accidents which involved their cars. Since 1969, his department both analysed and carried out reconstructions of real-world crashes. Further to this was the enactment of a programme of experimental safety vehicles, which began in the early 1970s, as part of worldwide research programme. Of more than 30 ESVs designed by Mercedes-Benz to research future automotive safety systems, the company presented four vehicles based on the 114 and 116 model series to the public, culminating in 1974 in a version of the W116 S-Class which debuted driver airbags, Anti-lock brakes and belt tensioners, all of which were features of the production W126 series of 1979.

(c) Mercedes-Benz

Béla Barényi retired from Mercedes-Benz in 1972, having left a legacy of design innovation and technical rigour which would see the carmaker maintain its pre-eminent position as a technical and safety pioneer for decades to come. The cars which followed in the latter 1970s and ’80s, many of which he had played a part in developing, are rightly lauded as amongst the finest cars ever to have emerged from Stuttgart-Sindelfingen and remain landmarks in the progression of the motor car.

But despite the innumerable honours subsequently bestowed upon him, and the fact that he was featured in a ’90s Mercedes commercial highlighting the carmaker’s ongoing commitment to safety, he remained one of the lesser known automotive figures. Barényi passed away in Böblingen near Stuttgart in 1997 and with him went an ethos which placed serious-minded craft and the pursuit of excellence above other more worldly considerations. Just how far those exacting standards had slipped would soon become embarrassingly apparent, but certainly, while Barényi was in place, Mercedes’ pre-eminence in this area lay unchallenged.

Safety is a tough sell, but when your cars are as superbly engineered as Mercedes-Benz’s once were, it simply came as part of the package. Béla Barényi did not work alone, but his genius made the star of Sindelfingen shine that much brighter.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

7 thoughts on “Der Lebensretter”

  1. Béla Barény was a savior (Retter) of lives (Leben), not loves (Lieben)…

    Thank you for this fine tribute to a fine and modest man.

  2. What an inspirational story. Barényi’s life is extraordinary, not just for his accomplishments in automotive safety, but for his personal triumph over the many obstacles and setbacks he faced during the tumultuous times through which he lived.

    It puts our present difficulties into perspective. Thank you for sharing his story with us, Eóin.

    1. Do you think that in our selfish world there will be another Béla Barényi who dedicated his significant creativity and work to saving somebody else’s lives?
      Would it be possible for somebody thinking like Béla Barényi to find a working environment like his today? Probably not.
      Is it imaginable that a car manufacturer employing somebody like Béla Barényi and registering more than 2,500 patents makes these patents available without royalties because these patents were meant to save lives and not to earn money? Probably not.

  3. A true hero. To me, those bright metal door locks with their tapering pins were an indicator of how the whole car was engineered.


    1. It was quite a shock to see Mercedes had adopted the Japanese type ‘bent wire’ door locks. Even if these keep the door shut comparably well it’s simply not the same quality.

  4. Nice article on a pioneer.

    Ford USA tried deep dish steering wheels and dash crash padding and lapbelts for 1957, but the public just didn’t want to know

    Peculiar that Volvo managed to one-up the Benz boys with the three point seat belt for 1958. A bit of thought went into that development. Lots on the internet, and of course they got into crumple zones too many years later, probably after reading MB advertisements. At least they did something, most of the others sat on their hands – the 240 went to MacP struts for that reason.

    It wasn’t until 1964 that I tried the Volvo seatbelt, and after that being in any car without it made me feel rather anxious. I used to be dismissive of the various useless versions other carmakers came up with – the champions of the cheap and almost completely unwearable were the Detroit Big Three well into the 1980s.

    The crumple zone theory was even mentioned in advertisements when Mercedes was still being imported into the USA by Studebaker, because I remember them before I went to uni in 1963. Cannot find a single ad on the internet, of course, but that second photo above is evocative.

    Found this site that shows early crash testing by Mercedes. Looks a bit primitive, but how sophisticated should a pile of concrete blocks appear anyway? Even on MB’s website they mention Herr Barenyi and his theories, but no mention of seatbelts. Hmm.

    https://www.fanmercedesbenz.com/1959-mercedes-benz-w111-fintail-crash-tests/

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