And you thought those sixties and seventies experimental safety vehicles were ugly…
From the late nineteen-sixties until well into the seventies, a slew of safety-oriented concept cars from several automakers broke cover. Some of their notable unifying themes were large black rubber extensions front and rear, early variations of airbags in combination with heavily padded safety seats in various guises, with bodywork usually painted bright yellow or orange. Before that time, and preceding the publication of Ralph Nader’s influential book ‘Unsafe at Any Speed’, safety usually took a back seat to styling, comfort, cost and performance(1).
Swedish manufacturers SAAB and Volvo were arguably the only ones at the time that could legitimately claim to have safety as one of their guiding principles. That said, ever since the first motor accident involving casualties occurred, carmakers were aware of the risks and, in various shapes and forms -as well as degrees of naiveté and effectiveness- many attempts to improve safety were made.
Even in the post-WW2 era however, the majority of cars were still severely lacking in both active and passive safety features, prompting some enterprising souls to design vehicles that, in their view, would vastly improve the chances of driver and passengers getting out of the car unharmed, or at least alive, after a collision. The results were vehicles that eschewed convention both in concept and appearance, as demonstrated by the following two specimens.
An engineer by training, Walter C. Jerome, president of the Hollow Boring Corporation(2), was a man on a mission to reduce the number of fatalities and disfiguring injuries suffered by car accident victims. After several years of development, Jerome presented his safety vehicle in 1959: its name was the Sir Vival. To describe its outward appearance as unusual would be a gross understatement but, as far as Jerome was concerned, there were perfectly logical reasons for this.
Starting with a 1948 ‘step down’ Hudson as a base, Jerome had more or less retained the section aft of the B-pillars. A raised turret-like cockpit housed the centrally seated driver and the front of the Hudson’s body was closed off by a steel semicircle with two windows and a central headlight. In front of the driver and passenger compartment was mounted a separate section containing the engine and front wheels, connected by a mechanical pivoting steering linkage and driveshaft. This unique configuration generated comparisons to a giant vacuum cleaner, or a horseshoe crab on wheels.
The safety benefit of this construction, claimed Jerome, was that it provided much better protection in head-on collisions as most of the impact energy would be diverted away from the passenger compartment. The high central driving position gave the driver a better view of the road and provided better isolation from any distractions his passengers might generate. The 360-degree circular windshield was also unique: it constantly rotated slowly when the Sir Vival was in motion and was thereby cleaned on both inside and outside by felt-lined wipers.
The air intake was deliberately placed at the highest point of the vehicle to minimise the amount of carbon monoxide drawn into the passenger compartment. Many parts of the interior were heavily padded, while roll-over bars were fitted and seat belts were provided for all occupants. The press release for the Sir Vival claimed that there was no risk of ‘jack-knifing’ as the car’s sections were mechanically linked and articulated by the steering wheel, as opposed to a truck with a trailer.
Heavy steel bumpers covered with rubber encircled both sections of the car which, together made for a substantial overall length of slightly over seventeen feet. The Hudson’s doors were also thorougly re-engineered: they now pivoted slightly outwards and then backwards parallel to the car as they opened. Perhaps inspired by the Citroën DS19, the direction indicators were mounted high on the body to increase their visibility.
Jerome’s safety car certainly generated its share of publicity, landing it on several magazine covers. However, it seems nobody subjected the Sir Vival to an actual road test (or was allowed to do so) which might have shed some light on the behaviour of the car as far as its handling characteristics at speed were concerned. As it was, reports were limited to the impressive array of patented safety features and, of course, its startling appearance.
Optimistically, Jerome had brochures printed and was quietly confident of the Sir Vival’s chances, saying “I soon expect to turn out 11 or 12 cars a year at an approximate cost of $10,000 to the purchaser.” Aesthetic aspects aside, that price was about four times what a regular American full-size sedan cost at the time. It will therefore not come as a shock to anyone that nobody ever placed an order and the Sir Vival remained a unique example.
The good news is that the Sir Vival still exists, albeit in need of some TLC, and is currently owned by a private collector in Massachusetts. It would be fascinating to see the Sir Vival arise once more in restored form and put on display in a car museum as an example of early explorations in safety improvement.
Saving souls is, of course, a primary calling for all clergymen, but Father Alfred A. Juliano tackled the subject literally and from an unexpected angle. Juliano had been interested in cars, and especially in car design, since his childhood. He entered a few competitions, including one sponsored by General Motors(3), which resulted in an offer of a scholarship at GM Design. Sadly, according to Juliano, he had been ordained a priest shortly before the offer came, so he was unable to accept.
A 1953 Buick frame and drivetrain served as the basis for Juliano’s safety vehicle, which he christened ‘Aurora’. As with the Sir Vival, the many safety features implemented without any perceptible regard for aesthetic appeal created quite an unusual end result. Amazingly, Juliano had not only designed but also made the fiberglass body himself, using a wooden buck of his own construction as a template. All the windows were either plastic or, in the case of the windshield and rear window, resin. Several safety features that would become commonplace only much later were built into the Aurora: steel roll-over bars, steel bars in the doors for side-impact protection, safety belts, a collapsible steering column, a padded dashboard with recessed knobs and handles and flush-mounted door handles.
Never seen in any other vehicle except the Aurora was the unique windshield. Its unusual shape had two advantages, explained Juliano: there would be no need for windshield wipers as raindrops would be expelled by the passing air while driving. Moreover, it greatly reduced the risk of the occupants hitting the windshield in case of an accident. Juliano had even thought of pedestrian safety: the front end of the Aurora was shaped so that it would scoop up the victim rather than run them over. One final noteworthy feature was an integrated hydraulic system, operated by controls on the dashboard, with four jacks at each corner of the Aurora, to facilitate the tyre-changing process.
The Aurora, which had cost around US $30,000 to build, partly funded by donations from his congregation, was displayed to an equally baffled and curious public for the first time in New York city in 1957. It was a minor miracle that Juliano had made it at all because the 1953 Buick engine and transmission had not run for a long time and malfunctioned several times along the way.
A sales price of approximately US $12,000 was rumoured, which would have made the Aurora the most expensive car in the USA bar the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. It is doubtful, however, whether Juliano ever had serious plans to produce his car himself: it was more likely created to entice mainstream car manufacturers to adopt some of its safety features in their production cars.
Shortly after the presentation of the Aurora, the Internal Revenue Service opened investigations into possible tax liabilities after claims of misappropriating parishioners’ donations. The IRS found nothing untoward and cleared Juliano of all accusations, but the Aurora project had crippled him financially (and because of the unfounded accusations, perhaps also emotionally) and he had to declare bankruptcy, not even able to pay a relatively minor repair bill from a local car garage, which consequently held the Aurora on their premises.
And there it remained for decades until, in 1993, a British car enthusiast named Andy Saunders spotted the car in a magazine and contacted the garage, whose billboard and telephone number conveniently were also shown in the photo. Saunders was able to purchase the Aurora, which was little more than a hopeless wreck by then, for US $1,500 and had it shipped to the UK to be restored over a period of twelve years. The Aurora can now be seen at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.
(1) Ford Motor Company heavily publicised the ‘Lifeguard’ safety design features of its 1956 models but abandoned its publicity efforts after losing that year’s sales race to rival Chevrolet. In the words of an unhappy Henry Ford II: “We are selling safety while Chevrolet is selling cars”.
(2) Not to be confused with Elon Musk’s ‘The Boring Company’.
(3) This could have been the annual Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild competition.