Safety first, or was that Cornell first?

Tucked away in a corner of the Henry Ford Museum is one of the most significant cars of the 20th century.

A large green car it is parked among many better known, historic and classic vehicles.

You could walk right past it and not give it a second glance.

I’m talking about the 1957 Cornell-Liberty Safety Car.

I’ve seen it up close and let me tell you right now, it is not a pretty automobile.

It is ugly and incorporates almost every 1950s styling gimmick.

And the garish green paint scheme does nothing to improve its assault on the visual senses.

But none of that matters, because this vehicle embodies just one incredibly heroic and lofty aspiration.

You see, the design of this car promised to nothing less that protect and save lives.

Although ridiculed by the major car makers at the time, the Cornell car’s safety features were way ahead of its time.

Today, almost all of them are standard equipment.

The genesis of the car’s development arose from Cornell University’s 1950s research program into car crashes.

The researchers studied accident survival, door security, rollover hazards, and bodily impact inside a car.

Their findings were shocking.

They showed that without seat belts at least 25 per cent of occupants in collisions were ejected from their cars. Most were killed.

The other 75 per cent were being sliced up and impaled by all the bright shiny metal objects and knobs inside the cars.


Mind you, these causes and outcomes were not restricted to the USA.

Where ever cars were driven these severe injuries were the consequences of crashes.

The University recommended the addition of seat belts, dashboard padding, crash worthy door locks, and recessed-hub steering wheels to production cars.

The manufacturers basically ignored the research results.

Then again, the car buyers were not safety minded either.

In 1956 Ford tried hard to sell safety but the public was not buying.

As Henry Ford II was heard to remark “we’re selling safety, Chevrolet is selling cars.”

In 1957 Cornell University decided that rather than change public opinion with more reports and more lectures, they would build a car that gave form to what they believed.

So the University partnered with the Liberty Insurance Company to build such a car (based on a 1956 Ford Fairlane) and send it on an America-wide tour.

What the public saw, many for the first time, was that car safety did matter and that simple solutions were possible.

The Cornell car featured seat belts, wrap around bucket seats, headrests and whiplash netting, crash padding, sliding doors, side impact protection and wrap around protective bumpers.

There was no steering wheel nor steering column on which to be skewered. Turning was controlled by two sliding levers encased by crash padding.

The car achieved all of its objectives and opinions started to change.

In 1960 to counter criticism that the safety features could not be incorporated into a mass produced car, Cornell took a standard Chevrolet and showed how it could be done.

In 1966 the US government mandated seat belts, padded dashboards, and other safety features for all cars sold in America.

In 1970 the Australian authorities made the fitting of front seat belts compulsory.

And the rest of the story you know.

Such is its legacy, the Cornell car should be granted national treasure status in every country where cars are driven.

David Burrell is the editor of


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