Early cars moved along at not much more than walking speed. But that didn’t last long. To gauge how fast a vehicle was going required a speedometer. The first one appeared in the 1901 Oldsmobile. Ironically, early mechanical brake systems were still rather crude, and cars didn’t stop well. But for the first time, by watching the speedometer, it was possible for a person to judge beforehand how badly they and their vehicle would be damaged if the car collided with something.
Shock absorbers also appeared around this time. Early shocks were “knee-action” as opposed to the reciprocating tubular style we are most familiar with today. Dampening the suspension controlled wheel shimmy while traveling along unpaved roads. It also helped drivers better control their vehicle and keep themselves out of ditches and out of the way of oncoming traffic.You might call this the first lane-keep assist system.
In 1951, German Walter Linderer and American John Hedrik applied for patents for early airbags. The bags were largely ineffectual because they could not deploy fast enough, and a system to trigger the deployment did not yet exist---but they had the concept right. An acceptable triggering system would have to wait until 1968 when Allen Breed would submit for a patent for his invention, the first electro-mechanical airbag triggering system. The first airbags sold commercially on a passenger car appeared on the 1973 Oldsmobile Tornado.
In 1953, the iconic Chevrolet Corvette was introduced. It was the industry’s first production fiberglass body, which presented some new challenges to the collision repair industry. It was also the first mass-produced American car with a wrap-around windshield, which eliminated a troublesome blind spot at the corner of the windshield, increased the driver’s line of vision and ostensibly made the car safer. The wrap-around design was the brainchild of legendary car designer Harley Earl. Interestingly, Harley’s father, J.W. Earl, developed and patented a tilting windshield in 1911, another innovation of its time.
Of all the safety equipment ever invented for a motor vehicle, none has been as ubiquitous, been damaged as many times in so many accidents, generated as much income for so many parts suppliers and provided as many labor hours for so many collision technicians as the item invented by Frederick R. Simms.