How The U.S. Government Killed The Safest Car Ever Built
Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. government built a fleet of cars that were safer than anything on the road. Twenty-five years ago, the government shredded them in secret. Two escaped the crusher. This is their story.
As Congress and the auto industry wrestle with another round of tougher safety standards, nothing on the menu comes close to setting up the federal government’s own vehicle design business. Yet that’s exactly what Congress did in 1966.
With the furor from Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed still fresh, the original act creating the Department of Transportation also ordered it to build its own experimental vehicles for testing new safety devices, and swap notes with 13 other countries. The young faces at the new agency farmed out the first set to three companies, including General Motors.
The result: Three swamp-monster sedans of more than 5000 pounds apiece that did double-duty as safe transportation and appetite suppressants. The October 1972 issue of Popular Mechanics laid out the details: Roof-mounted periscopes; bumpers wide enough to haul Dom Deluise; and in the GM model, a rear-seat “credenza,” so back-seat passengers would be protected in crashes by smacking into a vinyl-covered bosom.
Unsatisfied with the vault-on-wheels solution, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration changed course. It held a bake-off in 1975 for what a safe car in 1985 might look like. Ford and Volkswagen offered ideas, but NHTSA awarded what would become a $30 million contract to two independent engineering firms, Calspan and Minicars.
While Calspan modified French-built Simcas donated by Chrysler, Minicars designed a new model from scratch, aiming to build a four-passenger small car that could protect all its occupants in a 50-mph crash from either the front or side while burning as little fuel as possible. The result looked like an AMC Pacer worked over by the set designers of Battlestar Galactica.
For a piece of American-built iron from the depths of the Carter administration, the 14 Minicar Research Safety Vehicles had a massive amount of technology. The fender and front fascia were plastic composites that could take a 10-mph smack unscathed. Under the plastic body of the most advanced version were run-flat tires, anti-lock brakes with crash-sensing radar and dual-stage airbags. The front seats were attached to the roof with a see-through plastic shield, so they wouldn’t collapse in a rear-end collision.
Power came via four-cylinder engines pilfered from 1977 Honda Accords, mounted in a mid-rear layout driving the back wheels through a 5-speed automated manual transmission. Test drives scored about 32 miles to the gallon, but test crashes suggested passengers might walk away from most crashes up to 50 mph with minimal injuries. NHTSA officials claimed thousands of lives a year could be saved if Minicar tech became standard.
And of course it had gullwing doors. Don Friedman, who managed the project for Minicars, said the idea was simply to look as stylish as the concept being cast around the same time by John DeLorean.
By 1979, NHTSA decided to convince U.S. automakers that safety could be sold as effectively as CB radios and Corinthian leathers, putting the Minicar RSV up at auto shows and county fairs to make the point. Ben Kelley, then working as the research director for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, decided to make a public service announcement for the effort, and convinced Lorne Greene to donate a day in his best white suit:
“The safest automobile ever created,” Commander Adama intoned. “There’s one slight catch: You can’t buy it.” Viewers were told to call NHTSA to voice their approval.
About 10,000 did.
The Minicar was far from showroom ready. Gullwing doors of the 1970s were as reliable as Billy Carter the week before St. Patrick’s Day. And for all its safety kit, the Minicar lacked one standard: front seat belts.
Airbags weren’t new technology, but Detroit automakers were resisting using them in all but the largest or most luxurious models. NHTSA and the RSV teams wanted to show how well their advanced bags could work in small cars, especially if the riders weren’t belted. Friedman noted that only 13% of Americans were using seat belts in 1980, and that wasn’t expected to change much before 1985.
Armed with data from 59 RSVs from Minicars and Calspan/Chrysler, NHTSA chief Joan Claybrook was ready to press on in 1980 with a new generation of safety vehicles, setting a target of a 2000-lb. car that could seat four and pass a battery of 40-mph crash tests.
All that ended in January 1981, when the “Morning in America” team from the Reagan administration halted the RSV work and promptly fracked the Lorne Greene promos. Two years later, Kelley would tell Congress that by safety standards all new U.S. vehicles were “obsolete the moment they roll off the assembly line.” Thanks to Americans’ general dislike of buckling up, the government’s experts were forecasting 70,000 auto deaths a year by 1990.
The few remaining safety cars moldered away in the Department of Transportation’s basement until 1990, when safety advocates such as Clarence Ditlow and the then-Republican controlled agency began a long-running feud over whether tougher fuel economy rules would lead to more deaths from smaller vehicles. After exploring whether the Smithsonian wanted any of the RSV cars (they did), NHTSA revealed under a Freedom of Information Act query that it had quietly sent all remaining cars to be destroyed. On July 1, 1991, the RSV showcar was crashed into a barrier at 50 mph with no dummies inside, and its airbags shut off.
Then-NHTSA chief Jerry Curry contended the vehicles were obsolete, and that anyone who could have learned something from them had done so by then. Claybrook, the NHTSA chief who’d overseen the RSV cars through 1980, told Congress the destruction compared to the Nazis burning books.
“Junking those cars was a terrible idea,” said Kelley, who now teaches at Tufts medical school. “What is the benefit of keeping anything that’s historically important? The future wants to know more about the past, and when you destroy the past, you destroy the future’s access to knowing about it.”
“I thought they were intentionally destroying the evidence that you could do much better,” said Friedman.
What the government didn’t know was that it had lost count.
When the Reagan crew shuttered the RSV program in 1981, Minicars still had two cars in its shop; one mostly built, the other without an engine. Over the years, the cars were stored and ignored until a California man named Frank Richardson bought them in 1996 from an asset sale he used to set up his own crash-test business.
Last year, Richardson and Friedman revealed to NHTSA that the Minicars still existed, and the agency paid for a refurbish. The one intact Minicar needs a water pump, but otherwise runs.
“If somebody wanted to buy them, the price would be very high,” Richardson said.
Like other American inventions such as the VCR, the lithium-ion battery and David Hasselhoff, many of the RSV’s technologies only prospered overseas. Anti-lock brakes and air bags were standard on European cars first; Japanese automakers put the first crash-sensing brake system on the market in 2003, nearly 25 years after the RSV sported it. Yet those five-star ratings from NHTSA that have become standard for front crash safety in U.S. cars come from tests at 35 mph, still 15 mph shy of the RSV bar.
Last year, traffic deaths fell to their lowest level since 1961 at 33,963, after remaining stuck at roughly 40,000 for decades, in part because a modern car has more in common with the RSVs than ever before. With smaller cars, tougher fuel rules and bigger worries about oil on the horizon, that 1985 target date for the program may have been set about 30 years too early.
“I don’t think that RSV had much influence in its time,” says Friedman. “It is a precursor of the performance we’re going to see in the future.”