The Volvo safety vehicle VESC – Volvo Experimental Safety Car – has played a major role in creating Volvo's safety image and it is now forty years since it was first shown. VESC was Volvo's contribution to a safety debate that was going on at the time and that had been initiated by the US Department of Transportation, DOT.
DOT commissioned four companies to develop and build a safety vehicle each, to specified properties and standards. Much higher than those that were the standard of the day. The project, in turn, was part of the international cooperation for better traffic safety that had been started in 1970 by the US authority NHTSA – National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Safety was nothing new to Volvo. The work on impoving passenger safety when travelling in cars was part of the very original idea of the company. Volvo's biggest single contribution to world traffic safety, however, was no doubt the introduction of the three-point safety belt, standard-fitted to Volvo cars from 1959 and a world first. This belt type and geomtetry is still the standard for every car in the world today.
ESV means Experimental Safety Vehicle and this programme was built up on the idea that selected car manufacturers worked together on different projects on vehicle safety. Authorities, legislators and the automotive business met once a year to exchange ideas and experiences around safety, to the benefit of world traffic safety situation.
Most safety vehciles that were the result of the ESV challenge were heavy, cumbersome and ugly-looking. Volvo, however, made a passenger car which deviated only slightly from what the cars of the early 1970s looked like.
Work on the safety vehicle had started already in 1969, before the ESV requirements were known, and the basis for that was the stillborn 1560-project – the planned next big car from Volvo, but killed off due to rising fuel prices and the risk of an acute shortage of oil. The VESC therefore weighed only half of its "safety vehicle competitors". Although large and heavy-looking today, it nevertheless featured the same level of passenger safety as the even bigger and more expensive contemporaries, and included a lot of new and innovative technology. Some of them were passed on to future production cars. When the Volvo 240 was luached two years later, it carried a lot of the VESC contents, looks and heritage.
The list of VESC safety lots of new technology: airbags for all passengers, crash activated head restraints, anti-lock brakes, protective beams in doors, built-in roll-over bar, telescopic bumpers, headlamp washers/wipers, reversing camera, the latter a feature which the US authorities is about to make compulsory through legislation.
VESC was publicly shown for the first time in May 1972 when Volvo was invited to Transpo 72, a big transportation exhibition in Washington D.C. The VESC became the vehicle where all existing Volvo in-house safety features, ideas and concepts were brought together and used, plus some brand new ones. Three cars were built, and one of these can still be seen in Volvo Museum.
Another vital element that differed Volvo from the other makers was the work around active safety, not just passive i.e. crash safety. This meant thorough attention to vehicle dynamics such as brakes, suspension and steering; how the car behaved during evasive manoeuvres and in critical situations in order to avoid colliosions. Here, weight is no advantage. This, among other things meant that the VESC got a lot of appreciation from the American authorities and Volvo's position as a leading manufacturer of safe vehicles was further strengthened.
If you want to read more about the ESV vehicles in general and the VESC in particular, Swedish motor journalist Fredrik Nyblad has recently published a book on the subject called "Krasch". It is currently only available in Swedish but an English version is in the planning. Visit the homepage of Trafik-Nostalgiska Förlaget www.tnf.se