A Volvo Moment: A cordoned off road outside of Los Angeles

Published 12:00 AM, July 15 2016


It is a sunny day in the spring of 1972 on a three-lane road next to the Pacific Coast Highway outside of Los Angeles, California. Behind the wheel of the VESC – Volvo Experimental Safety Car – is Volvo engineer Bo Wikås wearing a white polo shirt. He looks a little tense, while the actress hired to for the photo shoot seems a bit more relaxed. With assistance from the traffic police, a section of road has been cordoned off to traffic so that the VESC can be photographed.

Bo Wikås will go on to lead Volvo’s motor sport operation in the 1980s in their success with the 240 Group A, but at this moment his work is to test and verify new Volvo models. Together with the project manager for VESC, Arne Åsberg, he travels around the world to demonstrate Volvo’s experimental safety car.

At the end of the 1960s, the debate about car safety became increasingly vocal in a number of places including the USA. The huge number of traffic fatalities became a political issue that put pressure on car manufacturers. Volvo had already demonstrated that it was a pioneer in the field, but now there were a multitude of manufacturers showing off experimental safety cars in attempt to show visions of the future. Volvo therefore needed to build an experimental safety vehicle too in order to defend its role.

VESC was born out of Project 1560, which was intended to become a major new model, but was instead cancelled. The bodies that had been build for the P1560 were now put to use as VESC cars.

The bodies had already been designed from a safety conscious perspective, but were now equipped with a range of innovative safety solutions. This included headrests that would be activated in a collision, anti-lock brakes, self-donning seat belts and a rear view camera. The camera was the size of a biscuit tin and took up the entire space for the rear registration plate.

It would be a long time before much of the technology featured in VESC had got smaller - both physically and in terms of expense - so that it was possible to use it in a production vehicle. But the ideas were there.

The pictures from the road outside of Los Angeles would be used in a press release, a brochure and oddly enough also an ash tray. All of this for a car that they never intended to sell even one of! However, the marketing value of the Volvo Experimental Safety Car cannot be underestimated. It helped to reinforce Volvo’s role as a pioneer of safety for many years to come.