A lot of what we take for granted in the modern automobile has come along only after a great deal of trial and error—and, perhaps, neglect. Take, for instance, the humble headrest. While a headrest design was patented in 1923, the National Highway Transportation Association only passed a law that all passenger cars should have headrests in 1969—after hundreds of thousands of spine injuries as the result of whiplash. The safety belt was first put to use in horse-drawn carriages in the 1850s, but wouldn’t be standard-issue in cars until the early 1960s. Sadly, many of the most basic innovations that are part of every automobile interior today came about this way. Grim, but true. These are the most dangerous car interiors—and a few that were unique for ushering in safety before it was fashionable.
Talk about rudimentary safety: The 1905 Darracq 200HP set speed records in Europe but had zero bodywork, just open chairs on a naked chassis. But, in a bit of clever ingenuity, Darracq cleverly offset the buckets so that the passenger sat slightly behind the driver. The advantage? In a curve, when the driver had the wheel to hold on to, the passenger could grab the driver’s shoulders to keep from being flung from the vehicle.
1908 Ford Model T
“Safety glass” was actually invented by accident: In 1903, a Parisian scientist who had melted a liquid plastic into a glass beaker discovered that laminated glass would break but rarely fly apart. Unfortunately, automakers of the day didn’t care about his invention, and so the Model T—and every other car of its day—featured a dead flat and seriously deadly windscreen that would cut apart passengers in the unfortunate event of a serious accident. The first widespread use of laminated glass came in the form of gas-mask goggles during World War I. By the late 1930s, Ford had adopted laminated glass in all of its models, calling it “Indestructo Glass.” It was made by the aptly named British Indestructo Glass Co.
1922 Renault 40CV
The 1911 Indy 500 was won thanks in part to a practical invention: the rearview mirror. Legend holds that the race winner, Ray Harroun, saw another driver’s girlfriend or wife aid him in driving city streets by holding up her compact mirror, which triggered Harroun’s idea to mount a mirror on the dash of his race car. Rearview mirrors on a pivoting ball mount became ubiquitous in the mid-1920s. Even so, coach-designed luxury cars like this Renault had such massive blind spots that a rearview mirror did little to help during passing. And side-view mirrors on both the passenger and driver sides had to wait until the early 2000s.
1930 Model J Duesenberg
The 1930 Model J Duesenberg was indeed gorgeous, and the underbuilt A-pillars were considered a safety advantage because peripheral vision could be much clearer. Unfortunately, when the pillars did collapse, they collapsed directly into the cockpit. Thin pillars do a very poor job of saving lives in the event of a rollover, and yet strict, NHTSA-mandated roof (and pillar) construction had to wait until the 1970s.
1953 Mercury Monterey
There were a lot of pointy objects on the dashboards of pre-1980s cars. Many cars of the 1950s had steering-wheel hubs that protruded like missile ends, just waiting to impale the driver. Mercury used aircraft-style levers for the vent settings of the Merc-O-Therm Heater in this Monterey, though it at least put the steering wheel in front of these metal levers, which likely prevented some level of harm. But even as Mercedes was pioneering a collapsible steering column that would debut later in the same decade, all cars of the era had fully rigid columns. Some of those would telescope to a steering box that sat ahead of the front axle, and a head-on collision would drive the column toward the driver.
1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing
The Gullwing 300SL was a gorgeous piece of machinery, but it debuted before the age of headrests. One optional piece of equipment was a huge leather suitcase that sat behind the passenger and driver on the rear decklid. The case could be held in place with leather straps and metal buckles, but should you forget to strap down the load and then get rear-ended, that heavy tote would fly forward and smack you in the back of the bean.
1955 Ford F-100
A quick eyeball of this image tells you two things about the 1955 Ford F-100: The front bench had no head restraints, and the passengers sat with their heads pretty close to the backlight. Practically any car of the era lacked head restraints, leading to thousands of cases of whiplash, but pickup passengers were especially vulnerable because a severe impact from the rear could cause their heads to crash through the rear window. In 1969, head restraints became mandatory in cars, and the law was updated in subsequent decades to include trucks and SUVs.
1956 Dodge Custom Royal
Texting and driving seems dangerous? What about flipping over a phonograph record while taking a corner in your 1956 Dodge Custom Royal? Chrysler offered retracting in-dash record players advertised as “Highway Hi-Fi!” as an option available in 1955 to 1960 sedans (including Chrysler, Dodge, Imperial and Plymouth brands). But there was a catch—several, actually. The player had to be small, so a 45-rpm record would seem apt, but 45s played through a song in just a few minutes. So Chrysler worked with Columbia to create slow-playing 16-2/3-rpm records. Then there were the little problems of flipping a record while driving, the fact that the player’s needle jumped unless the road was windless-lake smooth, and that persnickety issue of what would happen to your date’s face in the event of a crash.
1958 Porsche 356
We owe the 356 Porsche an apology: It’s merely the straw man for any number of possible cars. Porsches, like so many cars of the preceding 70 years of automotive history, came with wooden steering wheels. And the 356 was a popular track car as well. Through grim trial and error, race drivers learned that in a crash, a wooden steering wheel could splinter and penetrate a driver’s hand or chest, ending his career or worse. By the time the 356 was in common track use, at least racers knew to swap the wheel for one made of metal.
1958 Saab Gran Turismo 750
For a break from all the bad car-safety tech, here’s a car that deserves credit for taking a leap forward in safety. The Gran Turismo 750 that Saab exhibited at the New York Auto Show in April 1958 carried a twin-carb engine souped up for the U.S. buyer, and put out a racy 55 hp (if you got the aftermarket tuning kit). But the GT750 was a breakthrough for another reason that was largely glossed over: It came with optional retracting lap belts.
The idea of the seatbelt was brewing in the U.S. market by that time, in the person of Huntington, Calif., neurosurgeon Hunter Shelden, who was treating hundreds of emergency-room patients with head injuries resulting from car crashes. He wrote a piece that was published in 1955 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the findings of which led Congress to spur the setting of new safety standards for carmakers. But give Saab some credit for putting his idea into practice.
1961 Volvo PV 544
Not to be outdone by its cross-nation rival, Saab, Volvo came close on the heels of the GT 750 with the first standard three-point safety harness. The breakthrough wasn’t only that the car’s belt provided chest as well as lap protection, but also that inventor Nils Bohlin realized that past attempts at seatbelts had attached the straps to the seat itself, and seatbacks of the era would collapse forward under the weight of the driver during a crash. The driver might not have been thrown through the windshield, but he would still collide with the dashboard. Bohlin devised a system that attached directly to the frame of the car. And oddly, Bohlin’s many other inventions were just the opposite sorts of devices: rocket-powered ejection seats for Saab jet fighter planes.
1961 Lincoln Continental
“Suicide doors” got their name for a reason. Many early cars didn’t have locking doors, door latches opened by pressing downward, and a downward-opening latch often served as an armrest. It was a recipe for catastrophe. Without a seatbelt, anyone chilling in the back of a car with rear-swinging doors could easily fall out, especially since the wind would catch the door and blow it open. The gorgeous 1961 Lincoln Continental had suicide rear doors, harking back to a much earlier era of coachbuilt luxury cars of the 1920s.
There was practically nothing right about the poor Yugo, save that it rekindled the idea that a small, entrepreneurial carmaker could succeed. What was wrong with the Yugo’s interior? It would rattle to pieces, literally, while driving. Electrical failings also caused shortages, or fires, to break out in the cockpit. At least that kept the drivers warm, as the Yugo was also prone to having its heater fail. Source