Because of his many inventions improving the safety for people in automobiles in the event of a collision, Béla Barényi (1907-1997) is known as the father of passive safety in automotive car design. His huge number of patents has also earned him the moniker “the Hugarian Thomas Edison”.
Among other things, Barényi developed the concept of the crumple zone, the non-derformable passenger cell, the collapsible steering column, and safer detachable hardtops. From 1939 to 1972, he led the Daimler-Benz pre-development department. Many of the features that Barényi developed for Daimler-Benz were later broadly adopted into automobiles from other manufactorers and are still present in cars and similar vehicles today.
Barényi is also credited with conceiving the original design for the German people´s car – The Volkswagen Beetle – in 1925. This was five years before Ferdinand Porsche made his initial design suggestion for the car. (Mercedes-Benz have posted Barényi´s original 1925 technical drawing on their site.)
When Barényi died in Germany in 1997, aged 90, Mercedes ran a commemorative add stating that: “No one in the world has given more thought to car safety than this man.”
Barényi donated a broad record of his inventions to the Technisches Museum Wien (Vienna Technical Museum).
Béla Barényi was born in Hirtenberg near Vienna, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on 1 March 1907.
The native form of his personal name is Barényi Béla, according to the custom of putting the family name before the given name. In this article, we follow the other naming convention, and put his family name last, i.e. Béla Barényi.
His mother was Austrian and his father was the Hungarian military officer Barényi Jenő (1866–1917). The family was a part of the extended Keller family; a well-known family of industrial magnates. His great-grandfather and grandfather, respectively, were the industrialists Seraphin Keller and Fridolin Keller.
Béla Barényi studied mechanical and electrical engineering at the Privatfachschule für Maschinenbau und Elektrotechnik in Vienna, finnishing in 1926.
After college, Barényi worked for the Austrian automobile companies Austro-Daimler, Steyr and Adler, before joining Daimler-Benz in 1939.
During his job interview at Daimler-Benz, Barényi explained in detail how the conventional steering system, steering column and wheel, suspension, and car body design could be altered to improve safety for the people in the car.
Daimler-Benz hired Barényi and immediately made him head of their pre-development department, a position he would keep until his retirement in 1972.
Patents and inventions
Barényi’s patent count documented at the European Patent Office is 1,244 worldwide patents, of which 595 were filed in Germany; the primary filing country of his chief employer.
You might have seen articles claiming Barényi had over 2,000 patents when he retired from Daimler-Benz, and added another 500 or so later, but those numbers are a bit misleading as they include patents filed in multiple countries for the same invention.
Barényi´s protection solutions were partially implemented on the 1953 Mercedes-Benz “Ponton”. In order to form a partial safety cell, this car was built with a strong deep platform, a solution patented in 1941.
The crumple zone concept was invented and patented by Barényi in 1937, when he was not yet working for Daimler-Benz. In the early 1950s, he created a more developed version of it.
The Mercedes-Benz patent number 854157, granted in 1952, describes why a crumple zone improves passenger safety. Until this point, the prevailing idea among automotive manufactorers – and the general public – was that a safe car was a rigid car that would not crumple in a crash.
Barényi explained that it was safer for the passengers if a part of the car was allowed to crumple. He divided the body of the car into three sections: a crumple zone in the front, a rigid passenger compartment in the middle, and another crumple zone in the back. The crumple zones were designed to absorb the kinetic energy of a collission by deforming.
The 1959 Mercedes W111 “Tail Fin” Saloon was the first Mercedes-Benz car body using patent # 854157. Its longitudinal members were straight in the centre of the car, but curved in the front and rear. Together with the body panels, the straight members in the centre formed a ridig safety compartment for the passengers. The curved members in the front and rear were designed to deform in the event of a collission, absorbing energy and preventing the full force of the impact from reaching the passengers.
Hall of Fame
Barényi was inducted into the Detroit Automotive Hall of Fame in 1994.