How the 1973 Mercedes-Benz ESF 22 prototype predicted the future

How the 1973 Mercedes-Benz ESF 22 prototype predicted the future

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We take features like crumple zones and airbags for granted in 2023 — it would be alarming to buy a new car without them. Set your time machine to the 1970s, and the safety equipment found in cars was primitive at best. Mercedes-Benz is one of the firms that participated in safety-related research programs during this decade, and it's highlighting a prototype named ESF 22 that in many ways predicted the future.

Unveiled at a conference held in 1973 in Kyoto, Japan, the ESF 22 was based on the W116-generation S-Class launched the previous year. It was the third safety-related prototype that Mercedes-Benz presented to the public, and it picked up where its predecessor left off by inaugurating a raft of features. While it's visibly related to the S-Class, its front end is dominated by black, impact-absorbing plastic parts rather than adorned by stately-looking bright trim. Mercedes-Benz wasn't moving down-market: it fitted a plastic grille and plastic headlight bezels in the name of pedestrian protection. Engineers also mounted the headlights deep into the bezels to avoid glass-related injuries.

The driver faced a huge steering wheel with a padded hub cover and a padded dashboard, and every passenger could count on a seatbelt to stay safe in the event of an accident. The ESF 22 also incorporated many of the safety advancements developed for its predecessors, such as anti-lock brakes and headlight wipers. All told, Mercedes-Benz claimed that its big, experimental sedan gave occupants "a good chance" of surviving a head-on impact against a rigid object, like a wall, at 40 mph, which was a remarkable feat (especially 50-plus years ago).