A group of men looking at two vehicles that crashed

Ford Pioneers Auto Safety

In 1955, Ford held the first National Safety Forum and led the way for enhanced auto safety.

On a clear September morning in 1955, two Ford Fairlanes crashed into each other just outside of Detroit. Both cars were badly damaged but the occupants were uninjured, they were early versions of today’s crash test dummies. Those who witnessed the crash at the Dearborn test track were attending the National Safety Forum, an unprecedented two-day event that highlighted Ford’s revolutionary “Lifeguard Design” vehicle safety features.

The two Ford Fairlanes after the staged crash.

While safety is a crucial automotive attribute today, it was not always so. In 1927 Ford Motor Company became the first manufacturer to install safety glass as standard equipment in all of their vehicles, leading the way for other advancements in making vehicles safer.

In the 1950s, much of the public was reluctant to consider the possibility of a crash and that made automakers reluctant to talk about crash safety. Many believed it was better to be “thrown clear” in a crash even though a Cornell University study had shown a possible five-fold increase in fatal injuries if a passenger was ejected from the car.

The Lifeguard Belt Test exhibit

With their hard metal surfaces and protruding knobs, car interiors were also part of the problem so Ford engineers in the early 1950s had begun to think about how to “package the passenger.” In the most exciting part of the forum, engineers staged two crashes, towing one car into another using an instrument-laden van tethered to the car by an electronic cable. Sensors and high-speed camera captured each tiny movement of the crashes.

Along for the ride were FERD 1 and FERD 2, two early crash test dummies, named after the Ford Engineering Research Department.

This and other exhibits showed the benefits of dished steering wheels, safety door latches, seat belts, padded dashboards and breakaway review mirrors. It was the first time a car company had designed a vehicle interior to enhance safety. The “Lifeguard” safety features were prominent in 1956 and Ford even sold the options below cost.

Click here to watch historical crash test footage.