By on January 24, 2010

I know racing is not a TTAC thing per se. But safety, old photos, lady luck and the human face at work are, at least on Sunday. Going through some an old Car & Driver from 1963, I ran across some remarkable photographs of Julius Weitmann. Two are about those rare cases when drivers lived to remember their rude ejections from race cars, as Hans Hermann here looking warily at the BRM that bucked him at Avus in 1958 after a few flips.

Again at Avus the year later, Weinmann caught Richard van Falkenberg as he was exiting his flying Porsche. Falkenberg survived, but took the hint and retired from racing. Drivers initially actually resisted adding seat belts, because they thought their odds were better in being ejected than impaled or crumpled inside their cockpits. Add these two to that camp.

Modern racing helmets don’t give photographers a chance to capture the faces of drivers at speed. But in the fifties, that was a different story. Here’s a study in facial contrasts: the determination of Hermann Lang; the imperturbable Stirling Moss; and the relaxed disdain of Fangio (left to right).

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39 Comments on “Life Before Seatbelts: For The Lucky Few...”

  • avatar

    I never did understand how until the last few decades, the prevailing attitude was that safety is for cowards. I mean, sure, modern cars are over-nannied, but seat belts and body designs that prevent passenger compartments from caving in are great things that don’t detract from not-dying while operating a car.

  • avatar

    My 1965 E-type Jaguar came from the factory with mounts for 3-position seat belts. They are crude, without inertial reels, the adjustment buckles rub my shoulder, and the free tail of belt webbing occasionally gets caught in the wind and slaps my face, but I’m glad to have them.

    Of course the Owner’s Manual has a lengthy chapter specifically on tuning the car for racing as well.

    My daily driver’s Owner’s Manual is essentially a catalog of what I’m not supposed to do with, in, around, or in close proximity to the car, replete with iconic exclamation marks in triangles and images with red slashes through them, all as written by a vast team of high-priced attorneys.

    In many ways the pendulum has swung too far.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s swung completely too far, to the point that we’ve become a society of scared little children, desperately trying to avoid any kind of risk whatsoever.

      There’s no reason why intelligent design can’t make room for strong cars that’ll crumple in a controlled manner in a collision, basic three point belts, etc. But this obsession about multiple air bags just goes to show what cowards we’ve become.

    • 0 avatar

      Alright, so I’m a coward: I want to push the odds as far as possible in my favor against getting killed by the no.1 cause of death in my age group.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m a coward as well, and it’s not just dying that scares me, it’s also the potential for horrible maiming, blinding, and/or burning. I adore every airbag in my modern car – it’s there to help keep me safe. Given the increased power of modern engines, my car accelerates just as fast despite the greater weight, and handles just as well (or better) due to modern tires.

      Cars today are just flat better than cars of yesterday to drive. To look at, not so much.

    • 0 avatar

      “There’s no reason why intelligent design can’t make room for strong cars that’ll crumple in a controlled manner in a collision, basic three point belts, etc. But this obsession about multiple air bags just goes to show what cowards we’ve become.”

      Absolutely consistent use of three point belts might reduce the need for front air bags, but your belt will be of little help when you are t-boned by that doofus paying more attention to his cell phone than the traffic light that he’s blowing thru. Side air bags are the only thing that can keep your brain from ricochetting around the inside of your scull.

    • 0 avatar
      A is A

      I am a “coward” too. I try to maximize my chances of being around here till around 2050.

      When I bought my car my buying points were:

      #1 Safety.
      #2 Durabilty & Reliability.
      #3 Efficiency.

  • avatar

    Auto fatalities have been dropping dramatically over the past 20 years. Seat belts, airbags, ESP, tires and ABS all help. The US is below 1.27 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles.


    • 0 avatar

      Same study also points out a big decline in alcohol related fatalities over time. Getting the drunks off the road makes us a lot safer without adding to the cost and bulk of our cars. Also, the rate of fatalities per 100,000 licensed drivers is not declining as fast. If crashes per 100K miles are going down but each of us is driving more miles, a decline in the rate in mileage terms does not necessarily mean a drop in the risk to each of us per day in the way we live and drive.

      I’m comfortable using as a daily driver pretty much any car that has three point belts. If you look at photos of crashes from the 1940’s and 1950’s, you will usually see either a sprung door or a head-sized hole in the windshield. It was not wearing belts (and the iffy door latches pre-1956 especially) that killed lots of people then.

    • 0 avatar

      Three point belts are fine for front or rear collisions (unless you are in an older car where the steering column comes through your chest), but they don’t help much when your head slams into the doorpost from a side hit, or your pelvis is crushed because your car’s door doesn’t have reinforcement bars. Feel free to take that risk if you like, but I much prefer a modern car that takes some of the risk out of being run into by some idiot.

  • avatar

    Martini and Rossi’s logo hasn’t changed much over the years, nor has Cinzano’s…..

  • avatar

    I was at a SCCA race at some airport in western WA in about 1959 or so, and saw a Porsche Speedster flip upside down and slide quite a ways down the track in that position. As soon as it came to a stop, a group of guys were there to invert it onto its wheels. The driver was unharmed…he had to have been belted in or he’d have flown when it flipped.
    Those were the days when guys would drive their 300SL’s, Austin-Healeys, TR2’s etc. to the track, race them, and with luck drive them home again.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    My kids bullied me into using seatbelts. I feel funny if I’m not belted in. Most car fatalities are the result of being ejected

  • avatar

    Pre-war, the mechanic rode along too.

  • avatar

    This is why you wear your seatbelts.

  • avatar

    I guess I’m a coward as well. Crumple zones and seat belts may be enough for a low speed front or rear collision, but if I’m side swiped by a pickup truck, I’ll take my side air bag and head curtain over having the words “Dodge Ram” imprinted into the side of my head any day of the week, even if they make my car a little heavier.

    If you want to drive without airbags that’s fine, you should also be tough enough to waive the right to sue when you end up in the hospital.

    • 0 avatar

      If you want to drive without airbags that’s fine, you should also be tough enough to waive the right to sue when you end up in the hospital.

      Such a contract is verboten by our heroic saviors at the NHTSA.

      It’s also why today’s cars tend to have such crap visibility compared to cars from just 10 years ago.

  • avatar

    Count me with the cowards too then. Like many others here, I have a family (wife and child, and another on the way). Anything that increases the odds of me spending a full life with them is a plus. I like cars, I like my family better.

    Ever stop to think that the reason there’s fewer ‘real men’ around might be because they self selected themselves out of the gene pool ?

    • 0 avatar

      Anything that increases the odds of me spending a full life with them is a plus. I like cars, I like my family better.

      How about crash helmets for your wife and kids?
      Or install 5 point belts in every seat?

      They’re not mandated by our heroic government saviors (yet), but those measures would surely increase the safety level for your family. Or do you only believe in safety measures that have been mandated by the government?

      Don’t get me wrong. Seat belts with airbags are a wonderful safety advance. But there’s always a trade off between cost, convenience and safety. For many of us, the extra cost in multiple safety nannies like side airbags++, ESC, and extra roof strength are overshadowed by the infinitely small chance we’ll get t-boned or drive drunk off the road and flip.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, I like FMVSS (government-mandated) standards … this levels the playing field and ensures that whatever car you drive you can be reasonably sure that it is nearly as good as any other car you can drive (or at least achieves a bare minimum)… Without FMVSS and NCAP (and even the agitation of the corrupt subversives at IIHS) there would only be pure market forces to “encourage” OEM’s to do the right thing … and with these standards, there is still room to excel and benefit from market forces, but without the vehicles at the bottom end of the spectrum being spectacularly dangerous.

    • 0 avatar

      I tell people all the time that I wouldn’t be surprised to see people wearing driving helmets in 20 years. 20 years ago, people who wore bicycle helmets were laughed at, and now people who don’t are laughed at (even racers reissted until about 8 years ago). 10 years ago, people who wore ski helmets were laughed at. Now it’s well over 50%. Driving helmets wouldn’t be a bad idea. Especially if we ever have a major energy crisis and are forced to make cars significantly lighter/less safe.

    • 0 avatar
      A is A

      “How about crash helmets for your wife and kids?”

      Not a far-fetched idea. Please search “CASR Headband”. Using light helmets in normal cars is a good idea.

      BTW, I drove my previous (unairbagged) car wearing a sky helmet.

  • avatar

    Since the original topic was racing before seatbelts let me remind everyone that one of the overwhelming fear of drivers during this era was fire. The theory was it was better to be thrown clear or at the very least be easily removed from the car rather than be strapped into the inferno. Several drivers lost their lives because seat belt (and harness) usage became complusory before effective impact resistant fuel cells and other fire prevention equipment.

    Now moving ahead a few decades, I fall more into the “less is better, to a point” philosophy on safety. Give me three-point belts, good crush zones and a collapsible steering column and I’ll take care of the rest. I’ve worn seatbelts all my life (started in the early 70’s when I got too big for my car seat), take my vehicle maintenance and driving seriously thankyouverymuch.

    • 0 avatar

      Take your driving as seriously as you can, and it still makes no difference if you are impacted by the less serious on the road. And with so many distractions to driving your seriousness won’t protect you. I have changed my opinion about such things in the last few years. Makes sense to drive carefully, and improves your odds. But with higher traffic density too much of your destiny is in the other guy’s hands. So much distraction. Also even serious people will at times have lapses of concentration. Which means you are at risk that is out of your hands. Better, safer design is a good thing for passive safety. Safety that works even when mistakes, distractions or lapses occur.

  • avatar

    Fifty years ago, when Lang, Moss and Fangio were racing, a driver who stayed inside the car was likely to become the filling between sharp pieces of crumpled metal. That’s no longer the case. Modern street and racing cars are strong enough that you are better off tied down tightly inside.

  • avatar

    My dad had seatbelts dealer-installed in his new 1962 Beetle, an exceptionally rare thing to do at the time. His decision may have saved our family when the car was totalled in a head-on collision in 1970 (one of my first memories).

    Buckling up is the simplest, cheapest way to survive a crash. I agree with Jimal on the value of crush zones and a collapsible steering column.

    Airbags are helpful, but their new and repair expenses are quite high, and are a substantial adder to car prices. Not to be crass, but I’m not sure they are worth it. [I know, “every life saved…”]. But I would guess that the actual lives saved by airbags were of people who were not buckled in the first place.

    And of course, a huge issue: Don’t drink and drive. One of the best safety features can be your friend’s caution against you driving after drinking.

    • 0 avatar

      My dad was an MBA (no engineer), he rose to become a director of one of the largest insurance companies in the mid-west.

      Anytime anybody would start blathering about burning or drowning and use this as a rationale for not wearing seat-belts, he offered to show them some post-crash analysis photos of what unbelted passengers (often corpses) looked like. Some would take him up on the offer, many became safety belt wearers after that. The argument that what would submerge or burn would likely be dead after a devestating crash was very convincing.

      Dad, from the time he founded his young family, always had safety belts installed in the front and rear seats (even when these, esp. in the beginning, for the RR seat, were not a Regular Production Option or a Dealer Installed Acessory.) Since those days, our family of 6 has been involved in many kinds of accidents, some self-caused, others caused by the other party … until now, no one, except me (as a passenger in a no-alcohol, no-fooling-around, roll-over and I still have nightmares about the grass coming thru the window and rubbing my face and my arm … w/o the belt, I would likely have been a partial-ejection fatality) ended-up in the hospital (thanks to belts and wearing them.)

      As an engineer with several occupant restraint patents (in production), I can tell you, that your air bags are much more effective when you properly wear your belt and you are not an OPO (Out of Position Occupant) … without the belt, the pyrotechnic belt pretensioners and force limiters are totally unable to do anything to help you, and the steering column has to work very hard to absorb all that “1/2*m*v**2” … and if you rise up and bonk your head on the headliner, or windshield header, there is not much there to protect your head or your neck …

      Regarding airbags, people make the mistake of counting “lives saved” … if “injuries eliminated or amazingly reduced, days-work-lost due to injuries, closed-head injuries and permanent vegitative state comas reduced” are factored-in ((btw insurance live in fear of these last two CH- and PVS-injuries, because they demand 24-hour care, and the insurance companies (and their insureds) a fortune)) … a Cost-Benefit-Analysis would acquit the on-cost of airbags very well…

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not just lives saved, but knees, elbows, hands, feet, reduction in head injuries, reduction in internal organ injuries.

      Air bags are worth it because of the quality of your post-accident life. W/o them, you might be a survivor, but with permanent injuries. Accidents can be life changing.

      From time to time I consider using a classic car for a daily driver. Then I consider the possibility of getting hit and reject the classic car idea.

  • avatar

    Anyone else see an uncanny resemblance between Fangio and Jeff Daniels?

    In the first picture, is the driver sitting in the middle of the track?

    • 0 avatar

      I remember reading an interview with the photographer in an early-90s issue of Sports Car International. I recall him saying that Hermann was actually sliding along the track nearly as fast as his car!

  • avatar

    Ahh, ’twas a time when Men were Men. It was also a time where very often Men were Dead.

  • avatar
    Mark out West

    Hell, death and destruction was the reason people went to races back then. Nowadays, racing is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

  • avatar

    Good point Mark. Racing for me died when stock cars stopped being stock cars.

  • avatar

    I think safety advances in racing are a good thing. I don’t see race care drivers need to perish for the sake of their sport. Now if the various series out there could make it interesting, it would be a bonus.

    As for personal transportation, I think having to depress the brake before shifting out of park is when we crossed over from expanding safety to accomodating stupidity.

    • 0 avatar
      A is A

      “I think having to depress the brake before shifting out of park is when we crossed over from expanding safety to accomodating stupidity”

      Before Brake/transmission interlock systems were introduced kids left alone in a parked car died (or killed someone in the path of the car, often their parents trying to stop the car) as a result of shifting out of park.

      Vehicles without interlocks (for instance the older Plymouth/Chrysler Voyager) still claim dozens of lives every year.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    I’m happy to have as much safety equipment as is humanly possible, and you can call me a coward if you want to.

    I’m following the steps of my own father, who by his own decision, added seat belts to his new 1964 Rambler “back in the day” and who chose to try to keep himself, his wife and his children alive (including myself, obviously).

    One of the reasons he did this was because he had two major accidents in which he could easily have been killed in two years (in company cars), and was wearing seat belts each time. Nothing like having two cars on your forehead, having to have plastic surgery and having glass windshield shards coming out of the ole’ noggin 15 years later to keep your attention. (Of course, we’re talking pre-shoulder belt days here – and yes, once shoulder belts came into play, my dad used them religiously).

  • avatar

    Driving is dangerous enough WITH all the safety features. These days, when I buy a daily-driver, it must fall in the top 10% on ‘s ratings.

    However, in this country we seem to be overlooking the one area that has the biggest potential to save lives: stricter licensing standards (should be closer to getting a pilot’s license in difficulty) & more stringent driver’s training.

  • avatar

    Not to play the one-up game, but in an interesting anecdote, my father had a separate mount installed for a toddler harness in both of our vehicles when my brother and I were little. This was the early to mid-70’s, when people used infant seats, but there were no toddler seats or booster seats. So instead of using a lap belt, up around our tummies (which is somewhat better than being tossed around a vehicle cabin, but a great source of internal injuries), the younger of us wore this harness which was then attached to the seat belt mounts.

    Additionally, he had 3-point belts ordered for the front seats of the vehicles, a 1969 Ford Fairlane 500, and a 1972 VW Microbus.

    One interesting effect of having the harness was that it allowed us to have 8 people secured in the Microbus, handy for trips to visit family with guests.

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