By on June 29, 2014

One of the Best & Brightest recently asked me to write about the history of automotive safety equipment. Today’s consumers ask how many airbags a car offers as standard equipment but in the 1970s the idea had a difficult time getting accepted, by both automakers and consumers.

The first modern patent on an inflatable safety device to protect people in car accidents was granted in 1952 to a retired industrial designer named John Hetrick, who called it a “safety cushion”. Inspired by a wartime incident involving compressed air and a torpedo he was repairing, Hetrick’s design used a tank of compressed air and inflatable bags located in the steering wheel, the glove box and the middle of the dash as well as in the front seat backs for rear passengers. The system was actuated by a spring loaded weight that was supposed to sense rapid deceleration and then open a valve, releasing the compressed air. Hetrick unsuccessfully tried to get interest from the domestic automakers and because he didn’t have money to develop the idea, it was stillborn. In the late 1950s, when Ford and General Motors both started working on inflatable safety restraints, they determined that any system that worked would have to have a much more sensitive collision sensor and a much faster inflation system. For an airbag to work, it must inflate in the forty milliseconds between the initial collision and the secondary impact of the passengers hitting the dashboard etc.


Around the same time that Hetrick was working on his safety cushion, German inventor Walter Linderer received a German patent for a similar inflatable cushion system, triggered by the driver or activated by by an impacted bumper.

Who it was that finally made airbags practicable were two men, Allen Breed, a former RCA engineer and chemist John Pietz. Breed’s contribution was twofold. Around 1967 he developed a reliable collision sensor that cost only $5 to manufacture. Then he was granted a patent on an airbag using two layers of fabric that were folded to allow the inflating gas to escape, absorbing even more energy and reducing the impact of the passengers on the airbag. Breed marketed his system to the automakers, eventually making a deal with Chrysler. Pietz was working as a chemist for Talley Defense Systems when they were approached by General Motors looking for something that could be used to inflate the restraints quicker than compressed air. In 1968, Pietz started working with sodium azide, which when combined with a metallic oxide would release nitrogen gas explosively. It worked satisfactorily, and didn’t pose any practical danger to drivers and passengers but Pietz had a hard time getting the auto industry to accept it because sodium azide is toxic when ingested in large amounts. For a long time, though, it was the only practical solution. Since then, nitroguanidine has been substituted as a propellant.

By then, Ford had approached automotive supplier Eaton, Yale, and Towne, Inc. about working on an airbag system. Eaton executive William Carey had sold the company on doing airbag research in the mid-1960s in order to develop a safety system to protect children on school buses. He was initially budgeted $100,000 for the project, which was assigned to scientist Charles Simon. Carey’s team looks at things as diverse as diverse as popping popcorn and how party balloons were inflated. They even experimented with blasting caps supplied by a Detroit area demolition company, though the parts to that experimental bag were never all found. In time the team would grow to 100 people, funded with $35 million from Eaton and another $100 million from all three domestic and several overseas automakers.

They developed what was eventually marketed as Eaton’s “Auto-Ceptor” restraints. A sensor was mounted on the firewall which activated a detonator that released pressurized nitrogen into urethane coated nylon bags. Everything worked quickly enough to be practical but the project was not an immediate success. In 1969, Ford sent a team of engineers to Washington D.C. to demonstrate the prototype to the Dept. of Transportaion but the system failed to activate when the button was pushed. Henry Ford II was so angry when he heard about the failed demo that he temporarily cancelled the program, saying he didn’t want any “Rube Goldberg device” in “his” cars.

Eaton carried on with the research and it was decided by Ford to proceed with offering the safety system on its full-sized Ford and Mercury sedans. However, FoMoCo’s chief body engineer, Stuart Frey, sent Eaton back to the drawing board to resolve a number of issues that he felt had to be addressed before airbags went into production cars. To begin with, there were reliability and performance issues with the components. Of even greater concern was child safety. As then designed, the airbags were giving child-sized crash test dummies what would have been fatal blows. The bags were also not effective for angled crashes and Ford discovered that the deployment of airbags often resulted in broken or blown out windshields.


Years later, in the mid-1990s, when concerns over the deaths of 52 children and petite women caused by airbags were prompting regulators to consider warning stickers or even eliminating mandated airbags, Carey, by then retired, mounted his own personal public relations campaign to defend Eaton’s invention. He said that their earliest research showed that unbelted or out of position children could be at risk, something they didn’t hide from automakers or regulators. Carey would eventually be honored by the Automotive Hall of Fame for his team’s development of the first practical airbags.

Much of that development took place at a small test site just south of Eaton’s Southfield, Michigan research center. I found out about it from my brother, who worked as a technician for the company many years ago. He told me that they had a big concrete barrier, mounted on it’s own reinforced foundation that was buried many feet into the ground, and that occasionally they’d hire professional drivers to crash into the barriers to prove their airbags’ effectiveness. That sounded a bit urban legendish, but I learned to trust my big brother a long time ago.

Since the location is just 3 or 4 miles from my house I took the Toyota Tundra Platinum Crew Max I was reviewing for the short drive over there. I found a parking lot with Eaton trucks and my first impression was that the crash facility had been disassembled. There was a concrete pad, but no barrier. Then as I was leaving, I noticed a driveway at the back of the parking lot. My original thought was that it was a private driveway, but as I drove down the ~500 foot straightaway, I spotted the large concrete barrier at the far end of the drive, and I noticed that I was driving directly over two steel tracks embedded in a concrete strip that runs down the length of the otherwise asphalt driveway.

When I got near the barrier and parked the truck, I noticed a second barrier off to the side that was apparently used for testing impacts into poles and the like. The concrete in that second barrier is shaped like a triangle so perhaps it was also used to test offset and angled crashes as Ford body engineer Stuart Frey suggested. Assorted supplemental weights were piled on the main barrier, which I’d estimate was abut 16 feet wide, 4 feet deep and about 4 feet tall, made of reinforced concrete. My guess is that the supplemental weights were used to alter the weight of test sleds. The concrete pad upon which the barrier block stands has some wide fractures, perhaps from all the impacts.

On the cinderblock wall behind the barrier were some no-longer-used electrical utility boxes, with signs of other electrical equipment being formerly located along the path of the track. It’s quite silent and peaceful there now, quite a contrast, I’m sure, to the violent collisions that took place time and again in that location more than four decades ago. In time perhaps the vegetation will encroach on the asphalt track. Some plants are already starting to grow up through the rack at the start of the embedded guides.

I took a few photographs and just for grins I shot some video from the truck as it approached the barrier. Then I went home and sent my brother, who now lives in Jerusalem, an email thanking him for such a cool tip. I’m still not sure about the story about the race drivers driving cars into the barrier. The presence of guide tracks and a small hole through the barrier lead me to believe they used sleds and cables, as are still used in crash test facilities today. Human drivers aren’t very good at uniform speeds and reproducible results. Also, as mentioned before, crash test dummies were already in use when Eaton was working on their airbags.

Click on the settings icon to watch in 2D or your choice of 3D formats. Sorry for the shaky camera work, I wasn’t expecting to shoot video and left my steadycam gizmo at home.

While Carey and Simon may have developed the first practical airbags and can be given credit for saving many lives, their employer didn’t benefit much from the way that the industry and consumers have embraced the technology. Eaton stopped selling airbags in 1975, not being able to justify development costs for the then minimal market demand.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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39 Comments on “Automotive Archaeology: Where Eaton Crash Tested the First Practical Airbags...”

  • avatar

    Excellent article! Who would have imagined such history was made so close to home, literally and figuratively? I may have thought perhaps Daimler-Benz or Volvo had been behind the original technology, but it turns out it was a purely American invention. Thanks for the in depth piece.

  • avatar

    I recall the national struggle over seat belts early 60’s.
    Wasn’t a slam dunk.

    • 0 avatar

      Never took with some older folks either, my grandmother patently refused to wear them well into the 2000s.

      • 0 avatar

        My Grandmother only started wearing seat belts when it became illegal not to. My Grandfather, on the other hand, was a very early adopter after witnessing a relatively low speed head-on collision in the ’60s were an unbelted person flew through a windshield and died almost at his feet.

  • avatar
    StanThe Man

    Archive this, how about crash avoidance technology that STOPS people from making risky and or deadly left hand turns across on coming traffic?

    • 0 avatar

      Sounds like the googlecar. Probably already safer than the typical Maryland/DC/Virginia driver.

    • 0 avatar

      The next generation active safety systems will have LTAP (or Left Turn Across Path) support, coming in the 2016-2017 timeframe. This will stop the vehicle from turning across the path of oncoming cars, it will also detect if someone is crossing in front of you.

  • avatar

    Oh fedora! At the genesis of this device Pop’s Hillman Minx sat in the middle lane at 50 mph cause there was no need to go any faster. Front belts were not worn and there were none in the back. Where I inhaled 2nd hand smoke and got fed sugar-rich glacier mints.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    This has a slight Chernobyl-like quality. Not because of a disaster, but of the vegetation taking over what once was a bustling area.

  • avatar

    Thanks Government safety regulations for gifting us this!

    O wait.

    • 0 avatar

      “This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock, powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly, regulated by the US Department of Energy.
      I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility.
      After that, I turned the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
      I watched this while eating my breakfast of US Department of Agriculture-inspected food which had been determined as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.
      At the appropriate time (as kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the US Naval Observatory) I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved car and set out to work on the roads built by the local, state, and federal Departments of Transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of a quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve bank.
      On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the US Postal Service.
      After spending another day not being maimed or killed at work thanks to the workplace regulations imposed by the Departmental of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, I drive back to my house which has not burned down thanks to to the state and local building codes and the fire marshal’s inspection, and it has not been plundered of all its valuables thanks to the local police department.
      I then log onto the Internet, which was developed by the US Department of Defense, and post on the free public access website The Truth About Cars about how safety regulations are bad because the government can’t do anything right.”

      I realize this is an oversimplification of things. But sometimes some things need to be oversimplified.

      • 0 avatar
        Big Al from Oz

        You forgot to add.

        “I thank them for these things. As without them I might not be here today enjoying the quality content of TTAC”.

        I bet you support Ben Franklin. Look at the work he started out doing. This is just an extension of what your great fore fathers started.

      • 0 avatar



      • 0 avatar

        “Apart from that, what else have the Romans done for us?”
        The JPF or was it the PFJ or the PPF?

      • 0 avatar

        This morning, I awoke to a combination of my internal alarm clock, a rooster, and my cat telling me that it was breakfast time.

        I then had a breakfast of eggs that we grow, bacon from a hog we had slaughtered (By a neighbor), and sausage from the same pig. I did use juice from the market approved by the USDA. I did watch the farm report on the TV.

        I then drove my truck across an unmaintained road (Our paved backroads are actually worse than the gravel/dirt roads). My truck was approved at some point by the NHTSA. I’ve “modified” it, though, so most of their standards don’t really apply fully.

        I then hopped into my White tractor, and listened to the radio while spraying. I did consume fuel from foreign sources. Because, you know, there’s some rare type of prairie dog or something in Alaska or North Dakota,…

        I likely violated at least a dozen OSHA safety guidelines. I lived. I likely was in violation of EPA guidelines for spraying. The guidelines are way too complex.

        I read a letter about a proposal to close our local post office.

        I then went back to my house, and drank well water. Our pump is powered by a privately owned Electric Co-Op.

        Our house didn’t burn down, because of God’s will. It was built before the Great Depression, out of some likely flammable materials.

        I slept safely, knowing we would be fine. We have no valuables, and have a loaded gun just in case. We could be halfway to the Montana state line by the time the police could respond.

        I like my life a lot more than your in town life.


        All in all, I agree that we need government agencies. I’ve worked with many government employees. The corrupt ones that represent maybe 5% of all government positions need to go.

        I’m thankful to the other 95%.

        • 0 avatar

          The thing is, I’ve done about 5 out of every 6th thing you mentioned just this weekend, only with a John Deere. We didn’t spray, but we did replant where we lost a field to hail.

          Our house is also a pre-Depression build, probably incredibly flammable, but hard to do so in practice because bricks and railroad ties are kinda tough to burn through.
          And I like well water, as long as it doesn’t taste like sulfur.

          Plus what I said before was just a copypasta that I adapted slightly for TTAC. There are plenty of things that I don’t feel the government can help by being a part of, but anyone who immediately writes off all government regulations as inherently evil is guilty of not understanding the big picture.

          • 0 avatar

            Bingo. We’re a farm family, and I do computer recycling on the side. With the recycling, the DEQ/EPA laes are miserable.

            The man at the DEQ basically said that even they couldn’t understand the laws.

            Some of the government programs are needed (Road building, Border Security (It’s on my wish list),…)

            My neighbor is a postmaster. She helps the nation, as I hope I am doing.

            As for the Copy and Paste- I thought I read something like that before ;-)

            I think the people that say “No government in anything” aren’t thinking too clearly.

            But, give an inch, and they’ll want a mile.

        • 0 avatar

          I like it.

    • 0 avatar

      What’s wrong with airbags or people surviving crashes?

      • 0 avatar

        I just imagine some people, in that millisecond between going through the windshield and colliding with an oak tree at 65 MPH, thinking “yeah, take THAT, gubmint!”

        I’ve worked with people who make it a point to say “I told you so” every time a news story mentions someone dying in a car crash who was wearing their seatbelt. Not getting it through their impregnable skulls that some wrecks are so severe that they can’t be survived no matter what.

        What they don’t get is that the majority of the time that someone survived, well, it really doesn’t make the news when nobody dies, does it?

      • 0 avatar

        I prefer my vehicle without them, though I am an exception as I use mine for offroading and if I hit a tree or anything happens, I don’t have to worry about my car being “totaled” according to state law. Of course, it’s so heavily modified probably none of the safety regulations in place when it was made still apply. However, it gets me to and from work every day without a single problem.

  • avatar

    My half-brother was involved in providing high-speed motion picture cameras to a Calspan research facility in Buffalo NY in the early 1960’s. As a result of his exposure to the new technology of seat belt, we became early adaptors. Our 1961 Olds F-85 wagon (aluminum V8!) had front seat lap belts. This didn’t stop us kids in the back from being unbelted and un-car-seated. I sat on top of my suitcase.

  • avatar

    Safety has improved tremendously, even in the last ten years.

    Ten years ago, my booster seat was a plastic cushion. Our MPV had no side airbags, and I was out of it by four feet tall. Today, lots of cars have side airbags, kids stay in seats until they’re 4’7″, and the seats for big kids are a lot more protective and aerodynamic. I was riding in the front seat when I was 4’7″.

    All the MPV had was being rear-ended a few times (without me in there), so I can’t speak for how safe the booster seats were. The 2003 MPV has a “Poor” side crash test result, so even if the seats were good, oh no…

    • 0 avatar

      I rode in the back seat of our ’98 Ford SuperCab until I was 12, if only to satisfy the little warning sign on the back of the sun visor.
      I didn’t see the actual crash test video of the 97-03 Fords until a few years ago. I probably should have just stayed in the back seat and hoped the front occupants took the brunt of the blow…

      I also don’t recall ever sitting in a booster seat after I turned 7 or so, mostly because in half of our vehicles there would have been no way to mount it. No anchor points in a ’79 Ford.

      • 0 avatar

        When I turned 12, I was 5’6″, and I could turn the airbag on in my parents’ Rogue.

        Those visors are messed up. But, good job for staying safe! Another vehicle I wouldn’t want to be shotgun in: the Chevy Venture/Pontiac Montana/Oldsmobile Silhouette.

    • 0 avatar

      My booster seat was my little brother. He squirmed some, but I could really see better.

    • 0 avatar

      I guess I’m dating myself. I remember riding in the small package storage space behind the rear seat of a 1963 VW Bug while my mother and father drove us around NYC. Every time I see a VW I’m amazed how small that space is and that I remember it (I was 3 to 4 years old the years we had the Bug but also have some memories of the Rambler it replaced). The Bug was replaced by the super safe 1964 VW micro-bus which took us all over NYS.

    • 0 avatar

      forty some years ago, my parents were safety conscious, so I had a child seat. it was a bendable white plastic thing with a steering wheel and a horn that beeped if you hit it just right. It did keep me in the seat instead of climbing up over the gearshift to get a better view….

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    A very good article.

    There are some things you take for granted and never look into.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    How did TTAC Staff miss this one?

  • avatar

    Nice article. I used to drive by there on my way to classes at Lawrence Tech many times and had no idea that air bag testing had occurred there.

    It’s amazing to think that Eaton would set up a crash wall that backed up to a neighborhood. No doubt that today the legal department would never allow this to happen, but the 70s were a different time.

  • avatar

    Ronnie, this is superb.

  • avatar

    Great story.

  • avatar


    I am most definitely a car guy, but strangely, I haven’t given much thought to air bags at all.

    I’m 29, and as a young boy, I remember air bags not being part of the equation in any of my family member’s cars until like the mid 90’s.

    The first instance I ever heard of any human interaction with the bizarre contraptions was with my stepbrother’s ridiculously sexy girlfriend. I was about 12 or 13 at the time, and I guess she was about 19 or 20.

    Any who, she was driving a Dodge Duster/Shadow something or another when she was in an accident. And the air bag, upon deployment, burned her face. The gasses in it, I believe.

    I’ve never had the opportunity of getting punched in the face by an airbag, and I am truly grateful for that (along with the fact that we don’t have to just hit the damned dash in case of accident).

    In fact, each car in my garage has next generation air bags, in which the passenger air bags are shut off should a passenger in the front seat weigh less than 60 pounds (give or take).

    Its all automotive voodoo to me, just like those damned GM RainSense wipers (do they even use those anymore?).

    Excellent article and thanks for the visuals.

    • 0 avatar
      schmitt trigger

      Many years ago, I had to attend defensive driving school. I wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time of a slight over the speed limit violation.

      The very first thing the instructor did, was to bring a young women whose face appeared to have been punched by a right hammer from Mike Tyson, when he was in his prime.

      She told us: “this is what happens when you are in a 35MPH accident without a seat belt, and the airbag explodes in your face”.

      Made my a believer, and I have buckled up ever since.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the story. This kind of connection to all things automotive is what keeps me coming here.

  • avatar

    Great story .

    I remember a (?) 1971 Chevy Impala coming into Covey’s Bondo Emporium , one of the very few first so equipped , the air bags had deployed so this one owner low mileage car was totaled out by the Ins. Co. .

    My Son got gobsmacked by passenger side air bag in a late 1990’s car the *one* time he rode shotgun on a late night canyon run . he got some scratches that bled right above his eyebrows and had to wash his hair several times to get the white airbag propellant powder out but was otherwise unhurt , the car was of course totaled as it went into the mountain downhill going about 90 MPH .

    I’m a geezer and have always worn seat belts as I have seen death up close and personal from a very early age .

    Those who don’t wear seat belts are simply STUPID .

    (an ex Farm Boy who understands how dangerous Farming machinery is

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