Béla Barényi (1907 - 1997)

Mar 3, 2009
Registered in 1951, Barényi’s patent no. 854157 described “vehicles with a rigid passenger cell and front and rear crumple zones”. This innovation solved the key automotive problem concerning vehicle safety and brought about a paradigm shift in car design. Eight years later Daimler-Benz presented the W 111 series and in so doing unveiled the first vehicle to be consistently designed using this patent. This one invention alone would have been sufficient recompense for a career in design; Barényi, however, came up with no fewer than 2,500 innovations.
He was obliged to defend his inventive honour on many occasions, taking out a total of eleven lawsuits in his lifetime. It was a matter of particular pride to him that he won them all.
Many of his inventions were in the field of vehicle safety and are now a regular feature of our daily lives. These include, for example, the concave safety and multi-purpose roof, protective side moulding, safety steering wheel and rollover bar. But the invention of the century was the safety steering column. This two-part steering column, whose intermeshing ends were linked by a coupling member designed to deform instantly on impact, put an end to the era in which “cars were cages on wheels armed with spears”, as the Heidelbergaccident and emergency specialist Prof. Gögler once put it. The relevant patent was awarded in 1963 and was first implemented in the Mercedes-Benz
S-Class from the W 116 series in 1972.
Béla Barényi, a product of the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was born in Hirtenberg near Vienna on 1 March 1907. When his father was killed in the First World War, his mother moved with her three children to Vienna, where Béla attended the local state school. After a traineeship at Automobil- und Maschinenfabrik Fischl, Trenkler, Weiser & Co., where he was given the practical task of building a racing sled with safety steering wheel, he began studies at Vienna’s College of Technology in 1924. Here he developed various vehicle concepts, including one for the “people’s car” of the future, with front and rear wheel drive – a ‘Volkswagen’ with an air-cooled rear ‘boxer’ engine, comprising four or six horizontally-opposed cylinders, longitudinal crankshaft and transmission positioned in front of and engine behind the axle. This ‘Volkswagen’ concept of Barényi’s was first published in June 1934 in the Parisian automotive magazine Omnia in an article entitled “Faisons le point...” (“Let’s sum up...”). Largely as a result of this, he is considered alongside Hans Ledwinka to be the inventor of the ‘Volkswagen’ concept that would eventually be realised by Ferdinand Porsche. For his final graduation assignment, however, Barényi designed a six-cylinder petrol engine with an output of 50 hp (37 kW). He worked for Steyr-Werke, Austro-Fiat and Adler, before landing a job in 1934 with the Gesellschaft für technischen Fortschritt (GETEFO, Society for Technical Advancement) in Berlin. Here he was predominantly involved in chassis design, problems relating to vibration and noise insulation and the development of vehicle families using modular design methods, described at the time as ‘ cellular vehicles’.
With a helping hand from his former colleague Karl Wilfert, Barényi arrived at Daimler-Benz in 1939. He was appointed by the then Chairman of the Board of Management Haspel on the grounds that: “A company such as Daimler-Benz cannot live from hand to mouth. Herr Barényi, you will think 15 to 20 years ahead. Your work in Sindelfingen will be carried out in an ‘incubator’. Anything you invent will go straight to the patent department.” In what was otherwise the rather rough-edged environment of an industrial design department, he was therefore given quasi university status that allowed him to work undisturbed. He made the most of these circumstances. By 1955 Barényi had presented a design for a safe small car, which, in his idiosyncratic way, he named DVA (“Das vernünftige Auto” – the sensible car). He continued to work for Daimler-Benz in Sindelfingen until his retirement in 1972.
The automotive pioneer received many honours during his later years, including a place in the Gallery of Inventors at the German Patent Office in 1987, induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame, Dearborn, in 1994, and the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1995. Béla Barényi died on 30 May 1997 in Böblingen. In 2007, to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, a further honour was bestowed upon this ingenious designer, with his induction into the European Automotive Hall of Fame, Geneva.
In 1939, engineer Béla Barényi, pioneer of passive safety, joins Daimler-Benz AG. Portrait photo of Barényi from the 1950s.
Béla Barényi: the father of modern car safety was born 100 years ago
Béla Barényi: the father of modern car safety was born 100 years ago
Portrait of a young Béla Barényi, ca. 1925.
The award-winner: Béla Barényi received the Rudolf Diesel gold medal from the German Society of Inventors in 1967.
Initiator and promoter of passive safety: The highest award in the automotive world was bestowed upon Béla Barényi in September 1994 with his induction into the "Automotive Hall of Fame" in Dearborn, USA. The inventor of the crumple zone and holder of 2500 patents worked in the Daimler-Benz passenger car development department between 1939 and 1972.
A great inventor: Béla Barényi in his private archive.
The engineer: Béla Barényi talking with his employees after a successful crash test on the Daimler-Benz testing ground in Sindelfingen.
Béla Barényi (1907-1997)