When discussing companies that were pioneers in automobile safety, Fiat likely isn't among the first names you'll think about. Yet half a century ago, the Italian manufacturer took part in an ambitious international research program aimed at developing safer cars for the future, and here's its story.
The ESV program
The late 1960s and early 70s saw the first cracks appearing in the western world's love affair with the personal automobile: the point the unintended consequences of mass motorization like air pollution, congestion, and road accident fatalities had simply gotten too severe to ignore.
The ESV, or Experimental Safety Vehicle program, originated in 1970 and was implemented through bilateral agreements between the government of the United States and those of several other countries, including Italy.
The aim was to fund the research and development of advanced technology in the field of automotive safety, with the participating countries agreeing to meet annually to share information on their respective progress.
Fiat's ESV project
The lion's share of effort and investment into the program was, rather predictably, made by the American titans Ford and General Motors.
However, Italy's Fiat arrived at the 1973 international technical conference on ESVs, held in the Japanese city of Kyoto, having done some serious homework.
About 4.5 Billion Italian Lire, roughly equivalent to 35 Million Euros today, went into the design, construction, and subsequent destruction in various crash tests of 47 examples of three innovative vehicle designs, each named after its target weight in pounds but none capable of winning a beauty contest.
The ESV 1500
The smallest and perhaps the cutest of the three cars was the ESV 1500, based on Fiat's entry-level model, the rear-engined 126.
This was also the first of Fiat's ESV prototypes to be developed, as the first iteration of the ESV 1500 had already been shown at the previous year's conference in 1972.
Numerous improvements had been made following the first round of crash tests, but none to its exterior appearance, which wouldn't look out of place in a children's cartoon.
The protective bars in the doors, the reinforcements in the front and rear of the body, and the sturdy structure created to protect the passenger compartment in the event of a rollover added a whopping 50% to the base car's weight and 43% to its production costs.
The ESV 2000
The mid-sized ESV prototype was a hatchback based on the Fiat 128's engine and running gear, save from a redesigned fuel tank and cooling system.
Even though it may not seem like it at first glance, Fiat's stylists were also involved in creating the ESV 2000, in a genuine yet ultimately fruitless effort to balance safety objectives and aesthetics.
Much like the smaller 1500 prototype, the ESV 2000 was considerably larger than the production car it was based on: 10% in length, 6% in width, and 4% in height, respectively.
Moreover, the extensive structural reinforcement needed to withstand front and rear-end collisions at 50 Mph, rollover protection, plus a side impact with a pole at 15 Mph saw the car's weight balloon by 45% compared to the 128 and above the 2000 pounds target.
Tires and springs were therefore beefed up to cope, and the engine's displacement was enlarged from 1100 to 1300cc to at least partially restore performance.
The ESV 2500
The largest and heaviest of Fiat's ESV prototypes was based on the rear-wheel drive powertrain of the Fiat 124 sedan.
However, like the smaller prototype, suspensions and tires were beefed up to cope with the around 40% increase in the vehicle's weight. The standard 1200cc engine from the 124 was enlarged to 1450cc, and the radiator and fuel tank were redesigned.
The huge bumpers, divided into two parts, could absorb hits up to 10 Mph but resulted in a lengthening of the body by around 8%.
Yet, the ESV 2500 probably is the best looking of the trio, sporting a decidedly more modern and rounded look than the boxy 124 it was based on. Curiously enough, given the car's three-box shape, it has a tailgate rather than a conventional trunk lid.
Fiat's technical presentation from 1973 ends on a rather somber tone, highlighting the heavy penalties in cost, size, and weight needed to achieve the ESV program's targets, especially concerning the small cars then prevalent in the Italian market.
Remarkably, given the whole point of these cars' existence was to be destroyed, one example for each of Fiat's ESV prototypes survives to this day, serving as a powerful reminder of the enormous strides made in automobile engineering made over the last fifty years.