As Congress and the auto industry wrestle with another round of tougher safety standards, nothing on the menu comes close to setting up the federal government's own vehicle design business. Yet that's exactly what Congress did in 1966.
With the furor from Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed still fresh, the original act creating the Department of Transportation also ordered it to build its own experimental vehicles for testing new safety devices, and swap notes with 13 other countries. The young faces at the new agency farmed out the first set to three companies, including General Motors.
The result: Three swamp-monster sedans of more than 5000 pounds apiece that did double-duty as safe transportation and appetite suppressants. The October 1972 issue of Popular Mechanics laid out the details: Roof-mounted periscopes; bumpers wide enough to haul Dom Deluise; and in the GM model, a rear-seat "credenza," so back-seat passengers would be protected in crashes by smacking into a vinyl-covered bosom.
Unsatisfied with the vault-on-wheels solution, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration changed course. It held a bake-off in 1975 for what a safe car in 1985 might look like. Ford and Volkswagen offered ideas, but NHTSA awarded what would become a $30 million contract to two independent engineering firms, Calspan and Minicars.
While Calspan modified French-built Simcas donated by Chrysler, Minicars designed a new model from scratch, aiming to build a four-passenger small car that could protect all its occupants in a 50-mph crash from either the front or side while burning as little fuel as possible. The result looked like an AMC Pacer worked over by the set designers of Battlestar Galactica.