A tribute to Béla Barényi.

Béla Barényi, the lifesaver.

The Mercedes-Benz constructor dedicated his inventor life to safety.
  • Béla Barényi, the lifesaver.

  • From composition to construction.

    An elegantly dressed gentleman leaned over a desk whistling a rousing tune. His secretary pondered as she served the coffee. “La Traviata, Herr Barényi,” she said as she placed the sugar bowl on the desk. Opera-guessing was one of the morning creative rituals in the office. “Yes, correct!” he smiled contentedly, striding around the desk to sit down on his chair.

    His pen and pad of paper were lying ready. The man was one of the most exceptional inventors of the 20th century. More than 2500 patents originated from him. Some of them have saved thousands of lives and still set the automotive standard today.

    Béla Barényi was admired by his peers for both his light-hearted manner and his genius as an inventor.

    Up at the top, down at the bottom and always in thethick of things.

    Behind the colourful character of this exceptional inventor was an equally colourful life history. On 1st March 1907, Béla Viktor Karl Barényi was born in Hirtenberg near Vienna. It was an era in which horse-drawn carriages dominated the streets and automobiles were viewed with general suspicion. And above all the latter were unaffordable for most people. Béla, however, was born into one of the wealthiest Austrian families in Austria-Hungary – and so from an early age he was able to enjoy riding in a car: his family owned an Austro-Daimler, which he grew to love as a small boy. When the First World War broke out, little Béla’s fortunes changed. When he was only ten years old, his father was killed in action.

    Béla Barényi: a brilliant engineer and designer – with a colourful history.

    Little by little, the war and the ensuing Great Depression swallowed up all the family’s wealth. The financial disaster was so great that he even had to stop attending school for a time, because his widowed mother could no longer afford to pay his school fees.

    The instinct of a mastermind.

    However, Béla found ways and means to enrol as an engineering student at the Viennese Technical College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in 1924. The young student’s feel for future trends was astonishing: one of his first design projects was the front end of an automobile whereby the end piece of the body was a horizontal piece, bordered by two horizontal body ends. The horizontal piece as a predominant stylistic element was to be called the “New Look” a few years later – and to be integrated into many automobiles.


    In his student days he already thought about the “future people's car”. Sketches he made in 1924-25 prove that he was the intellectual father of the “people’s car” or “Volkswagen”. This would be of particular significance almost twenty years later.

    Career in a roundabout way.

    In 1926, Barényi graduated from the technical college in Vienna with excellent marks. It was also the year when Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (Daimler Motor Company, DMG) merged with Benz & Cie. The Great Depression followed a few years later. Bans on recruitment, bankruptcies and large-scale redundancies became the rule of the day – even for such a gifted designer. Up until the mid-1930s he had to survive on temporary posts as a draughtsman and from freelance work as the author of technical treatises. The fact that his ideas were often ahead of their time did not save him from being the victim of redundancy himself.

    As a young man, Barényi had to cope with many setbacks.

    It was not until almost a decade after graduating that he was offered his first steady job at the Gesellschaft für technischen Fortschritt (GETEFO, Society for Technical Progress) in Berlin and later for its French partner company, SOPROTEC, in Paris. It was there that he met his future wife, Maria Kilian.

    There is always a last time.

    In the time when he worked for GETEFO/SOPROTEC alone, he registered over 150 patents. But his days at GETEFO were numbered: at the beginning of 1939 he was once more out of a job. Desolated, he searched for a new position. That was when he recalled his childhood dream: the Austro-Daimler. He applied to Mercedes-Benz. And was turned down. Feeling he had nothing to lose, he tried his luck again. This time he was given the opportunity to prove his abilities to chairman Wilhelm Haspel in a one-to-one interview. Béla Barényi presented himself as the passionate perfectionist he was. He did not mince words, telling Haspel directly everything that was being done wrong in the design department. Haspel recognised the young man’s enormous potential: “Mr Barényi, you are fifteen to twenty years ahead of your time.

    Barényi with his staff conducting a crash test.

    You will be put under a bell jar in Sindelfingen. Everything you invent will go straight to the patent department.” Barényi never had to write a job application again.

    The crumple zone of the

    Courage for safety.

    The thing that Mercedes-Benz and the designer had in common was their passion for safety. That was back in the days when car manufacturers carefully avoided using the term:

    particularly in the post-war period, nobody wanted to be reminded about the dangers of driving. The topic was viewed as a sales killer right up to the 1970s. Béla Barényi, however, did not let this put him off.

    The crumple zone patent.

    Transport visionary.

    His biggest breakthrough came in 1951 when he registered patent DBP 854.157 – commonly known as the “crumple zone”. Béla Barényi was the first to recognise – years before, in fact – that kinetic energy should be dissipated by deformation so as not to harm the occupants of the vehicle.

    The first Mercedes-Benz vehicle with bodywork developed according to this patent was the 1959 W111 series – better known as the “Tailfin Mercedes”. All in all, this discovery was to revolutionise the entire automotive industry.

    Barényi was as modest as he was brilliant.

    Father of the Volkswagen.

    Béla Barényi was an inventor through and through. The expression 'time to go home’ only meant one thing for him: that he had to change locations to carry on experimenting. Numerous patents and designs, from the Ponton body to the Pagoda roof, from the “disappearing windscreen wiper” to the deformable steering column, can all be attributed to him.

    In a legal battle which lasted three years, he finally won his claim that the drafts he had made as a student of the “future people’s car” be recognised as the 'intellectual parent' of the Volkswagen.

    Pagoda premiere: Béla Barényi (right) and Paul Bracq in Geneva in 1963 before the first public unveiling of the 230 SL.

    Acclaimed premiere in 1963 in Geneva.

    At the Geneva Motor Show in March 1963, the 230 SL caused quite a stir, delivering an intoxicating blend of power, elegance, comfort, superb performance and outstanding driving safety. Safety is always a high priority at Mercedes-Benz. The vehicle body, incorporating a rigid passenger cell and crumple zones at the front and rear, follows the concept created by Béla Barényi, who is seen by many as the “father of passive safety”.

    In 1966, Barényi together with Mercedes-Benz’s member of the Board of Management for development, Hans Scherenberg, defines the division of safety into both active and passive safety. This separation still applies to the entire automotive industry to this day. In concrete terms, it sees safety broken down into active safety which concerns driving aspects and passive safety which deals with vehicle occupants and pedestrian protection measures.

    Honour to whom honour is due.

    In 1972 Barényi retired – but he was never forgotten: the Deutsches Museum in Munich organised a Béla Barényi exhibition and in Europe two roads were named after him. He became Honorary Member of the Deutsche Aktionsgemeinschaft Bildung-Erfindungen-Innovationen (the German Action Group for Education, Inventions and Innovations), was awarded a professorship by the Federal President of Austria, and the city of Baden endowed him with the “Cultural Award” for outstanding achievement in the field of science – to name but a few of the honours which were bestowed on him. In the 1990s, when the subject of safety became a central theme in advertising, there could be only one possible protagonist for the Mercedes-Benz commercials: Béla Barényi.

    In 1994, Béla Barényi received a place in the

    And during his lifetime, in 1994, he was received into the “Automotive Hall of Fame” in Detroit and welcomed into the circle of outstanding inventors and innovators. He died in Böblingen near Stuttgart in 1997. Today people are honoured in his name for outstanding achievements in the field of traffic and automotive transport: the Béla Barényi Prize has been awarded in Vienna since 2005.