Concepts and Prototypes : BL Safety Research Vehicles (1968-1977)

Safety first: A close look at the Safety Research Vehicles (SRVs) produced by British Leyland in the 1970s reveals some very prescient ideas. 

There were, of course, a few blind alleys, too.

Following Ralph Nader’s 1965 report Unsafe At Any Speed, which highlighted the poor handling and/or crash-resistance of numerous cars sold in the US, the race was on by the car manufacturers to prove that they took the safety issue seriously, despite the old automotive adage that ‘safety doesn’t sell’.

Like all other companies wishing to maintain a presence in the US market, BLMC had already been forced to react to the pending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards legislation (introduced in January 1968 almost as a direct result of Nader’s report) by developing revised versions of the Austin 1300 and MGB with enhanced safety features.

However, by the early 1970s, the company had embarked on a programme to explore the future of car safety technology, leading to the development of the Safety Systems Vehicle (SSV1) in 1972. Two years later, in collaboration with the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, a further five prototypes were developed under the Safety Research Vehicle (SRV) project.

SSV1: MGB-based safety car

The SSV1 was prepared by the developement team at Abingdon in 1972 to demonstrate that even small cars were capable of being modfied for optimum safety. This MGB GT-based car featured a wealth of innovative features, including airbags (which worked in combination with passive seat-belts), anti-lock brakes, self-levelling suspension, impact-absorbing side-panels and a rather curious roof-mounted rearview mirror which afforded the driver a 120-degree field of vision.

Mounting the thick rubber bumpers low down brought two advantages: firstly, if the car ran into the side of another, the point of impact would more likely be in the sill area rather the more vulnerable doors; and, secondly, were the car to hit a pedestrian, the low point of impact would tend to result in the unfortunate soul being lifted onto the bonnet rather than thrown forward into the car’s path. Pedestrian safety was to become a persistent feature of Leyland’s future safety prototypes.

The car was also equipped with a novel system designed to prevent tired, inebriated or otherwise incapacitated drivers from taking the wheel. Do you remember the electronic game called Simon, where players had to replicate a sequence of coloured lights by pressing buttons in the correct order? Well, that was precisely what the SSV1 driver would have to do in order to start the car.

Get the (randomly-generated) sequence wrong three times in a row, and he would have to wait an hour before being allowed to try again. While designed primarily as a safety device, this feature also doubled as pretty effective immobiliser.

The car was presented at the third conference of the America’s National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in Washington DC in 1972, but none of its innovations were ever to see the light of day on any production MG to leave the Abingdon works.

SRV1: Morris Marina improvements

The first of the five SRV prototypes prepared in 1974 was based on the two-door Morris Marina. External alterations included a deformable front-end and impact-absorbing bumpers, while the interior featured font and rear head restraints and a padded barrier built into the centre of the rear seat.

This was presumably designed to prevent its occupants knocking each other out in the event of an accident. This car was also referred to as the ‘ESV Marina Phase 1’, ESV standing for ‘Experimental Safety Vehicle’.

SRV2: More Marina upgrades

The Marina-based SRV2 featured many innovative ideas with the emphasis on minimizing the consequences of frontal impacts. It was claimed that the car was capable of safely absorbing the energy of an impact at speeds up to 40mph.

Its low nose featuring retractable headlamps was designed to minimise the injuries incurred by pedestrians. The company was also keen to point out that the lessons learnt with this car were benefiting the design of its production cars, in particular the Princess, and looking at the carefully staged photograph below, one has to accept that the similarities in frontal profile are undeniable.

Of course, by 1974, the shape of the Princess had long been signed-off, so a cynic would conclude that the SRV2’s front had, in fact, been deliberately styled in order to mimic the new car’s outline.

ADO71: Safety interior proposal

A lot of thought was put into the interiors and how safe they would be. This interior design sketch by Vic Hammond shows how the seatbelt warning system would be integrated.

SRV3: Back to the future

The third SRV prototype was based on the Morris 1800 (ADO17) and, like the other cars in the series, it featured heavily-modified frontal styling. However, the main innovation on SRV3 related to research into side impact resistance.

To this end, it featured ‘dove-tail’ catches along the door-bottoms to prevent intrusion into the passenger compartment, and anti-collapse struts and ‘proximity pads’ to reinforce the location of the doors within their apertures.

SRV4: Minimising risk

SRV4 was based on the Mini Clubman, but featured an extended wheelbase to afford a greater frontal crumple zone. Again, the front of the car was also designed to be pedestrian-friendly, being both softer and smoother than that of the standard car.

Other refinements included larger-diameter wheels with run-flat Dunlop Denovo tyres, strengthened door sills and recessed door handles. The safety of the car’s occupants was catered for with copious padding.

SRV5: Scooping up ideas

The final SRV car was based on the Austin/Morris 1300, perhaps an odd choice in view of how close the car was to the end of its production run at the time. It was, nevertheless, the most adventurous of the SRV prototypes, featuring a spring-loaded (and rather thinly-padded) pedestrian-catching cage which was activated in the event of an impact.

Thus, it would be raised from its dormant position atop the front bumper in order to prevent the accident victim from sliding down into the path of the car’s wheels. Well, that was the theory, anyway. This unique feature is amply demonstrated in the above photograph, which also shows the car’s steeply drooping nose to good effect.

Here the car can be seen awaiting restoration at the premises of ADO16-specialists, RPM Workshops in Chesterfield. (Picture supplied by Michael Turner)
Here the car can be seen awaiting restoration at the premises of ADO16-specialists, RPM Workshops in Chesterfield back in 2005 – it’s now in the British Motor Museum at Gaydon. (Picture supplied by Michael Turner)

Declan Berridge


  1. I like the alloys on the SRV2…but talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous!
    That pedestrian cage seems like something Top Gear would come up with. Looking at the picture of it in action, I reckon the grooves for it would be a bit of a rust trap as well. Good idea on paper, but probably a bit of a pain in the arse in practice.

    Does anyone know what become of of the SRV5? Is it on display anywhere?

  2. Cues from SRVs 1&2 could have been used to make a low cost update of the Marina.

    ADO17 was a natural choice for SRV3 due to its torsional rigidity.

    There are hints of the Citroen Dyane in SRV4

  3. Interesting article… SRV 2 looks half decent apart from the huge fender (but of course good looks were not the main object of this exercise.) I dont care for SRV4 – the original Clubman was nicer me-thinks.

  4. Something I’ve never noticed before but on the SS1 MGB and the SRV Marina the door frames do not seem right for the apertures!? Is the Chrome frame standing proud of the doors? It gives the impression the wrong doors are fitted!

  5. I remember seeing the SRV5 being demonstrated on the telly. Was it Tomorrows World ? Or Nationwide ?? Oh, Sue Lawley, where are you now ?

  6. The low fronts of SRV2 and SRV5 are now effectively banned due to pedestrian safety!

    They couldn’t put out a design like the XM again.

    Though Volvo have gotten around it by spring loading their bonnet to pop up.

  7. It must of been the SRV2 that I remember seeing at a Motor Show in my youth many many years ago. The interior was covered in the lovely flock type material that used to be on the Rover SD1 door cards and everything was heavily padded.

    Funny how this car suddenly popped into my head last night. I know I took photos of it, but alas I cant find them anywhere!

  8. Re 6: The doors on the SRV2 were modified to accommodate the passive seat belt system. That’s why they look ‘funny’.

    As an apprentice,I drove the SRV2 on a good number of occasions, around the PSF plant at Cowley.

  9. Just realised, they could have put a TR7 nose on the Marina, whacked in the 6 cyl version of the E series and sold it as a Riley. Replace that 6 with a Rover V8 and there’s your Wolsely. Badge engineering made easy.

  10. Those door slip latches are a brilliant idea, it’s a shame no one uses them. I’ve seen a couple of bad accidents where they’d have been a good feature.
    Now I’m wondering whether it’s possible to retrofit them. Have to see how much space there is.
    If you could tie them into the side member of the monocoque the door wouldn’t be going anywhere fast.

  11. Interesting that the Mini Clubman featured a recessed petrol cap with flap. Good for safety in the event of a rollover and anti-thief too. I wonder what year it was made and why this particular change was never implemented. Surely it would have been simple to do – especially since BMW made a load of other changes in ’96. Strange.

  12. Interesting to see this retrospective on the ESV programme. One of the key engineers on the BL contribution was Jack Daniels, the guy who made Issigonis’s ideas work. It should perhaps be pointed out that the ‘pedestrian catcher’ ADO16 was built at the request of TRRL, and was really only intended as a ‘first approximation’ to see if the idea might work when tested with dummies. Had it been pursued, it would have been considerably refined !
    Regarding the sill/door interlock, BL did in fact follow up the basic idea but at much lower cost – if you look at the Metro (and 100 Series later) you will see that the deep sill and door base have a a ‘double step’ interlock profile which considerably increased the side impact strength without having to add any extra components or weight. The idea carried across to Maestro/Montego. The Rover SD1 originally had compression struts in the doors just below the waistline, not for side impact protection but to provide a load path down the side of the car to help preserve the integrity of the cabin under front or rear impact. This is why the earlier cars had little metal buttons welded inside the door shuts, called ‘proximity pads’ which were positioned so that they contacted quickly during the initial impact crush to link the struts together. When the car had been in production for a while, and the bodyshell construction standards had been fully proven, it was found in impact tests that the struts weren’t needed, and they were deleted.

  13. Arguably getting rid of the Marina’s lever arm dampers, leaf springs and chronic understeer might have done far more for the safety of its occupants than a padded dashboard.

  14. Safety interests tool a step forward in the era, Ralph Nader examined the VW air-cooled Beetle, his written account sent VW scurrying back to the workshop to correct the problems of the Beetle, including the petrol tank filler inside the car, the tank filler would leak in a frontal accident, the flat windsceen changed to a curved version, the flat screen too close to the driver, and the change to McPherson struts, to improve the wayward roadholding of the Beetle. Did Ford or Vauxhall have any safety programmes similar to BL?

  15. Volvo made the VESC (Volvo Experimental Safety Car) as a concept safety car in the early 1970s, some of the technology was incorporated in the 240 series.

  16. Besides Jack Daniels, the key safety engineers involved were Gill Jones, Len Salkeld, David Mason and Brian Teese. All were located in South Experimental.

  17. Looking at these again years after seeing this page, the question I ask is what is powering the ADO16 based SRV5? The bonnet is so low and the A series is not exactly a low slung engine. Did they slant it over or was it something else under the bonnet that could fit under there?

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