Concepts and prototypes : Chrysler Alpine RSV (1974-1976)

Producing safety concepts was extremely fashionable during the 1970s – Calspan and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) produced the Chrysler Alpine RSV.

This was a very American take on how safe a European car could be.

Chrysler RSV: How to make an Alpine safer

Displayed at the 1976 London motor show, the RSV was displayed by Chrysler, but was produced by the Calspan corporation. Pronounced the "Car of the Show" by the British Committee for Road Safety, it featured such safety accoutrements as 8mph impact-absorbant bumpers and extra interior padding.
First shown at the 1976 London Motor Show, the RSV was displayed by Chrysler, but was produced by the Calspan corporation. Pronounced the ‘Car of the Show’ by the British Committee for Road Safety, it featured such safety accoutrements as 8mph impact-absorbent bumpers and extra interior padding

The Chrysler RSV was the result of the US Government’s ambition for its car industry to build safer cars for all. The project was catalogued in a catchily-titled research document called, Design, Development and Testing of Calspan/Chrysler Research Safety Vehicle – Phase II, and ran from 1974 to 1976. The programme was based upon the Simca 1308 (Chrysler Alpine) as it typified a modern European family car that weighed around 1200kg.

The car was developed and built by the New York-based Calspan Corporation (which still exists today, and continues to work on vehicle safety and autonomy among other things), which noted that the Alpine was already inherently safer by design because it was front-wheel drive (no propshaft), and there was plenty of crash space around the engine and gearbox, thanks to its transverse layout. It also noted that, with independent rear suspension, the car’s fuel tank could be located between the rear wheels.

The Alpine was subjected to a number of crush and crash tests, and any potential weaknesses in the structure were noted for the development of the RSV prototype. The report concluded that, ‘there was a need for varied and substantial improvement to the base car’s structure. The base car exhibited good crash performance in the flat barrier impact, but in the head-on offset test there was severe structural collapse of the occupant compartment.’

The good news was that, with beefed-up under- and side-structures, the RSV was designed to be a whole lot safer than the Alpine, and Calspan’s calculations concluded that it would come in under the project’s 1200kg weight target.

Styling changes

The RSV’s styling changes were carried out by Chrysler in the USA. It’s clear from the final design that much of the original Alpine’s body pressings needed to be retained from a budgetary standpoint, so changes were restricted to front and rear styling. These were limited to elongating crash structures, and adding a little length to mitigate against too much damage in low-speed impacts. Pop-up headlamps were discarded on the grounds that they were too intrusive when in the raised position.

Inside, additional padding was fitted, and the instruments and dash surround were also given soft-moulded surrounds, while new, more supportive seats with integrated headrests were fitted. The centre pillar was beefed up and new trim fitted to ensure that no bare metal or seatbelt mounts were left exposed.

The wheelbase of the RSV was extended by 3.15 inches over the original Chrysler Alpine, while the overall length grew by 6.0in to 173.76in (4388mm) – which meant that it was still shorter than a Ford Cortina or Vauxhall Cavalier. Interestingly, it was also slightly lower than the European car and, because it had run-flat tyres, it also had a larger luggage area.

The programme did not progress beyond Phase II (clay model styling and running styling models), but many of the lessons learned in the programme were integrated into Chrysler’s 1980s vehicles. Sadly, they never found their way into the rather insubstantial Alpine or Solara…

All Photos supplied by Declan Berridge

Keith Adams


  1. A square headlight version of the bugeye Toyota Corolla (I think it’s the Corolla) – they look so similar it’s creepy. Longer wheelbase would make for better handling too. With flavours of Honda Prelude and BMW 7 series. I always wanted the SX version of the Solara.
    It’d be interesting if an article could be done on crash test performances of bmc/bl/etc products over the years. I seem to remember that the author Roald Dahl lost a part of his nose in a crash in an old double screen convertible – they had to sew it back on. I’ve seen one pic of a ADO17 in a head on crash test and it looked surprisingly impressive – no intrusions into the cabin area.

  2. I remember the Usborne Supercars book had a picture of this.

    The high mounted rear lights became a reality about 20 years later, but Renault had wanted to fit the 5 with them even earlier.

    Roald Dahl’s accident was in a drophead car with an unusal second windscreen between the front & rear seats. In an accident all the rear passengers went head first through the plate glass, but somehow only he was seriously hurt.

    His autobiography Boy has a whole chapter to the car & accident.

  3. Roald Dahl’s accident occured long before rear seatbelts were fitted to cars, and possibly before 1965, when front seatbelts weren’t compulsory in new cars. It has to be said the compulsory wearing of seatbelts has saved thousands of lives over the last 37 years and is just as important as the fitting of impact resistant bumpers, padded dashboards, ABS, airbags and skid controls to cars.

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