Paul did a short post on this vehicle last year but I thought it was such a 1950’s oddity that it deserved a little deeper dive.
Safety was a hard sell in the decade of the Fifties. I’m sure CC readers are aware of Ford’s well-publicized “Lifeguard” safety push in 1956 – that essentially went nowhere. But that setback didn’t stop other well-intentioned auto enthusiasts from trying to help make driving a little less dangerous. One such enthusiast was Walter C. Jerome of Worcester, Massachusetts, an engineer by trade. Concerned that Detroit’s inattention to safety was resulting in too many unnecessary traffic deaths and injuries, he set out to make a revolutionary “safer” vehicle. So in the late Forties he purchased a 1948 Hudson, got out his blueprints, fired up his blow torch, and went to work…
And after ten years or so, he came up with a truly distinctive vehicle, naming it the “Sir Vival.” Its most unique attribute was no doubt its double-bodied, articulated design; with the engine and front wheels separate from the main passenger compartment. This was evidently done to enhance impact protection, with the front portion taking most of the impact in a frontal collision, and the bending of the articulated body lessening a side impact blow. Power still went to the rear wheels, which along with the steering, was connected to the front section by a series of Universal joints.
Perhaps its next most distinctive feature was its turret-style raised driver’s cockpit, centrally located, and with near 360 degree visibility given its cylindrical glass enclosure.
The car received quite a bit of press attention at the time, appearing in Mechanix Illustrated, Life, Motor Trend and Popular Mechanics magazines, and was also on stage at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. However, Jerome’s plans for a production model soon came up against an obstacle that has tended to sideline most of these small automotive entrepreneurs – money. Few investors were willing to pony-up dollars and even if they had, estimated unit cost per vehicle was $10K – this at a time when you could buy a 1958 Series 62 Cadillac for around half that.
While the car never reached production, I wouldn’t call it an absolute failure – many of its safety enhancements; seat belts, strengthened roof pillars and bumpers, side-marker lights, etc., were all mandated by the federal government a decade or so later.
Whether it succeeded or failed, one must admire Mr Jerome for so ardently pursuing his vision. But the names “Safety-Car” or “Collision-Cushion” must have already been copyrighted, because “Sir Vival” couldn’t have been his first choice…could it?
Living up to its name, the prototype still does survive – and as of a few years ago, was residing in a old car dealership in Bellingham Massachusetts.
About that dealership, it’s been there since 1949, but presently doesn’t appear as well kept as the pictures on its website.
And its still around, definitely different how safe it would really be is debatable as no crash testing was ever carried out and having it bend in half in a high speed crash doesnt sound particularly safe.
The rear part is from 1948–1953 Hudson Hornet/Commodore four-door saloon.
Thanks for expanding on this — I remember the earlier write-up so it’s great to find out more, and I’m absolutely shocked to see that the prototype still exists. I hope the current owner is somehow able to get it running at some point.
I’m curious though, whether this is, in fact, rear wheel drive, or whether it’s front-drive. The owner says in the video that it’s front wheel drive, and that seems logical, considering the articulation. But I suppose with this car, anything’s possible.
I saw that too Eric, but all the other articles I found said it was rear wheel drive. My take is that’s probably correct as the front section just doesn’t seem large enough to house both the longitudinal engine, and a transaxle, given this was built in the 50’s. I also didn’t see FWD mentioned in any of the ads or promo materials, which you’d think they would have highlighted. I’ll keep looking to see if we can find out for sure.
I haven’t watched the videos. Second pics call-out of “Front Wheels Always in Alignment” would seem to indicate that Ackerman steering had been disabled and it’s steered strictly via the hinge?
Wow, that’s right. The video includes some vintages scenes of the Sir Vival driving on city streets – I hadn’t noticed it at first, but looking at it closer, the front wheels don’t turn.
Quite obviously so. The whole front end is pivoted by the steering in order to create “steering”. That explains the “always in alignment” front wheels. And since it does have a transverse engine, undoubtedly it also has FWD, which would probably be easier than what it would take to get power to the rear wheels. I wouldn’t be surprised if the front wheels have no suspension.
Frankly, the whole idea seems rather silly to me. The steering effort to pivot the front end must have been significant. I hate to think of what the handling was like. And I question the safety aspect. In a head on collision, the front unit would just be rammed into the rear unit, since that connection is soft, not rigid.
Some ideas are better than others. This one does not fall into the former category.
Bill’s comment further down explains it: it’s not a transverse engine, but RWD through a universal joint. Makes more sense, as building a transaxle would have been challenging.
It never fails to amaze me how someone who owns this thing and is a car restorer can make such a blatant mistake as in the video, where he says it has a transverse engine.
The turning circle would be huge there are limits to what universal joints will work at.
Still, it’s a pity that he did not put the FWD. CV joints are not needed, and with FWD, it would be at least marginally usable.
With RWD, it is like 737 Max for the road – inherently unstable.
Which is kinda ironic for the car designed primarily for safety.
This car was built at a time when seat belt safety was still being debated, as some felt it was better to be thrown from a vehicle than be trapped it. The general public in the 1950s wasn’t interested in safety. Ford proved that in 1956. When the inventor of this car began his exploration of vehicle safety, the only accepted safety items in cars was laminated windshield & side glass.
This car was met with derision when it first came out, and years later it was considered a failure because it had way too many unsafe items and not enough safe items. But it did get the Department of transportation thinking about vehicle safety, and with prodding from groups like AAA and SAE, safety slowly gathered the public’s interest.
The “Big 3” had no interest in safety as it cost money. GM still made the mid-size cars in the 1960s with a steering box ahead of the front axle and a solid steering column, even knowing that in a head on collision, the driver was often killed from being impaled by the steering wheel.
“…with FWD, it would be at least marginally usable.”
I’m not convinced that RWD makes the design unworkable.
Some articulated buses are pusher” type, rear wheel drive.
I used to ride in the big European MAN articulated busses with pusher engines, and if you sit just in front of the articulation joint, when the driver hits the fuel pedal and steers left, you can actually feel the back end of the front section, trying to go to the right, because of the inertia applied by the rear drive axle.
However there is another serious difference between this vehicle and the bus. The bus driver steers both wheels on the front axle, and the pusher end of the bus acts like a trailer. With this safety car, it steers like a big articulated scoop when loaded. I’ve driven those at what they call higher speeds, that means about 35mph max. Even at that speed you can feel the vehicle trying to go different ways when you hit a bump, and they become very twitchey above 35mph. This articulating safety car was said to travel at highway speeds of 55 to 65.
Based on what I know as an accident investigator, I believe this car would actually be unsafe above around 40mph, especially when the road is wet. There is no info available to me about how fixed front axles with fixed caster/camber handle, when pushed from behind, during a change of direction. I suspect the tire treads will end up scuffed.
“The turning circle would be huge there are limits to what universal joints will work at.”
Don’t underestimate articulated steering. A 45 degree cut each was from ahead is 90 degrees total, and the steering goes exponential, for lack of a better term. A “see-saw” adds up to a lot, some machines will turn around in almost less than their own length. lol
+1. Similar concept to an articulating loader. Those are quite maneuverable. They can turn tighter than loaders with a single steering axle – which is probably why they were invented.
Weird and wonderful old ideas .
In 1978, I, along with another gearhead friend visiting me from Germany, set off on a 36 state “around north America tour”. A local car friend told us he knew of a crazy safety car, and made a phone call to arrange for a visit to see it.
Yes, it was indeed Sir Vival, and it looks about the same as it did in 1978, except when we saw it the tires were mostly flat. The guy in the video says it’s FWD with a sideways mounted engine. This is incorrect. It’s go the single carb Hudson flathead 6 coupled to the standard GM Hydramatic transmission. The tailshaft of the Hydramatic can be seen sticking out of the front section’s bodywork. There is a single u-joint to a driveshaft, and I believe the entire drive train is standard Hudson.
My memory is not exactly what it used to be in 1978, but I remember the trans had a flex cable from the gear quadrant on the steering column to the transmission shift shaft. To join the 2 car sections together, there were 2 large swivel joints, with the driveline u-joint between them. It was very hard to see much under the car, but it appeared to have the Bendix type of power steering, where the hydraulic cylinder was attached to the tie rod assembly. But in this case the steering assembly was connected between the front and rear body sections, front to rear, not side to side, as the front wheels did not turn side to side. I really don’t think one could steer the car if the engine stopped, due to the need to swivel [turn] the entire front half of the car.
I found it interesting that the original Hudson windshields and dash sections were split apart and put on either side of the big cyclops headlight. Both had the original wiper arms. I saw no evidence of any windshield wiper set-up on the upper round windshield. I suspect the inventor never figured out how to make wipers work on such a round surface.
And one more comment about the car; The build quality was fairly crude, and it’s quite obvious that the builder was an engineer/inventor, not a machinist/bodyman. Speaking as someone who spent his working life restoring cars, I think it’s going to be difficult to restore this car because of the temptation to repair/fix his poor craftsmanship. In my opinion this car should be left unrestored, except for whatever work is required to make it run, drive, and stop.
Thanks for the clarifications. That all makes more sense than some of the speculations. I’m not surprised you’ve seen it.
And welcome back; we missed you.
Paul, thanks for the kind words. I ended up taking my laptop to a specialist who figured out that a mistake in the WordPress reply code kept attaching an extra copy of the reply code, resulting in something WordPress could not handle.
A single u-joint for the driveline in the center at the articulation joint? I can’t imagine actually being able to achieve much of a turning angle before reaching the limit of articulation on that joint, I would hope there’s a double cardan setup in there.
I don’t remember a Cardan joint in that location, just what I think is the original ujoint and drive shaft, with another u-joint at the pinion area. This may be one of the reasons it was not being driven much.
That’s a typical arrangement with hinged frames, two common cross type joints with a slip in between. It probably only turns +/- 30-40 degrees from straight ahead. Split between two joints that’s only 15-30 degrees each.
*make that 15-20 degrees each
The upper round windshield rotates and can be seen operating in the video. I’d imagine that a stationary wiper is used.
Thanks for pointing that out, I had to go back and look closer to find the moment where the wiper arm quickly traveled across the windshield. Must be a very complicated mechanism using a large gear ring with a small gear on the motor’s output shaft.
Had it been developed further, imagine how handy this could have been for servicing: Stop off at the dealer for a repair or maintenance of the powertrain, and they could simply remove the front end and hook up a loaner for you to use while yours was in the shop.
Well I don’t know that that would be more efficient than simply exchanging your keys for those of a loaner car.😊
Who else, but the US Govt specified an articulated wheel loader that would be “split” for airdrop purposes. The powered end remained functional with an added “training wheel” to allow it to be driven to find and (hopefully) be reunited with the other half… wherever the heck it landed. lol
I have faint memory of this–1959 being about the time I was starting to read, and might have seen the story in a magazine at my grandparents’ house.
Interesting that the car survives today, and I’d think it could be spruced up without getting into crazy money—it’s not as though there’d be a search for rare OEM trim parts, etc.
Here’s one 1960 public appearance (Binghamton, NY), not too far from Mr. Jerome’s home turf:
Very neat. Assuming it’s still there at that Bellingham Auto Sales place, that’s under an hour from where I am. Hummmmmm.
I do find a few things odd with with this oddity. First, it certainly seems from the materials available on the website – http://www.bellinghamautosales.com/Sir%20Vival.htm – that it did make it to the NY World’s Fair. I don’t remember it ( 😉 ) but I have to say that compared to most all else automotive at the 64 World’s Fair, this would have looked like a pretty shabby antique. I can’t imagine it generating much excitement as a 6 year old idea that hadn’t gotten any attention from any mainstream automakers.
It’s also kind of nutty that they kept repainting the car. It seems to have been at least 3 different colors since it was built. When you have something that looks like that, I think what color it is would be the least of your problems.
The materials on the website are also bizarre…particularly the collage-like drawings. Who in the world created those?!? They’re also not contemporary to the car as there’s stuff on there about a “1985 model”. Yeah…that would have done quite well in 1985. By the way, it’s only on the 1985 version – and in the video with the current owner stating incorrect “facts” about the car – that there’s mention of Sir Vival having “airbags”.
The idea of a handmade car from 1958 having airbags is positively terrifying. Almost as terrifying as the thought of that thing having any moving collision at speed when the driver is sitting with their head in a turret that seems to be at EXACTLY neck-level. Sitting on a wobbly rotating seat. The whole thing seems to be a recipe for decapitation.
Safety car? Riiiiight.
But, if I get down there, I’ll be sure to take some more pictures.
When he opens the hood and shows the engine from what you can see of the cylinder head, air cleaner, and coolant hose it’s clearly in the normal N-S orientation – and he says it’s sideways.
But I don’t really get how you can push a “trailer” in front. It would be like backing up with a normal trailing trailer….right?
As a trained accident investigator and forensic mechanic, I have a feeling that what you point out is probably the number one reason a car like this remains a one-of-a-kind vehicle. I have a strange feeling that at high speed, especially on rain soaked higher speeds, this car would respond very differently in panic situations.
One reason is the concept of equal opposite reactions. If you steer this car to the right, the back half will want to steer left because the steering change is not 2 wheels turning the same direction, but between 2 different axles now turning in opposite directions.
Imagine driving a large scoop excavator with hydraulically assisted center pivot steering. Now imagine driving that piece of equipment at interstate highway speeds! You can’t, it won’t go that fast. I wonder why?
I doubt this car would be safe to drive at speeds above about 40mph. Oh, Wait! that makes it safer, keeping speeds down that slow [that’s what most insurance companies believe is needed to avoid high speed accidents!]
As weird as this car is I think that it was something of a pioneer in crumple zone crash technology. Not that it used crumple zone tech but the idea of the front section taking the hit to spare the passenger compartment is similar in theory. I’d say it was a testament to some good ideas and proved that others just weren’t going to work out.
@ Bill ;
Are you the same Bill who worked for Motor Transport at Piper Tech ? .
Nope, I owned an antique car restoration shop in Maryland for 30 years.
By the late 1950’s Mercedes was incorporating crumple zones into some of their cars. While the cars were expensive, the technology could have been licensed and sold to Detroit for use on American models. Commonsense safety improvements such as collapsible steering columns, seat belts, improved door locks, sturdier construction,and padded dash boards made much more sense than the SirVival. These are passive improvements, dynamic improvements such as better braking and handling,lighting, and visibility were improvements that took Detroit a long time to embrace, usually only under the duress of law. Still, I’m always impressed that inventors and innovators could home build their own versions of safer cars. That’s what was possible before entertainment streaming and binge watching!
Sir Vival suffers such a surplus of sufficiently silly safety systems that it was certain it would soon see itself surpassed.
It’s fascinating thing when a person of intelligence suffers such monomania that they clearly haven’t looked at what else was being thought about by others in their field, in this case, in safety. The oddity of the result here speaks loudly about that. That said, it is truism that invention has many fathers. Crumple zones, for example, may have begun with Bela Barenyi, from Mercedes, and seat belts from aircraft(?), but maybe side lights came from this.
It’s also true no-one has yet marketed a car with a captain’s hat for a roof, but that’s another topic.
Great post, Sir Jim.
Ed Moore: “I’ve had a few people try to get Sir Vival from me. I just tell them all that it’s not for sale. I really haven’t decided what to do with it, but I probably won’t restore it.” The Future of Sir Vival, A Safety-Minded Custom Hudson, Is Uncertain as Bellingham Auto Sales Closes Its Doors.