COAL #14: More Volvo Imprinting – A Trip to Transpo 72

Which car replaced the trusty Comet? I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you in suspense for another week. You see, the Caliente convertible’s last trip from Art Center back to New Jersey in May 1972 included a detour to Washington, D.C., the site of Transpo 72, a huge transportation trade show sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Assembled on a 300-acre site at Dulles International Airport, the $10 million effort included the newest aircraft, high-speed rail, and mass transit concepts, as well as a variety of concept cars with enhanced occupant safety as their common focus.

As a Transportation Design major at Art Center, Transpo 72’s International Experimental Safety Vehicle Exhibit was my primary rationale for attending the event. The exhibit featured no less than twelve experimental safety vehicles, including entries from GM…

GM’s ESV. (Source:



The Mercedes-Benz ESF 13 shown at Transpo 72. (Source: Mercedes-Benz Classic Archive)



Volkswagen’s ESVW. (Source: Volkswagen Newsroom)


And even Datsun and Toyota, also keen to share the spotlight at Dulles in May 1972…

Datsun and Toyota ESV concepts were also shown at Transpo.          (Source: Car and  Driver)


Yet another automotive OEM was present at Transpo 72: Volvo. The small Gothenburg, Sweden carmaker, established in 1927 as an offshoot of ball-bearing maker SKF, had entered the U.S. market only sixteen years earlier, in 1956. A few years later, engineer Nils Bohlin successfully encouraged Volvo to become the first automaker to add three-point seat belts as standard equipment, helping to establish a reputation for safety the brand still enjoys today.

Volvo’s Nils Bohlin (at left) demonstrates seat-belt use and narrowly averts an HR intervention. (Source:


Volvo also chose Transpo 72 there, to show off its VESC (Volvo Experimental Safety Concept) vehicle. Like the other ESVs in evidence there, the VESC featured strengthened safety-cage construction, reinforced side guard door beams, an enhanced frontal crumple zone (which necessitated increased front overhang and overall length), a “friendlier” sloping front-end design with impact-absorbing front and rear bumpers, airbags for the driver and front passenger, a heavily padded instrument panel, impact-absorbing interior surfaces, and more conspicuous exterior lighting.

The Volvo VESC, displaying its prominent underbite.


In an earlier COAL, I alluded to an instance of “Volvo imprinting” that occurred at the tender age of eleven, when I had my first experience sitting in (and helping to shift) a nearly-new Volvo 544 owned by one of my mother’s work colleagues. Now, I realize (with the benefit of decades of hindsight) that examining the VESC at Transpo may have planted another subliminal seed. Compared with its experimental safety-vehicle peers, Volvo’s effort seemed more rational. Little attempt was made to embellish its safety features with then-current styling clichés. Despite (or maybe because of) that, its  overall look was restrained and purposeful, the additional length, stouter A-, B-, and C-pillars, and  revised front-end design combining to create a pragmatic and unified whole.

Under the skin of the Volvo VESC.


Of course, in mid-1972, Volvo was deep into a major revision of its 140-series product range, which would be introduced for the 1975 model year. Though unsuspecting observers might view it as a mere front-end facelift of the already nine-year old 140, the 240-series would usher in a fully redesigned front end structure, with McPherson strut suspension and improved crash-worthiness, topped off with a production version of the VESC’s more pedestrian-friendly frontal aspect.

The family resemblance to the VESC is obvious. (Source:


Not long thereafter, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) selected the Volvo 240 as the benchmark vehicle with which to conduct a series of crash tests, leading to the issuance of the first 35-MPH frontal crash standard in 1978 (and buying 24 Volvo 240s in the process).

Back to the VESC. Seeing it in the flesh made a deep impression on me, that long-ago May day in D.C. It struck a chord with its intelligent approach to vehicle safety. It occurred to me that, assuming that I would eventually emerge from Art Center as a fledgling car designer, there might a spot for me somewhere beyond the Detroit Big Three.

But first, I needed new wheels to carry me westward again at summer’s end. All will be revealed in next week’s COAL, I promise.