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Safety of a Volvo car

Have you ever imagined a car without a headrest? Well, that was the norm until 1960s. This is the story of the woman behind the headrest: Margit Engellau.

Volvo P1800 S, one of our first car models featuring a headrest.

Hans Hedberg, heritage manager at Volvo Cars is standing in a refurbished hangar in Arendal on Hisingen. The hangar is connected to the Volvo Museum, which soon will move to World of Volvo. This is the new, ambitious experience centre at Volvo Cars, which will be opening its doors in central Gothenburg, Sweden, beginning of 2024.

Next to Hans is a beautiful, blue Volvo P1800 S, from the year 1968. An untrained eye would not notice anything unusual about the car, but this particular model has an accessory that no other car in the world had at the end of the 1960s – a headrest.

In 1956, Gunnar Engellau became the CEO of Volvo Cars, and he had some high ambitions for the company. The US market would be conquered, with more models and safer cars. When Gunnar took over Volvo Cars, the company built 31,000 cars every year. When he left his post in 1971, the number was more than 205,000. Volvo Cars had become a global car maker under his leadership.

Gunnar's wife, Margit Engellau, was a physiotherapist at the Sahlgrenska Hospital in Gothenburg and she encountered patients injured in car accidents on a daily basis. This was a time before whiplash was an established concept, and before people completely understood the consequences of a head being forced from one extreme position to another.

“Margit Engellau was treating many people that had been injured in traffic,” says Hans. “During weekends, she attended dinners with her husband and other people at Volvo Cars and shared her experiences from the hospital. She understood that to better protect people’s necks and heads, something in the cars needed to be changed. Nowadays, when we look back and recognise how early Volvo Cars was when it comes to traffic and crash safety, we need to remember Margit's contribution.”

During the years that Gunnar Engellau was the CEO of Volvo Cars, many important steps were taken towards increased safety. In 1959, Volvo Cars became the first car maker in the world to install three-point safety belts in its cars as standard (Amazon and PV 544). Two years earlier you could already order belts to the Amazon car as extra equipment.

The next important innovation was the Volvo seat, which was launched in 1965 – a unique car seat with lumbar support and cushions in soft plastic foam that was developed with the help of ‘medical expertise.’

“The Volvo seat was a wonder when it comes to technology, ergonomics and safety,” says Hans. “This was very important for Volvo. No other car had an adjustable back support at the time. Suddenly, drivers could sit comfortably without getting tired. The ability to sit safely and comfortably in a Volvo car is still key for us at Volvo Cars.”

In connection to the launch of the Volvo seat, the first drawings of a headrest that could easily be mounted on the seat were made. Interestingly, the new headrest was initially sold as a comfort item, not as safety gear.

Hans Hedberg opens the door to the blue Volvo P1800 S. It belonged to Gunnar Engellau. Margit Engellau had a similar one, but in light gold with deer-coloured upholstery. The two special-order cars, Gunnar and Margit, are currently owned by Volvo Cars and can be seen at the Volvo Museum.

“Gunnar was driven by Gunnar Engellau until 1975,” Hans explains. “I have taken many P1800 cars for a test drive over the years, but none is as nice to drive as this one. Both Gunnar and Margit are concept cars, optimised to be as comfortable to drive as possible, with big carburettors, a more balanced chassis, and fine-tuned in both big and small details. It also has a safety concept that was ahead of its time, with extra headlamps and an early variant of headlamp-wipers. And, of course, the headrest.”

From 1970 on, all front seats in Volvo cars have had headrests as a standard, which was another important milestone.

The story of Margit Engellau has been told before, but not often enough, according to Hans Hedberg. In a forgottenVolvo ad from 1993, a patient meeting with Margit was filmed at the Sahlgrenska hospital. The ad ends with the words, "You may never have heard of Margit Engellau, but maybe you've seen the monument they built for her" before a red Volvo 960 is shown with the message: drive safely.

“It is a nice story; the fact that the idea behind one of our most important safety concepts came from her, and that it was realised in the Volvo P1800, the most beautiful of all Volvo models. The stars were aligning.” Hans concludes.

Margit Engellau sadly passed away in 1981, but she keeps on saving lives through her innovative ideas.