Crash testing has been done in the Czech Republic (and previously Czechoslovakia) for over 50 years now. Needless to say, ŠKODA was the pioneer. See how it all began.
The first crash test for vehicle approval was done in 1972 by the then Czechoslovak Motor Vehicles Research Institute (Ústav pro výzkum motorových vozidel, or ÚVMV), a research centre that assisted car development in various ways. The first car sent speeding into a wall was a ŠKODA 100.
ŠKODA wanted to export its cars to Western markets – specifically France – and needed homologation, which was not yet required in the former Eastern Bloc countries. The homologation requirements included one crash test according to the then new EEC Regulation No 12. The first safety parameter of the vehicles was the movement of the steering column towards the interior of the car. In the same year, 1972, the ÚVMV became the authorised testing laboratory of the Federal Ministry of Transport of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, which had the right to grant homologation. However, Czechoslovakia had already become only the eighth signatory to the EEC agreement, and therefore the Czech Republic still has the E8 homologation mark.
The first documented homologation crash test took place at the ÚVMV site near Prague’s Ruzyně Airport sometime in June 1972. “The remains of the asphalted test track can still be seen on maps, or you can see them in person on a walk to the Hostivice Observation Mound, which is used to observe traffic at the airport,” says Rudolf Tesárek, ŠKODA’s crash laboratory coordinator. In addition to the asphalt surface itself and the concrete barrier, which is no longer in place today, the crash test equipment itself also had to be prepared for the crash test.
“The test track and all the necessary equipment were built and constructed by the ÚVMV staff practically by themselves,” says Tesárek. They also designed and tested the propulsion device themselves - a steam rocket that was used to accelerate the car to the required test speed. At the time, the basic apparatus for the test consisted of a water tanker and a diesel-powered electric generator. The rocket’s tank was first filled with water, which was transformed into high-pressure steam by means of electric heating coils, and when the desired temperature and pressure were reached, the rocket nozzle was mechanically opened and the steam – with a very loud hiss – propelled the rocket forward. The vehicle was thus accelerated by force from the rear. The whole assembly (vehicle, rocket) was guided directionally by a rail, which ended about 5 metres from the concrete wall. At its end, the steam rocket hit a wedge brake, which stopped it while the car continued forwards.
Two versions of this device can be seen in period photographs: the HRB-01 and later the HRB-02. As the device was dogged by considerable variations in cold periods due to heat loss, the staff of the Security Group of the Central Ministry of Defence later fitted the rocket with insulation and cladding, thus creating the HRB-02 version (Hot Water Rocket of the Security Group of the Central Ministry of Defence). In addition to that name, this version bore another interesting inscription, namely: FODRŠAMARUPUSOPR, that immortalises the team members (FOgl, DRmota, ŠAtochin, MAjetič, RUblič, PUčálka, SOuček, PRažák).
“All we have today, unfortunately, is a replica of the rocket – the original one was stolen when the research centre relocated,” says Tesárek. The first car to pass the homologation test was a yellow ŠKODA 100 in May 1972. The car had to be propelled against a fixed obstacle at a speed of 48.3 km/h with a tolerance of about plus five kilometres per hour. The speed was determined by empirically determined formulas and the experience of the test engineers at the time. The basic parameters for the calculations were the weight of the vehicle, the amount of water and the saturated steam pressure. Once the required parameters had been calculated, the staff had to verify the results in practice, and several test runs were carried out in the opposite direction of the test track before the actual test. During these tests, a driver was seated in the vehicle and stopped it at the end of the runway (the rocket was also stopped here by a wedge-type brake).
French inspectors from the French counterpart institution, UTAC (now UTAC Ceram) were present at the first test. The day before their arrival, the ÚVMV staff carried out a rehearsal with a used car, and on the second day, after preparations that lasted through the night, the test proper was carried out in the presence of the foreign inspectors. The test was filmed by a high-speed camera, of course, on classic 35mm film. The evaluation, i.e. the assessment of whether the movement of the steering column during the impact was “within the norm”, could thus only take place some time after the test, after the film had been developed and processed. The ŠKODA passed the test.
Experiments with cars crashing into solid obstacles had already taken place before the first homologation crash test in Czechoslovakia. According to the oral reports provided by witnesses, the first ever crash test in Mladá Boleslav took place as early as 1968. “It was really more of an experiment. Apparently, the car was push-started, with the pedals fixed in the necessary position, against a wall in the car factory premises. The impact occurred at a speed of about 20 km/h,” says Rudolf Tesárek, adding that no records of the event have survived.
After this initial phase, crash testing in Czechoslovakia gained momentum. Other car companies from Eastern Bloc countries also showed interest. The test facility at the Prague airport quickly became insufficient for the testing requirements, so in 1975 the Ministry of Interior opened a new safety laboratory in the Avia complex in Prague’s Letňany district. This was a covered hall, where a drop tower was used to accelerate the test subjects: the acceleration was provided by weights that were lowered onto shock absorbers from a height four times less than the length of the test track.
That testing centre was also already equipped for so-called sled tests, which were used for dynamic testing of vehicle accessories such as roof racks, or to test seats, seat belts and other components. There were also other test benches that allowed staff to carry out tests in accordance with emerging EEC regulations. Later, a fixed barrier for vehicle crash tests was added. This moved some crash tests inside. EEC Regulation No 12 was soon supplemented by EEC Regulation No 32 – rear impact protection for occupants. These and some frontal impacts continued to be carried out at Ruzyně using a steam rocket. The Ruzyně track continued to serve until 1995.
By that time, ÚVMV had been privatised and taken over by a private investor. This was also the beginning of the history of crash testing on ŠKODA’s own premises. TÜV Bayern (now TÜV SÜD), which took over ÚVMV, built a crash test facility directly on the premises of the ŠKODA test polygon in Úhelnice. This began operating in 1996, and the first crash test was carried out on October 21 that year, with a white first-generation ŠKODA OCTAVIA sent crashing into the barrier. Incidentally, that was the same year the Euro NCAP organisation, which deals with the independent assessment of car safety and whose requirements for tests are stricter than those for homologation, was founded. ŠKODA’s crash tests began to adapt to these requirements.
Even though the new test facility in Úhelnice also served other customers, dynamic testing was carried out almost exclusively with ŠKODA cars. In 2000–2001, for example, the hall was rebuilt at ŠKODA’s request and lengthened from the original 50 metres to 100 metres. The reason for this was to allow the vehicle to accelerate more gradually against the barrier so that the position of the test dummies did not change during acceleration. The propulsion system was then developed gradually by ÚVMV in cooperation with three other Czech suppliers. “The drop tower was eventually completely replaced by an asynchronous electric motor controlled by a frequency converter,” says Rudolf Tesárek. At this time, a unique hydraulic brake was also developed for the test site in Úhelnice with another Czech company, which was used to stop the sledge trolley. The brake served until 2016 and the propulsion system until 2019.
The beginning of the new millennium also saw the transition to digital cameras. Until then, everything was shot on classic film. “I was in charge of testing back then. I pressed one button to switch on the drop tower and another to switch on the cameras. I pressed the button, the car started moving and, based on my experience, at some point I pressed the second button, which triggered the cameras,” recalls Rudolf Tesárek. The new digital cameras brought not only improved recording certainty, but also the ability to view the progress of the test immediately after it was completed. “Before, we had to send the films to the Barrandov film studios, which had the closest film developing lab to us. It sometimes took several weeks before we got them back. A lab worker then cut out the required sections on an editing console and taped them together from the individual reels. Thus taped together, the film was sent again to the film studios at Barrandov, where they made a single film strip from it. The test engineer got to see the test result in about three weeks at the earliest, which is of course completely inconceivable today,” Tesárek adds.
The first car to be tested at the upgraded test facility in Úhelnice was a first-generation ŠKODA FABIA sedan. In 2011, ŠKODA took over the test facility and began to develop it further. For example, vehicle guidance was improved. The laboratory began to concentrate on crash tests with whole vehicles alone, and “partial” crash tests are now carried out by an external partner elsewhere. In 2018, the Czech carmaker then proceeded with the latest expansion and most comprehensive modernisation of the laboratory. “We added an additional crash hall (30 x 40 m) and extended the crash track by another 100 metres without suspending operations,” explains Tesárek.
ŠKODA current crash laboratory is thus 200 metres long and contains two so-called measuring stations, so it can carry out two tests in one day. These days, the test laboratory mainly performs development crash tests according to the requirements of the VW Group and various global NCAP requirements (independent consumer associations – Euro NCAP in Europe, China NCAP in China...)