20 years ago this year, Mercedes-Benz became the first automaker in the world to offer standard ESP across its entire range of vehicles. In this article, AutoMate’s Harrison Boudakin looks back on the unusual story of how some fake-Swedish roadkill helped democratise one of the great safety breakthroughs of the modern age

Wolfgang Inhester had barely stepped out of the glittering Tokyo Convention Centre when his mobile rang. It had been a long week for the Chief Spokesman at Mercedes-Benz – he was tired, and frankly, the call could wait. So without thinking much about it, he quietly slipped the phone back into his pocket and continued on towards the hotel.
The peace didn’t last long though. Less than ten seconds later, his phone rang again, the same number flashing up on the screen. Wolfgang glanced at his watch – it had just gone midnight. Clearly, whoever was calling had something important to say, and although he really didn’t want to answer, something told Wolfgang he probably should.
And so it was that in the very early hours of October 21, 1997, one of the most powerful Mercedes-Benz executives stopped on a quiet street corner in Tokyo, and answered his phone. He couldn’t have possibly imagined the gravity of what he was about to hear.
There had been an accident, said the German voice on the other end of the call. Unbeknownst to Wolfgang and his colleagues at the Tokyo Motor Show, back in Europe a Swedish car magazine had taken delivery of the company’s brand new A-Class hatchback for some testing – and all had not gone well.
In 1997, this revolutionary, front-drive Baby Benz was a total break from the norm for the otherwise very-traditional German automaker. Merc had spent more than $1.5 billion developing its radical ‘sandwich’ platform design, and so there was a lot riding on its shoulders. If it succeeded, the A-Class would demonstrate to the world that Mercedes was no longer the brand of the stuffy executive types or the old-money set – at the end of the 90s, they now wanted to reach out to an all-new audience of younger buyers, and so far the enormous public interest in the quirky-but-innovative A seemed to indicate that their plan was working.

But when Robert Collin at Teknikens Varld got hold of the A-Class on October 21, 1997, Mercedes’ luck ran out. Having loaded the tall, skinny hatchback with five people and their luggage, the Swedish editor proceeded to run the A-Class through his now-infamous “elk test” – a high speed swerve and avoid manoeuvre, designed to simulate how well a car would handle a sudden encounter with a stray moose. Every car his magazine had ever put through the test had sailed out the other side still very much on all four wheels. The A-Class, though, did not.
The images of the little-Benz flipping spectacularly onto its roof will be forever etched into the collective memory of the proud German automaker. The company that had once declared “Das Best oder Nichts” (the best or nothing) as its motto was now struck dumb, as a media-frenzy engulfed the automaker, and consumer confidence in the A-Class took an immediate nose-dive. Mercedes spent the first 19 days of the saga in total denial, even going as far as to claim “well, you can flip any car if you really want to.” But no amount of obfuscation could hide the stark truth: there was a fundamental stability problem with their little A, and if it wasn’t fixed immediately, all of Merc’s future plans were in jeopardy.

That’s where ESP enters the story. A little less than two years before the A-Class flunked the “elk test”, Mercedes had launched a radical new safety device on its top-of-the-line S600 Coupé, called Electronic Stability Program. Co-developed with Bosch, ESP was the result of six years of research and development, and was premised on the idea that a car could be electronically ‘stabilised’ when sensors detected a loss of control. A young Mercedes engineer had first proposed the concept in the late-80s, after he’d crashed a 300E on an icy road, and wondered if braking individual wheels might’ve helped avoid the accident. Despite some initial skepticism, Mercedes soon picked up on the genius of the idea, and ran with it.
By 1995, their R&D efforts paid off, and any potential Merc customer with a spare $350,000 would now be delighted to find ESP fitted as standard on the two-tonne, V12 C140 coupé (above). Road testers were given a preview of this seemingly-magical technology on a frozen lake in Sweden, and came away raving about its ability to ‘pulse’ the brakes on individual wheels to keep the car from spinning on the low-grip surface. Within a few months, buyers of the S-Class sedan and the SL sports car were also given the option of speccing ESP – but while this was no doubt a genuine breakthrough in automotive safety, which went far beyond a simple traction control system, the fact remained that it wasn’t yet anywhere near being a democratic proposition.

But the events of October 21, 1997 would change all that. With the “elk test” debacle threatening to derail their $1.5 billion investment in the A-Class, Mercedes took drastic action. For 12 weeks, they pulled the A-Class from the market, and initiated a radical, $100 million re-engineering program to fix the car’s wobbly dynamics: the ride height was lowered, the track was widened and the suspension re-designed. But most importantly, the company then went one step further, spending an extra $60 million to fit every A-Class with ESP as standard equipment. At the time, the idea that this high-technology would find its way onto a $35,000 car was remarkable, yet it showed just how seriously Mercedes were taking the situation.
But the true impact of the A-Class accident was yet to come. Having equipped their cheapest car with ESP, Mercedes now had little option but to proliferate it rather quickly throughout the rest of its model range. And so it came to pass that by 1999, every car with a three-pointed star on its nose was fitted with the life-saving technology – far quicker than anyone would’ve expected in normal circumstances. What’s more, because Mercedes chose to release all the patents for the system free of charge, other car makers were soon able to follow suit with their own versions.

Today, ESP sits alongside ABS, the airbag, the crumple zone and the seat-belt in that pantheon of very special safety technologies debuted by Mercedes-Benz. And there can be no doubt, the ESP story is one with a fantastic ending: Bosch estimates that more than 8000 lives have been saved by the technology, and today almost every developed nation mandates the system be fitted as standard to all cars.
For many people, the original A-Class will forever be remembered as the funny little car in that now-famous photo, sitting all smashed and broken on a Swedish runway. But the fact is that the legacy of that picture is something far more important. It is the democratisation of ESP; it is the making of the great guardian angel of modern motoring.
And we can thank a moose for that.
Written by Harrison Boudakin for AutoMate Training, a world’s leading provider of online, video-based technical training, with over 400 modules featuring high quality graphics, the latest vehicles and real presenters. Automate says its library covers everything from system fundamentals to advanced diagnostics and technology, including training on Electronic Stability Control and the key sub-systems that help make ESP a lifesaver.
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