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First Dymaxion car produced

First Dymaxion car produced


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The first three-wheeled, multi-directional Dymaxion car—designed by the architect, engineer and philosopher Buckminster Fuller—is manufactured in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on July 12, 1933.

Born in Massachusetts in 1895, Fuller set out to live his life as (in his own words) “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” After making up the word “Dymaxion” as a combination of the words “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion,” he took the word as his own personal brand. Among his groundbreaking creations were the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion house, which was made of lightweight aluminum and could be shipped by air and assembled on site.

READ MORE: The Cars That Made America

In 1927, Fuller first sketched the Dymaxion car under the name “4D transport.” Part aircraft, part automobile, it had wings that inflated. Five years later, Fuller asked his friend, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, to make more sketches of the car. The result was an elongated teardrop design, with a rear third wheel that lifted off the ground and a tail fin. Fuller set up production of the Dymaxion car in a former Locomobile factory in Bridgeport in March 1933. The first model rolled out of the Bridgeport factory on July 12, 1933–Fuller’s 38th birthday. It had a steel chassis (or frame) and a body made of ash wood, covered with an aluminum skin and topped with a painted canvas roof. It was designed to be able to reach a speed of 120 miles per hour and average 28 miles per gallon of gasoline.

Sold to Gulf Oil, the Dymaxion car went on display at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago. That October, however, the professional driver Francis Turner was killed after the Dymaxion car turned over during a demonstration. An investigation cleared Dymaxion of responsibility, but investors became scarce, despite the enthusiasm of the press and of celebrities such as the novelist H.G. Wells and the painter Diego Rivera.

Along with the Nazi-built KdF-wagen (the forerunner of the Volkswagen Beetle), the Dymaxion was one of several futuristic, rear-engined cars developed during the 1930s. Though it was never mass-produced, the Dymaxion helped lead to public acceptance of new streamlined passenger cars, such as the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. In 2008, the only surviving Dymaxion was featured in an exhibit dedicated to Fuller’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. An article published in The New York Times about the exhibit recalled Fuller’s own impressions of the Dymaxion: “I knew everyone would call it a car,” he told the literary critic Hugh Kenner in the 1960s; instead, it was actually “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device.”


July 12: The Car of the Future — in 1933

R. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor, architect, author, and futurist best known for his popularization of the geodesic dome, was one of the most prolific public intellectuals of the early 20th century.

In the early 1930s, Fuller coined the word “Dymaxion” — a portmanteau of the words “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension” — and applied it to a number of his experimental projects, ranging from hyper-accurate map projections (the “Dymaxion Map”) to mass-produced homes (the “Dymaxion house”). Perhaps the most memorable of Fuller’s Dymaxion ventures was the Dymaxion Car, a futuristic concept vehicle produced in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The Dymaxion Car looked unlike any vehicle the world had ever seen before. It sported only three wheels instead of four, all tucked underneath a rounded, streamlined, slightly teardrop-shaped metal body. The visual design wasn’t the only striking feature of the Dymaxion, however: it was designed to carry up to 11 passengers and could reach a top speed of 125 miles per hour — an incredible statistic for a car built in 1933. Its rear third wheel enabled it to have an incredibly sharp turning radius (which came in handy when attempting to park the 20-foot-long behemoth), but also made steering difficult at higher speeds.

Side view of a replica Dymaxion car, built in the mid-20th century.

On July 12, 1933, the first Dymaxion prototype was completed at Fuller’s Bridgeport factory, rolling off the production line and straight into the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, where it captured the attention of both the general public and deep-pocketed investors who believed Fuller’s car signaled a radical shift in the future of the automobile industry. Before the end of the year, however, the Dymaxion prototype was hit by another vehicle during a demonstration, which caused the rounded car to roll over onto its side, killing the driver. Even though the Dymaxion wasn’t at fault, the accident caused public and private interest in the vehicle to dry up amid fears that the vehicle design was inherently unsafe. Ultimately, only three Dymaxion cars were ever produced before Fuller directed his creative energies elsewhere. While car buffs and futurist enthusiasts have created a number of replicas, the last remaining original Dymaxion car is now on display at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada.

Further Reading

“Dymaxion Car,” Buckmister Fuller Institute website

Click on image to order via amazon.com


The Adventures of Buckminster Fuller and the Dymaxion Car: A Book Excerpt

Norman Foster’s Dymaxion Car No. 4 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Buckminster Fuller was a visionary. Though he devoted much of his career to architecture and engineering, he referred to himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist,” a job title just broad enough to cover his six-decade quest to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” That often led to ideas of dubious merit — such as a plan to make New York more temperate by placing Manhattan under a geodesic dome — lending him a screwball reputation that lingers to this day. In You Belong to the Universe, which will be published in April 2016 by Oxford University Press, I argue that Fuller’s crackpot legacy is a travesty. His core principles, such as doing “the most with the least,” are more essential now than ever. So is his knack for bridging far-flung fields like urban planning and environmental science. The time has come to release Fuller from the impractically futuristic designs that made him notorious, and to revive the discipline he called comprehensive anticipatory design science. In this chapter excerpt, I explore one way that might be achieved.

The future of transportation did not proceed according to plan. Touted as the greatest advance since the horse-and-buggy when it rolled out of the factory in 1933, the first car that Buckminster Fuller built burned up in a fire a decade later. A second one got shredded for scrap metal during the Korean War. As for the third of Fuller’s three prototype Dymaxion vehicles, there were rumors that a Wichita Cadillac dealer warehoused it in the ’50s for his private pleasure. The rumors were wrong. In 1968, some Arizona State University engineering students found it parked on a local farm. Repurposed as a makeshift poultry coop, the last vestige of Fuller’s futuristic transport was slowly succumbing to the corrosive effects of rain and chicken poop.

The farm belonged to a man named Theodore Mezes, who’d bought the three-wheeled car for a dollar some decades earlier. The students gave him $3000 and hauled it home, but they couldn’t make it run. So they resold it to Bill Harrah — a casino mogul with a museumful of Duesenbergs and Pierce-Arrows — who had the aluminum shell refurbished and the windows painted over so that people couldn’t see the ruined interior. In Harrah’s collection — later rechristened the National Automobile Museum — the Dymaxion car cruised into automotive history.

And there it might have remained indefinitely, a restored icon of Fuller’s stillborn vision, if a former colleague hadn’t decided to conceive a new one a quarter century after Fuller’s death. The colleague was Sir Norman Foster, architect of Wembley Stadium and the Beijing Airport. As a young man, Foster had collaborated with Fuller on some of Fuller’s final architectural projects — mostly unrealized — and Foster wasn’t shy about using Fuller’s name to add intellectual heft to his subsequent commercial success.

Money was no issue. Foster hired the British racing car restorers Crosthwaite & Gardiner, and had the original Dymaxion shipped on special loan to East Sussex from Reno, Nevada. Construction took two years, more than twice the time that Fuller required to build the original. The back axle and V-8 engine were stripped from a Ford Tudor sedan, the same source as Fuller had used. These were flipped upside-down on the chassis so that the back wheels powered the car from the front end. A third wheel, controlled by steel cables stretching from the steering wheel to a pivot at the back of the automobile, acted as a sort of rudder. Atop the chassis, a zeppelin-shaped body of hand-beaten aluminum was wrapped around an ash-wood frame. To this aerodynamic shell, several attributes from the other two Dymaxion cars were added, most prominently a long stabilizing fin. Adapting the best qualities from Fuller’s three prototypes, Foster’s Dymaxion Car No. 4 is the idealized vehicle that Fuller never had the funding to build: the closest metal can get to the Dymaxion legend. Or is it?

Few people besides Foster have actually driven the Dymaxion No. 4, and even he cautiously clocks less than half the 120 mile-per-hour speed that Fuller boasted his Dymaxion could handle. (While carrying eleven passengers, no less, and with thirty-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency. In other words, the car purportedly could travel at twice the speed of a Ford Tudor on half the fuel, carrying three times the number of people.) The truth is that Fuller’s streamlining is unwieldy in crosswinds, the rear-wheel steering is ropey even on a dry and windless day, and the system of rudder cables is sluggish and unstable. None of this would have surprised Fuller. He refused to let anyone pilot a Dymaxion without special lessons, and injured his own family when a failed steering component caused his car to flip en route to a Harvard reunion. He may have privately been relieved when his company collapsed shortly after the third prototype was completed. “I never discussed it with daddy, but I think the accident turned him away from the car,” Fuller’s daughter Allegra told the design writer Jonathan Glancey in 2011. “I think he thought that if the car did this to his wife and child then maybe it wasn’t the thing to do.”

Foster had no such compunction. His modern Dymaxion faithfully recapitulates Fuller’s unresolved design flaws, an unabashed tribute to Bucky’s genius that perversely enshrines everything wrong with the original vehicles. As Foster confessed to the New York Times in a 2010 interview, the car is “so visually seductive that you want to own it, to have the voluptuous physicality of it in your garage.” In fact, the sheer stylishness of the thing is so mesmerizing that even Fuller himself lost sight of the ideas that made it truly revolutionary, far more than a futuristic mode of transport. Before the Dymaxion car became the Dymaxion car, it was a machine designed to mobilize society, rocketing people away from virtually every assumption about life in the 20th century.

Mezes’s chickens had the right instinct. The iconic object needs to be destroyed for the Dymaxion vision to be restored.

In 1932, Buckminster Fuller made a simple drawing comparing a standard car body to a horse-and-buggy. His picture showed that both vehicles had essentially the same geometry. The hood and passenger compartment of an automobile were two rectangles roughly proportional to a horse with a tall carriage in tow. The car’s grille and windscreen were flatly vertical. Absolutely no consideration was given to airflow.

For the rest of his life, Fuller dwelled on this point, persistently bringing it up in public lectures and repeatedly impressing it on fawning biographers. Whereas boats and airplanes were streamlined, designed for maximum efficiency, Fuller insisted that the automobile was still saddled with an equestrian past that he singlehandedly sought to overcome with his Dymaxion.

He was deceiving himself. Practically for as long as there have been automobiles, engineers have been obsessed with wind resistance, and determined to diminish it with streamlining.

Racers led the way. Fuller was four years old when Camille Jenatzy’s 1899 Jamais Contente — essentially a four-wheel rocket with a man seated on top — became the first land vehicle to travel a mile per minute. Seven years later, Francis and Freelan Stanley more than doubled Jenatzy’s record with a steam-powered car that proved too aerodynamic: Hitting a bump, the dirigible-inspired auto took off and flew one hundred feet before crashing, vividly showing that the aerodynamics of flight and driving are not the same.

Though neither of these vehicles was practical for everyday transport, another racing car did become the prototype for most automobiles from the teens through the thirties. Designed for one of the first long-distance speed contests, the 1909 Prince Henry Benz integrated the streamline form pioneered by Jenatzy into a four-seat touring car. Hood and passenger compartment formed a single continuous line, a major improvement on the modular construction that automakers inherited from the coachbuilding trade. Looking fast even while parked, the so-called torpedo tourer was immensely popular. Only the Ford Model T retained the old angularity for the sake of mass-produced economy. As streamlining became the rage in everything from buildings to fountain pens, even Henry Ford conceded defeat. To recapture his declining market, he launched the streamlined Model A in 1928.

By then the torpedo tourer was technologically passé. As early as 1920, the Hungarian-born Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray was testing ways in which to bring concepts learned from airship research to the road. Wind tunnel tests showed that the aerodynamic ideal for a dirigible was a teardrop shape that guided airflow around the hull with minimal turbulence. Jaray flattened the teardrop to direct air over the top, ensuring that the tires of his cars remained firmly on the road.

Resembling little zeppelins on wheels (with the curved glass passenger compartment on top rather than below), Jaray’s prototypes achieved astonishing results. The standard measure of aerodynamic efficiency is known as coefficient of drag, with lower numbers signifying sleeker shapes. A brick has a drag coefficient of 2.1. A 1920 Model T has a coefficient of 0.80. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron has a coefficient of 0.36. Jaray achieved a coefficient of 0.23. Over the next decade, companies including Audi and Mercedes commissioned prototypes. Requiring complex curves beyond the capacity of conventional manufacturing, none went into production until 1934, when a Czech company called Tatra introduced the luxurious T77. Advertising billed it as “the car of the future.” Several hundred were hand-built.

The same year, Chrysler launched a car with a similar approach to aerodynamics, if not elegance. Touted as “the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile,” the Airflow was designed in a wind tunnel by Chrysler chief engineer Carl Breer, who retained Orville Wright as a consultant. The model was singularly unpopular. Approximately 11,000 Airflows sold in the first year and a total of 53,000 were manufactured before the car was discontinued in 1937. The Airflow was just too radical for mass-appeal: Accustomed to the long hoods of torpedo tourers (which parted air like the bow of a ship), most people found the Airflow’s rounded nose to be insufficiently streamlined in appearance. Breer countered that conventional cars of the period were actually most aerodynamic running in reverse, a claim supported by scientific research, but Chrysler’s competition had a more effective response: In 1936, Ford introduced the Lincoln Zephyr, which integrated a more limited set of aerodynamic principles into a car that looked swift to drivers accustomed to roadable torpedoes.

Styled by the Dutch-American car designer John Tjaarda, the sleek Zephyr easily outpaced the stubby “Airflop”. Nearly 175,000 of them were built. Yet Tjaarda’s impact may actually have been far greater than that. A rounded rear-engine version shown at industry events in the early ’30s might have inspired Ferdinand Porsche’s aerodynamic 1932 Kleinauto — which became the best-selling car in history as the Volkswagen Beetle. Regardless of who influenced whom — and Porsche likely influenced Tjaarda in return — streamlining was well-traveled territory by the time Fuller introduced the Dymaxion in 1933. Practically nobody was designing cars like buggies.

His vehicle was impressively aerodynamic. With a drag coefficient of 0.25, it was comparable to a 21st century Toyota Prius, far superior to the Airflow (drag coefficient 0.50), the Beetle (0.49), the Zephyr (0.45), and even the T77 (0.38, later reduced to 0.33). However Fuller was far from unique in his quest for aerodynamic perfection, and his approach was far from realistic. Compared to the Dymaxion, the Airflow was practically as conservative — and the T77 was practically as manufacturable — as a Ford Model A. The only truly unconventional car to be mass-produced in the pre-war period was the Volkswagen, and that came courtesy of Adolf Hitler’s central planning. Even if Detroit had decided to manufacture the Dymaxion, there’s every reason to believe it would have failed in the marketplace, or been so thoroughly compromised that people would have been better off driving a Zephyr.

One of Fuller’s Dymaxion cars (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

But it was never meant to be a car. At various stages, Fuller called it a 4D transportation unit, an omnimedium plummeting device and a zoomobile. One of the earliest sketches, dating from 1927, described it as a “triangular framed auto-airplane with collapsible wings.” The wings were supposed to inflate like a “child’s balloon” as three “liquid air turbines” lifted the teardrop-shaped three-wheeler off the ground.

The notion of a hybrid vehicle was not completely implausible when Fuller began designing his Dymaxion. The aviator Glenn Curtiss exhibited a prototype Autoplane at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition in 1917, and the engineer René Tampier actually got his Avion-Automobile airborne at the 1921 Paris Air Salon. However their technology was conventional: fixed wings powered by spinning propellers. Fuller’s vision called for jet engines to provide instantaneous lift, no runway required.

The requisite materials didn’t yet exist. In the late ’20s there were no alloys strong enough to withstand the heat and compression of jet propulsion (let alone inflatable plastics sturdy enough to support a plane in flight). So Fuller opted to start by building “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device,” as he explained to his biographer Hugh Kenner several decades later. Fuller also told Kenner that he “knew everyone would call it a car.” By the early ’30s, even Fuller himself was doing so, and after his three prototypes were built, he never returned to the omnimedium zoomobile concept.

Yet the reasoning behind his transportation unit was groundbreaking, even more radical than the jet stilts themselves. Fuller was conceiving an alternate way of living. To his biographer Athena Lord, he described that life as the freedom of a wild duck.

The zoomobile was a byproduct of Fuller’s earliest ideas about architecture, which were inspired by his time in the Navy. The sailor “sees everything in motion,” he wrote in a 1944 article for American Neptune. “Sailors constantly exercise their inherent dynamic sensibilities.” For Fuller, this was the natural way of life, intruded upon by landlubbers with their manmade property laws and heavy brick buildings.

For a seaman, like a duck, there was no earthly reason why a home ought to have a permanent fixed address. Fuller envisioned nothing less than an Air Ocean World Town, in which housing could be temporarily docked in any location, transported by Zeppelin. To achieve this, he needed the housing to be modular and self-sufficient, and he required a way for people to get around without roads. Zoomobiles promised complete air-ocean mobility for a global population unconstrained by cities and even national boundaries.

In other words, Fuller was trying to facilitate a self-organizing society, much as he’d observed in natural environments. Naturally inspired — an early premonition of what today gets called biomimesis — his global human ecosystem would allow people to live more harmoniously with nature. Yet his utopia was not a return to some imagined primeval idyll, for he never considered humans to be like other animals. Man is “adaptive in many if not any direction,” he wrote in his 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. “Mind apprehends and comprehends the general principles governing flight and deep sea diving, and man puts on his wings or his lungs, and then takes them off when not using them. The specialist bird is greatly impeded by its wings when trying to walk. The fish cannot come out of the sea and walk upon land, for birds and fish are specialists.”

To foster a human ecosystem in which self-organization would come naturally for Homo faber, Fuller had to extend human capabilities beyond what was technically possible in the 1930s. He needed new materials and techniques to fully decouple us from our primate past.

We should be grateful that he didn’t pull it off. To set billions of people loose in private jets would be an ecological disaster. As Fuller later came to appreciate, there are environmental advantages to cities where resources can easily be shared.

However the practical flaws in Fuller’s plan are trivial compared to the conceptual promise. His world, like ours, was built on political and economic hierarchies with vast control over resources. Through their tremendous leverage, those hierarchies have profoundly altered our environment, increasingly for the worse. Nature can inspire different social structures, self-organizing and universally local. From flocks of ducks to deep-sea fish, we can sample different relationships as the basis of different political and economic systems, no jet stilts required.

Even the simplest organisms can suggest alternatives to current power structures. For instance, slime molds can solve complex engineering problems without a central nervous system: Set a slime mold atop a map of the United States with dabs of food in place of cities and the organism will find an optimal way to spread itself from coast to coast, forming a feeding network closely resembling the layout of our interstate highways. Slime molds achieve this feat through distributed decision-making, in which each cell communicates only with those nearest. The creature uses a form of consensus different from anything ever attempted by a government.

Slime molds can provide a new model for democracy, a novel method of voting that could prevent political gridlock. Imagine an electoral college system in which there were many tiers, such as states, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, households, and individuals. Individual votes would be tallied resulting in a household consensus, households would be tallied resulting in a block consensus, blocks would be tallied resulting in a neighborhood consensus, etcetera. (Like states in the present electoral college, households, neighborhoods and cities with larger populations would have more votes, but all votes for a household, neighborhood or city would be cast as a unit. ) Equivalent to individual cells in a slime mold colony, people would interact most with those closest to them. Their interactions would be intimate and intense, driven by a palpable sense of mutual responsibility. Real discussion would replace mass-media rhetoric. National decisions would emerge through local confluences of interest. Political gridlock is caused by the buildup of factions and breakdown of meaningful communication. Slime molds don’t have that problem. By emulating them — schematically, not biologically — we can be as fortunate.

Slime molds suggest just one opportunity. At the opposite extreme, the global cycling of chemicals such as methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide may provide models for more equitable distribution of wealth and a less volatile world economy.

Maintained by natural feedback loops involving all life on Earth, the methane, nitrogen and carbon cycles optimize the use of global chemical resources. There is no waste every substance is valuable in the right place. That’s because organisms have co-evolved to exploit one another’s refuse. (The most familiar example is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals.) Humans can likewise cycle resources through reciprocal relationships. A minor example of this — already being tested in some cities — is the installation of industrial computer servers in people’s homes where the machines can provide warmth while keeping cool. These so-called data furnaces simultaneously save the expense of heating for families and air conditioning for cloud service providers. A global online marketplace for needs could facilitate many more such exchanges, making waste into wherewithal, transforming want into wealth. The world economy is vulnerable because of vast and increasing income disparity, reinforced by constraints on exchange which must be channeled through banks, mediated by money. Resource cycling requires no such funnel, and inherently tends toward equilibrium. We might even expect to see the co-evolution of supply and demand between communities, much as happens with communities of bacteria.

With the zoomobile, Fuller pioneered a form of biomimesis that is not reductionist but systemic. Once established, the system is feral, evolutionary, experimental. The results are unpredictable. Ultimately it’s about setting up an environment for the organic development of a different kind of society.

Fuller the sailor was never fixed in his thinking. “I did not set out to design a house that hung from a pole, or to manufacture a new type of automobile,” he informed Robert Marks in The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. At his best, his mind was as free as a zoomobile. “I started with the Universe,” he said. “I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.”

This passage is excerpted from You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, to be published in April by Oxford University Press. The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon.


On October 18, 1933, the American philosopher-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller applies for a patent for his Dymaxion Car. The Dymaxion—the word itself was another Fuller invention, a combination of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion”—looked and drove like no vehicle anyone had ever seen. It was a three-wheeled, 20-foot-long, pod-shaped automobile that could carry 11 passengers and travel as fast as 120 miles per hour. It got 30 miles to the gallon, could U-turn in a distance equal to its length and could parallel park just by pivoting its wheels toward the curb and zipping sideways into its parking space.


It was stylish, efficient and eccentric and it attracted a great deal of attention: Celebrities wanted to ride in it and rich men wanted to invest in it. But in the same month that Fuller applied for his patent, one of his prototype Dymaxions crashed, killing the driver and alarming investors so much that they withdrew their money from the project.

When Fuller first sketched the Dymaxion Car in 1927, it was a half-car, half-airplane—when it got going fast enough, its wings were supposed to inflate—called the 𔄜D Transport.” In 1932, the sculptor Isamu Naguchi helped the inventor with his final design: a long teardrop-shaped chassis with two wheels in front and a third in back that could lift off the ground. In practice, this didn’t turn out to be a great idea: As the vehicle picked up speed (theoretically in preparation for takeoff) and the third wheel bounced off the ground, it became nearly impossible for the driver to control the car. In fact, many people blamed this handling problem for the fatal crash of the prototype car, even though an investigation revealed that a car full of sightseers had actually caused the accident by hurtling into the Dymaxion’s lane.


History's Weirdest Concept Cars

Designed and constructed by none other than the legendary Richard Buckminster &ldquoBucky&rdquo Fuller, discoverer of &ldquobuckyballs&rdquo and &ldquobuckytubes&rdquo among others, the Dymaxion was meant to make the world of personal transportation a better place. How, do you ask? Well, it achieved over 30 mpg, could carry up to eleven people at a reasonable speed and was among the first minivans ever.

Oh, and remember this was happening in 1933. Probably because of its sheer awesomeness, the car was never mass produced. It was never lightly produced either, the pictured example being the only one ever built. Phantom Corsair

This UFO-shaped car comes from the late 1930s. Built in 1938 on a Cord 810 chassis means that it was a front-wheel drive V8 with 190 hp. The ergonomically-challenged interior was a bit cramped considering the car's overall size, but it could still seat six passengers in decent comfort.


Its slippery shape and decently-powerful engine managed to give the Corsair a top speed of up to 115 mph (185 km/h), enough for any bystander to think they have just witnessed a black UFO hovering past them.

The amazing Luke-I-am-your-father body was jointly designed by Rust Heinz (of the Heinz Company) and Maurice Schwartz (of the Bohman & Schwartz coachbuilding company). Too bad there was only one ever made, even though a limited production had been planned.


Aurora Safety Car

The Aurora Safety Car was never used to lap a circuit in front of a bunch of race cars in its entire life. We agree, this is probably the ugliest car of all time, but its looks and name are there for a reason. That reason is safety (surprise-surprise, huh?). A one-man effort, the Aurora was dreamed by a catholic priest, Father Alfred A. Juliano, who apparently was also a car buff. Apart form his questionable tastes in car design, Father Juliano built what some would say looks like a devil's spawn on a Buick platform.

It was to sport either a Chrysler, Cadillac, or a Lincoln engine. With the hope in mind to encourage car makers in building safer cars for both drivers and pedestrians, Father Juliano included some pretty nutty safety features. For example, the seats could be swiveled rearwards in case of an impeding accident, all the seats had safety belts (the year was 1957, mind you), hydraulic jacks for easier service and it had crumple zones all around the cockpit.


Bertone Alfa Romeo BAT 5,6 and 7

Though somehow docile looking when compared to some of today's concept cars, these Bertone-designed BAT(mobiles) cars came as a bit of a revolution in the early fifties. All three cars were penned for Alfa Romeo, their major aim being to create aerodynamic models that could put the cars' power to good use. Eventually they managed to achieve a wind resistance better than most of today's so-called streamlined cars (Toyota's Prius comes to mind).

They were also completely an dutterly drop dead gorgeous, plus becoming predecessors (design wise) to Batman's Batmobiles that followed. Another BAT concept, the BAT 11, was made by Bertone in 2008, more than 50 years after the originals.


Ford Nucleon

Let's see now, it's a Ford, it has a freaking nuclear reactor in the trunk and it looks like it came from a Jetsons episode where it was used to carry palettes from the future. Apart from the weird looking design, its most obvious feature is its plutonium powered &ldquoengine&rdquo, which gives us a fascinating window into the mindset of post-war thinking.

The 3/8 sized concept was born in an era where it was believed that everything in the future will be powered by nuclear power, from spaceships to Swatch wristwatches. Ford engineers said that a production version of the car could travel about 5000 miles (8000 kilometers) between fill-ups, which was still not a good enough reason to risk a neighborhood fallout after a minor fender bender.


Mercedes F300 LifeJet

People have apparently always attempted to unite the eons-old sayings of &ldquotwo-wheels cool four-wheels-boring&rdquo by merging the automobile and the motorbike. Unfortunately, this usually resulted in dreadful-looking compromise: the sidecar. Though there have been many tries before and after it, the Mercedes-Benz F300 LifeJet stands out as the most imaginative and oddly attractive attempt.

Despite taking some of the danger (aka coolness) out of two-wheel machines, this peculiar-looking three-wheeler manages to massage that &ldquocertain gland&rdquo just by taking a few 90 degree turns and making the driver and/or passenger to feel like being in a roller-coaster ride.


Mercedes-Benz Bionic Car

Yes, we know it's the second Mercedes-Benz on out list, but we just couldn't resist. When looking to design a car after a creature, a fish to be more exact, you think Mercedes would have looked to something more vicious-looking, something like a tiger shark, a barracuda or even a fat piranha.

But you would be wrong. Those wacky Germans chose to design a car after the Boxfish. Even though you'd never tell by looking at it, it has a Cd of only 0.19. So it's not only aerodynamic, but also highly hydrodynamic.

As an extra, it's hydrogen fuel cell &ldquoengine&rdquo emits no harmful gases into the atmosphere, so the real Boxfishes won't be hurt by its existence. Its interior structure is also based on the Boxfish' skeleton, which can only make us wonder if a crash-test would turn it into a pile of sushi remains.


BMW GINA Light Visionary Model

A shape-shifting car with a body made of cloth. Can we get much more weirder than that? The one and only Chris Bangle says this odd concept car "helps to tap into formerly inconceivable, innovative potential". Umm. right. The head of design at BMW and his team had actually built the vehicle in 2002 on a Z8 chassis but kept it under wraps (more cloth. ) for its 2008 unveil. Accompanying the weird shape is its even more weird (for a car) name.

Apparently, GINA isn't Bangle's high-school sweetheart, but an acronym for &ldquoGeometry and functions In 'N' Adaptions&rdquo. The fabric skin surrounding the exterior of the cars is polyurethane-coated Lycra (GINA wears Lycras!) and its stretched over an aluminium frame controlled by electro-hydraulic actuators which allow the driver to change the shape of the body and even make the headlights wink at you as you pass by. Word.


1938 Dymaxion

The Dymaxion car was a concept car designed by Buckminster Fuller in 1933. Fuller, born in 1895, was best known for his geodesic domes. The word “dymaxion” was a word used by Fuller for several of his inventions. Fuller took the words dynamic, maximum and tension and combined them into “dymaxion.”

The story of the Dymaxion begins in 1933 with Buckminster and culminates in 2015 with Jeff Lane and the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tenn.

The building of the original and first Dymaxion began in 1933. The car was hand-built, as it was a prototype, and was to be displayed at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair. On its way to the fair on Oct. 17, 1933, the Dymaxion was hit by another car and flipped over. It resulted in the death of the driver and seriously injuring the two passengers. The vehicle that hit the Dymaxion was driven by a local politician, and his car was immediately removed from the accident scene. The reports in the press the next day lay the blame on the Dymaxion’s unconventional design and the fact it had two wheels in the front and one in the rear that acted like a rudder.

The official investigation that followed exonerated the Dymaxion and its design and lay the fault of the accident on the Dymaxion being hit by a car that was illegally removed from the accident scene. This “report” came out 60 days after the accident. It found the actual cause of the impact was a collision with a car driven by a Chicago South Park commissioner who wanted a closer look at the Dymaxion. The damage to the Dymaxion and its reputation for being a safe vehicle was already done, with initial reports blaming a “freak car rolls over, killing driver.” There was never any mention about a second vehicle in the news report.


This first Dymaxion was eventually repaired by Fuller and his small team of workers and designers. There were three original Dymaxion’s made. The first being the one badly damaged in Chicago. Car number two is in a Museum in Reno, Nev., and car number three changed owners several times and was supposedly scrapped in the 1950s.

Which brings us to the Dymaxion you see here and Jeff Lane of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville. Jeff Lane is a “car guy” in the truest and purest sense of the term, although the cars in the museum are not “museum” pieces — they are all “drivers,” and indeed Jeff does drive them around Nashville on warm, dry days. Cars are “fun” and meant to be enjoyed and that is one thing Jeff excels at. Being an aficionado of the oddball automobile, he thought there should be an example of a Dymaxion that people could see “driving down the road.” The chassis for Jeff’s Dymaxionn was built in Pennsylvania with refinements made at the Lane Musuem’s facility in Nashville. It was then sent off to the Czech Republic where Mirko Hrazdira built the wooden-body support structure. Ecorra, a Czech company which specializes in restoring Tatras and restored Jeff’s 1947 T-87 Tatra, fabricated the aluminum skin for the Dymaxion. To stay as true to the original 1938 Dymaxion as possbile, a 1936 Ford Flat Head V-8 was used as the power plant along with a Ford three-speed manual transmission. Hydraulic brakes are used in place of the mechanical brakes of the original Dymaxion. Anything related to safety has been updated. Radial tires are used in place of bias ply tires, seats have safety belts, etc.

As for the unique design of the Dymaxion, to say the interior is spacious would be a slight understatement. Visibility out that front scenic cruiser windshield is superb, you can see the road three feet in front of you since there is no engine compartment. With its two front wheels being the “power wheels” and single rear-wheel acts like a rudder driving and handling take some “getting used to,” in particular on highways where 18-wheelers have created “that ridge” in the center of a lane, where the single rear-steering tire is. In the 1930s, trucks were not as big as today’s 18-wheelers and the weight they carry. As for rear visibility, there is a periscopic mirror in the roof above the driver that affords 360-degree vision with no worry of an electronic failure

It was said that if the Dymaxion had gone into production, Fuller and his design team was going to go with a conventional set up of front steering and rear-wheels being the power or driving wheels. As Jeff says, “When you’re pulling out onto a two-lane road, you have to turn the wheel first, before you move. Then as you come out, you need to turn back, because if you don’t do that, the rear end’s going to swing into oncoming traffic. Every time somebody drives it initially, it’s like they’re drunk. But once you get used to it, it’s not so bad.” In March, Jeff and “his crew” drove the Dymaxion from Nashville to the 2015 Amelia Island Concours in Florida a distance of 600 miles.

I had the distinct pleasure of riding in the Dymaxion, which “is quite a trip” in the physical and spiritual sense. Looking out the front windshield makes taking in the scenery an entirely different visual experience. You have a field of vision between 280 and 300 degree,s and the sky is the limit without ever having to move your head. You sit “high” in the “Max” but not as high as some modern day 4 x 4 pickups. The ride is smooth and comfortable, which is in no small part due to Jeff’s expertise with the vehicle.

You cannot go down the road or stop at any traffic light without scores of people smiling and waving at you. When parked, the Dymaxion is like honey to flies, except it is people swarming about it. You do not own a vehicle like the Dymaxion — or any in the Lane Motor Museum — and not like people, for people will be all you meet and talk with.


We drive Buckminster Fuller's terrifying Dymaxion car (so you don't have to)

The Lane Motor Museum didn&rsquot spend eight years building an incredibly artful replica of the Dymaxion Car just to make Buckminster Fuller look bad. At least, we don&rsquot think they did -- museum director Jeff Lane is too nice of a guy to pick on the famed futurist, especially since Fuller, who died in 1983, isn&rsquot around to defend himself.

We wish he were still around today, though, so we could ask him personally what he was thinking when he penned the Dymaxion car. Because we have to report, with some sadness, that it&rsquos scariest, most poorly designed vehicle we&rsquove ever been behind the wheel of.

Of course, blaming Bucky for the car&rsquos shortcomings isn't entirely fair, for the Dymaxion car as we know it was far from complete. In its final form, the 20-foot-long podlike contraption would negotiate the skies using some sort of jet-like propulsion system (never mind that jets hadn&rsquot quite been invented when the car was developed). Yes, it was supposed to fly.

Spend any amount of time chatting with Jeff Lane about the Dymaxion car and that phrase -- &ldquoBucky claimed&rdquo -- is one you&rsquoll hear an awful lot.

As in: Bucky claimed that the Dymaxion car could carry up to 11 passengers cross-country at 90 mph -- or was it 120 mph? -- while returning 30 mpg.

Bucky also claimed he drove a flathead Ford V8-powered Dymaxion to six-digit mileage without a rebuild or an overhaul.

But this has to be our personal favorite: Bucky claimed to have driven the streamliner onto a midget car racetrack in the Bronx -- and promptly beat the track&rsquos lap record time by 50 percent.

And then there&rsquos that flying-car bit, which we stumbled upon while doing some digging on Fuller and his brief foray into automotive design. Even by the low standards of the flying-car industry, that effort didn&rsquot get very far if its hypothetical airworthiness was on par with its roadworthiness, that&rsquos probably a good thing for all of us.

The Dymaxion car, coming at you fast! But not too fast.

Even decades after his death, Buckminster Fuller has no shortage of proponents. Lane, an even-keeled sort of guy, doesn&rsquot seem to buy fully into the Fuller hype -- hence the frequent use of the &ldquoBucky claimed&rdquo disclaimer.

Yet he&rsquos not willing to write Fuller off as a crank or huckster, instead considering him a true visionary -- a thinker too busy looking decades forward to trouble himself with the day-to-day operations of a business. Or the intricacies of chassis engineering, or engine cooling, or really anything having to do with designing, building and selling a functional, safe automobile.

The Dymaxion car&rsquos bizarre configuration should be the first clue that it&rsquos not exactly going to be the most stable thing on three wheels. The reverse-trike configuration is a decent start, but it all quickly goes to hell: though it is front-wheel drive, the Dymaxion car&rsquos Ford V8 is way in the back -- just ahead of the singular rear wheel, which is cradled by a suspension system cobbled together from Ford components.

That rear wheel is how you steer the car, for some reason. In theory, this front-wheel-drive-rear-wheel-steering configuration gives the Dymaxion car a very tight turning radius. In practice, it walks all over the road, even at the low speeds (20 mph to 35 mph) we held it down to crowned or rutted road surfaces are extremely difficult to negotiate.

Keeping Bucky&rsquos beached whale pointed straight demands slow, deliberate and constant steering adjustment. At the back of our minds there was the fear that a quick input or an overcorrection would send the car swinging back and forth across the road like an out-of-control pendulum, ultimately leading to our horrible, embarrassing death. This fear was not unfounded, as the car the Lane Museum replicated most closely (prototype number one of three built) killed its driver back in 1933.

One of the few ways the Lane's Dymaxion replica differs from the original is its steering. Fuller's plans called for a staggering 35 turns-to-lock the Lane's car requires just six. Jeff Lane explains this more direct setups makes the necessary, frequent corrections more immediate, reducing the likelihood of a novice driver overcorrecting. Other upgrades were made in the name of safety : Hydraulic steering and hydraulic brakes replace their cable-actuated counterparts on the original cars.

All that said, the Dymaxion is not the practically self-steering cruiser that Bucky claimed -- or imagined -- it was. Surprise!

It apparently doesn&rsquot get all that much easier to drive with experience, either. Lane and company drove the car down to the Amelia Island Concours d&rsquoElegance this year. That single road trip was probably long enough to make Lane the most experienced living Dymaxion pilot, but even he said his shoulders were aching by the end of a day in the car. Not because you have to wrestle with the wheel, but because of the intense, shoulder-cramping focus it took just to keep the thing moving down the road.

Also, it overheats. Part of that could be remedied by modifying of the roof-mounted air intake. Currently, the snorkel is next to useless apparently, the flathead's heat creates a positive-pressure area in the engine bay area, which makes air intake difficult. It would be easy enough to fix, but then, Lane would probably argue, you might as well reinvent the complicated suspension. Or configure the car for front-steering that's something Fuller might have pursued had he built a second-generation prototype.

At that point, however, you&rsquore no longer dealing with a Dymaxion car, and a running, driving Dymaxion car is precisely what Jeff Lane wanted. Remember, the Lane Motor Museum is a place where you can get an up-close look at propeller-powered French oddities it&rsquos a collection that recognizes the importance of intriguing automotive dead-ends. After all, nobody knew for sure that a front-wheel drive rear-steering three-wheeler wouldn&rsquot work until Fuller tried it&hellip

Further, more than seeing a patina-wearing relic in a museum, this new replica -- everything gleaming and the varnish fresh -- gives a sense of what The Future must have looked like to Depression-era America. Look at the Dymaxion car and you&rsquoll desperately want to root for Team Bucky, to believe that his incredibly optimistic World of Tomorrow was, or still is, possible, Dymaxion houses and luxury zeppelins and all.

As a car, it&rsquos well nigh on useless. As an artifact, it&rsquos invaluable. And you should be glad that we drove it, so you don&rsquot ever have to.


About R. Buckminster Fuller

There are few men who can justly claim to have revolutionized their discipline. R. Buckminster Fuller revolutionized many. “Bucky,” as he was known to most, was a designer, architect, poet, educator, engineer, philosopher, environmentalist, and, above all, humanitarian. Driven by the belief that humanity’s major problems were hunger and homelessness he dedicated his life to solving those problems through inexpensive and efficient design.

The grandnephew of the American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, Bucky was born on July 12, 1895 in Milton, Massachusetts. He was twice expelled from Harvard. Later, Bucky married Anne Hewlett in 1917 and went into the construction business with her father. A decade later he witnessed the first of many business failures, when, due to economic difficulties, he was forced out of the company. Despondent over these failures and family problems, he resolved to focus his energies on a search for socially responsible answers to the major design problems of his time.

Recognizing the inefficiency of the automobile, Bucky spent the late twenties designing a car that would incorporate the engineering advances of the airplane. In 1933, he presented the first prototype of the Dymaxion car. The Dymaxion car could hold twelve passengers, go 120 miles per hour and used half the gas of the standard car, utilizing aerodynamics construction and only three wheels. While demonstrating the car to investors, it crashed, taking one life. Though the crash was later determined not to be the fault of the car, he was never able to find adequate funding.

As World War II ended and housing crises in America became more acute, he turned his sights to what would remain his life-long dream. Using airplane construction methods and materials, Bucky set out to create a pre-fabricated house that could be easily delivered to any location. It would be fireproof and inexpensive and constructed out of light weight materials. In 1945 however, with thousands of orders in place for his new Dymaxion House, Fuller once again ran into difficulties with investors and had to end the project.

Unsure of his next step and without a job, Bucky accepted a position at a small college in North Carolina, Black Mountain College. There, with the support of an amazing group of professors and students, he began work on the project that was to make him famous and revolutionize the field of engineering. Using lightweight plastics in the simple form of a tetrahedron (a triangular pyramid) he created a small dome. As his work continued it became clear that he had made the first building that could sustain its own weight with no practical limits. The U.S. government recognized the importance of the discovery and employed him to make small domes for the army. Within a few years there were thousands of these domes around the world.

Having finally received recognition for his endeavors, Buckminster Fuller spent the final fifteen years of his life traveling around the world lecturing on ways to better use the world’s resources. A favorite of the radical youth of the late 60’s and 70’s, Fuller worked to expand social activism to an international scope. Among his most famous books were NO MORE SECONDHAND GOD(1963) OPERATING MANUAL FOR THE SPACESHIP EARTH (1969), and EARTH, INC. (1973) in which he writes “In reality, the Sun, the Earth, and the Moon are nothing else than a most fantastically well-designed and space-programmed team of vehicles. All of us are, always have been, and so long as we exist, always will be–nothing else but–astronauts.”


Three-Wheeled cars the story, the history, the scandals

The original three-wheeler, the Benz Patent Motorwagen which Karl Benz’ wife drove with her sons on an unauthorized journey around Germany.

After a hundred years of motoring, four wheels seems preordained, but that wasn’t always certain. In fact the very first internal combustion powered car was a three-wheeled vehicle by Benz with a single, steerable front wheel. Experiments were the name of the game as the automobile was being developed, the Octoauto taking home first prize with its eight-wheel configuration, but four wheels soon became a near universal standard.

But dreams of a three-wheeled car died hard. Legendary British sports carmaker Morgan introduced their first three-wheeler in 1911 and re-introduced it in 2012, scoring the record for being the longest producer of three-wheeled cars in the world.

Recognized as the world’s smallest car, the three-wheeled Peel 250 of 1962 was produced in a run of fifty examples. Built on the Isle of Man, it’s so small that a presenter for the show Top Gear was able to drive one through the halls of the BBC.

Buckminster Fuller’s legendary Dymaxion car bragged of its ability to swivel 360 degrees in its own length, but dedicating a single rear wheel to steering the car led to dangerously squirrely handling and only three aircraft-styled examples were produced.

Several ambitious automotive experiments failed in the super-heated market of the immediate post WWII period, but the strangest might have been the three-wheeled Davis Divan, named after a sofa because its single seat accommodated four sitting side-by-side. A single front wheel allowed the 1948 Davis to turn around in its own footprint, a handy feature that wasn’t enough to guarantee success as the company closed after producing just seventeen cars. Its promoter was sent to jail for fraud, later emerging to design bumper cars for carnivals.

Japan’s post WWII economy didn’t encourage elaborate automotive dreams. Banned from producing airplanes, Hitachi Aviation switched to producing the Fuji Cabin, a tiny three-wheeler with a production run of eighty-five examples in 1955. Its five horsepower engine propelled the Cabin to a blistering 37 MPH top speed. Cute as a cartoon, survivors are now blue chip collectibles, one having sold for $126,500 in 2013.

The Reliant Robin ranks as the world’s second most produced fiberglass car. Introduced in 1963, its single front wheel design didn’t help high-speed handling. Top Gear did a hilarious segment showing one rounding corners and continually tipping over. A funny bit, but word is, they monkeyed with the car to make it capsize more easily. The quirky-looking plastic Robin enjoyed a production run of 25 years.

Germany’s Messerschmitt Kabinenroller (cabin scooter) was another Axis power’s solution to a ruined economy by an aircraft company forbidden to make planes. A three-wheeler with tandem seating for two, it featured a clear Plexiglas canopy just like a Luftwaffe fighter plane along with a small motorcycle engine percolating away at the back end. Four thousand of the two-stroke motorcycle powered coupes were produced from 1955-64.

The three-wheeled configuration has attracted some shady promoters over the years. Besides the aforementioned Davis Divan, there was the mid-seventies Dale. Two prototypes of a three wheeled coupe were shown widely in an attempt to gain investors. One even appeared as a prize on The Price Is Right, but luckily, no one won it. Promoted by a two hundred pound, six foot tall transvestite fugitive from the law, the Dale saga ended badly when the California Securities Commission shut the company down and its promoter went on the lamb.

Much later the two-seater Elio appeared. Slick marketing offered early depositors preferred spots in line, but after promising start of production, “late next year” for several years, the car that promised 84 MPG and a $6,800 price tag seems as doomed as the Davis with just a handful of prototypes to show for the millions of dollars sacrificed by depositors.

Resembling a wingless private airplane on three wheels, the futuristic electric Aptera peaked with its appearance in a Star Trek movie and sadly went bust soon afterwards with just a couple of promising prototypes having been built and shown a sad case of underfunding rather then malfeasance.

Though there’ve been several successful three wheeled motorcycles, the same can’t be said for cars despite some noble (and not so noble) attempts to introduce the configuration as a mainstream vehicle.


First Dymaxion car produced - HISTORY

The Adventures of Buckminster Fuller and the Dymaxion Car: A Book Excerpt

Buckminster Fuller was a visionary. Though he devoted much of his career to architecture and engineering, he referred to himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist,” a job title just broad enough to cover his six-decade quest to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity.” That often led to ideas of dubious merit — such as a plan to make New York more temperate by placing Manhattan under a geodesic dome — lending him a screwball reputation that lingers to this day. In You Belong to the Universe, which will be published in April 2016 by Oxford University Press, I argue that Fuller’s crackpot legacy is a travesty. His core principles, such as doing “the most with the least,” are more essential now than ever. So is his knack for bridging far-flung fields like urban planning and environmental science. The time has come to release Fuller from the impractically futuristic designs that made him notorious, and to revive the discipline he called comprehensive anticipatory design science. In this chapter excerpt, I explore one way that might be achieved.

The future of transportation did not proceed according to plan. Touted as the greatest advance since the horse-and-buggy when it rolled out of the factory in 1933, the first car that Buckminster Fuller built burned up in a fire a decade later. A second one got shredded for scrap metal during the Korean War. As for the third of Fuller’s three prototype Dymaxion vehicles, there were rumors that a Wichita Cadillac dealer warehoused it in the ’50s for his private pleasure. The rumors were wrong. In 1968, some Arizona State University engineering students found it parked on a local farm. Repurposed as a makeshift poultry coop, the last vestige of Fuller’s futuristic transport was slowly succumbing to the corrosive effects of rain and chicken poop.

The farm belonged to a man named Theodore Mezes, who’d bought the three-wheeled car for a dollar some decades earlier. The students gave him $3000 and hauled it home, but they couldn’t make it run. So they resold it to Bill Harrah — a casino mogul with a museumful of Duesenbergs and Pierce-Arrows — who had the aluminum shell refurbished and the windows painted over so that people couldn’t see the ruined interior. In Harrah’s collection — later rechristened the National Automobile Museum — the Dymaxion car cruised into automotive history.

And there it might have remained indefinitely, a restored icon of Fuller’s stillborn vision, if a former colleague hadn’t decided to conceive a new one a quarter century after Fuller’s death. The colleague was Sir Norman Foster, architect of Wembley Stadium and the Beijing Airport. As a young man, Foster had collaborated with Fuller on some of Fuller’s final architectural projects — mostly unrealized — and Foster wasn’t shy about using Fuller’s name to add intellectual heft to his subsequent commercial success.

Money was no issue. Foster hired the British racing car restorers Crosthwaite & Gardiner, and had the original Dymaxion shipped on special loan to East Sussex from Reno, Nevada. Construction took two years, more than twice the time that Fuller required to build the original. The back axle and V-8 engine were stripped from a Ford Tudor sedan, the same source as Fuller had used. These were flipped upside-down on the chassis so that the back wheels powered the car from the front end. A third wheel, controlled by steel cables stretching from the steering wheel to a pivot at the back of the automobile, acted as a sort of rudder. Atop the chassis, a zeppelin-shaped body of hand-beaten aluminum was wrapped around an ash-wood frame. To this aerodynamic shell, several attributes from the other two Dymaxion cars were added, most prominently a long stabilizing fin. Adapting the best qualities from Fuller’s three prototypes, Foster’s Dymaxion Car No. 4 is the idealized vehicle that Fuller never had the funding to build: the closest metal can get to the Dymaxion legend. Or is it?

Few people besides Foster have actually driven the Dymaxion No. 4, and even he cautiously clocks less than half the 120 mile-per-hour speed that Fuller boasted his Dymaxion could handle. (While carrying eleven passengers, no less, and with thirty-mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency. In other words, the car purportedly could travel at twice the speed of a Ford Tudor on half the fuel, carrying three times the number of people.) The truth is that Fuller’s streamlining is unwieldy in crosswinds, the rear-wheel steering is ropey even on a dry and windless day, and the system of rudder cables is sluggish and unstable. None of this would have surprised Fuller. He refused to let anyone pilot a Dymaxion without special lessons, and injured his own family when a failed steering component caused his car to flip en route to a Harvard reunion. He may have privately been relieved when his company collapsed shortly after the third prototype was completed. “I never discussed it with daddy, but I think the accident turned him away from the car,” Fuller’s daughter Allegra told the design writer Jonathan Glancey in 2011. “I think he thought that if the car did this to his wife and child then maybe it wasn’t the thing to do.”

Foster had no such compunction. His modern Dymaxion faithfully recapitulates Fuller’s unresolved design flaws, an unabashed tribute to Bucky’s genius that perversely enshrines everything wrong with the original vehicles. As Foster confessed to the New York Times in a 2010 interview, the car is “so visually seductive that you want to own it, to have the voluptuous physicality of it in your garage.” In fact, the sheer stylishness of the thing is so mesmerizing that even Fuller himself lost sight of the ideas that made it truly revolutionary, far more than a futuristic mode of transport. Before the Dymaxion car became the Dymaxion car, it was a machine designed to mobilize society, rocketing people away from virtually every assumption about life in the 20th century.

Mezes’s chickens had the right instinct. The iconic object needs to be destroyed for the Dymaxion vision to be restored.

In 1932, Buckminster Fuller made a simple drawing comparing a standard car body to a horse-and-buggy. His picture showed that both vehicles had essentially the same geometry. The hood and passenger compartment of an automobile were two rectangles roughly proportional to a horse with a tall carriage in tow. The car’s grille and windscreen were flatly vertical. Absolutely no consideration was given to airflow.

For the rest of his life, Fuller dwelled on this point, persistently bringing it up in public lectures and repeatedly impressing it on fawning biographers. Whereas boats and airplanes were streamlined, designed for maximum efficiency, Fuller insisted that the automobile was still saddled with an equestrian past that he singlehandedly sought to overcome with his Dymaxion.

He was deceiving himself. Practically for as long as there have been automobiles, engineers have been obsessed with wind resistance, and determined to diminish it with streamlining.

Racers led the way. Fuller was four years old when Camille Jenatzy’s 1899 Jamais Contente — essentially a four-wheel rocket with a man seated on top — became the first land vehicle to travel a mile per minute. Seven years later, Francis and Freelan Stanley more than doubled Jenatzy’s record with a steam-powered car that proved too aerodynamic: Hitting a bump, the dirigible-inspired auto took off and flew one hundred feet before crashing, vividly showing that the aerodynamics of flight and driving are not the same.

Though neither of these vehicles was practical for everyday transport, another racing car did become the prototype for most automobiles from the teens through the thirties. Designed for one of the first long-distance speed contests, the 1909 Prince Henry Benz integrated the streamline form pioneered by Jenatzy into a four-seat touring car. Hood and passenger compartment formed a single continuous line, a major improvement on the modular construction that automakers inherited from the coachbuilding trade. Looking fast even while parked, the so-called torpedo tourer was immensely popular. Only the Ford Model T retained the old angularity for the sake of mass-produced economy. As streamlining became the rage in everything from buildings to fountain pens, even Henry Ford conceded defeat. To recapture his declining market, he launched the streamlined Model A in 1928.

By then the torpedo tourer was technologically passé. As early as 1920, the Hungarian-born Zeppelin designer Paul Jaray was testing ways in which to bring concepts learned from airship research to the road. Wind tunnel tests showed that the aerodynamic ideal for a dirigible was a teardrop shape that guided airflow around the hull with minimal turbulence. Jaray flattened the teardrop to direct air over the top, ensuring that the tires of his cars remained firmly on the road.

Resembling little zeppelins on wheels (with the curved glass passenger compartment on top rather than below), Jaray’s prototypes achieved astonishing results. The standard measure of aerodynamic efficiency is known as coefficient of drag, with lower numbers signifying sleeker shapes. A brick has a drag coefficient of 2.1. A 1920 Model T has a coefficient of 0.80. A 2006 Bugatti Veyron has a coefficient of 0.36. Jaray achieved a coefficient of 0.23. Over the next decade, companies including Audi and Mercedes commissioned prototypes. Requiring complex curves beyond the capacity of conventional manufacturing, none went into production until 1934, when a Czech company called Tatra introduced the luxurious T77. Advertising billed it as “the car of the future.” Several hundred were hand-built.

The same year, Chrysler launched a car with a similar approach to aerodynamics, if not elegance. Touted as “the first real motor car since the invention of the automobile,” the Airflow was designed in a wind tunnel by Chrysler chief engineer Carl Breer, who retained Orville Wright as a consultant. The model was singularly unpopular. Approximately 11,000 Airflows sold in the first year and a total of 53,000 were manufactured before the car was discontinued in 1937. The Airflow was just too radical for mass-appeal: Accustomed to the long hoods of torpedo tourers (which parted air like the bow of a ship), most people found the Airflow’s rounded nose to be insufficiently streamlined in appearance. Breer countered that conventional cars of the period were actually most aerodynamic running in reverse, a claim supported by scientific research, but Chrysler’s competition had a more effective response: In 1936, Ford introduced the Lincoln Zephyr, which integrated a more limited set of aerodynamic principles into a car that looked swift to drivers accustomed to roadable torpedoes.

Styled by the Dutch-American car designer John Tjaarda, the sleek Zephyr easily outpaced the stubby “Airflop”. Nearly 175,000 of them were built. Yet Tjaarda’s impact may actually have been far greater than that. A rounded rear-engine version shown at industry events in the early ’30s might have inspired Ferdinand Porsche’s aerodynamic 1932 Kleinauto — which became the best-selling car in history as the Volkswagen Beetle. Regardless of who influenced whom — and Porsche likely influenced Tjaarda in return — streamlining was well-traveled territory by the time Fuller introduced the Dymaxion in 1933. Practically nobody was designing cars like buggies.

His vehicle was impressively aerodynamic. With a drag coefficient of 0.25, it was comparable to a 21st century Toyota Prius, far superior to the Airflow (drag coefficient 0.50), the Beetle (0.49), the Zephyr (0.45), and even the T77 (0.38, later reduced to 0.33). However Fuller was far from unique in his quest for aerodynamic perfection, and his approach was far from realistic. Compared to the Dymaxion, the Airflow was practically as conservative — and the T77 was practically as manufacturable — as a Ford Model A. The only truly unconventional car to be mass-produced in the pre-war period was the Volkswagen, and that came courtesy of Adolf Hitler’s central planning. Even if Detroit had decided to manufacture the Dymaxion, there’s every reason to believe it would have failed in the marketplace, or been so thoroughly compromised that people would have been better off driving a Zephyr.

But it was never meant to be a car. At various stages, Fuller called it a 4D transportation unit, an omnimedium plummeting device and a zoomobile. One of the earliest sketches, dating from 1927, described it as a “triangular framed auto-airplane with collapsible wings.” The wings were supposed to inflate like a “child’s balloon” as three “liquid air turbines” lifted the teardrop-shaped three-wheeler off the ground.

The notion of a hybrid vehicle was not completely implausible when Fuller began designing his Dymaxion. The aviator Glenn Curtiss exhibited a prototype Autoplane at the Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition in 1917, and the engineer René Tampier actually got his Avion-Automobile airborne at the 1921 Paris Air Salon. However their technology was conventional: fixed wings powered by spinning propellers. Fuller’s vision called for jet engines to provide instantaneous lift, no runway required.

The requisite materials didn’t yet exist. In the late ’20s there were no alloys strong enough to withstand the heat and compression of jet propulsion (let alone inflatable plastics sturdy enough to support a plane in flight). So Fuller opted to start by building “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device,” as he explained to his biographer Hugh Kenner several decades later. Fuller also told Kenner that he “knew everyone would call it a car.” By the early ’30s, even Fuller himself was doing so, and after his three prototypes were built, he never returned to the omnimedium zoomobile concept.

Yet the reasoning behind his transportation unit was groundbreaking, even more radical than the jet stilts themselves. Fuller was conceiving an alternate way of living. To his biographer Athena Lord, he described that life as the freedom of a wild duck.

The zoomobile was a byproduct of Fuller’s earliest ideas about architecture, which were inspired by his time in the Navy. The sailor “sees everything in motion,” he wrote in a 1944 article for American Neptune. “Sailors constantly exercise their inherent dynamic sensibilities.” For Fuller, this was the natural way of life, intruded upon by landlubbers with their manmade property laws and heavy brick buildings.

For a seaman, like a duck, there was no earthly reason why a home ought to have a permanent fixed address. Fuller envisioned nothing less than an Air Ocean World Town, in which housing could be temporarily docked in any location, transported by Zeppelin. To achieve this, he needed the housing to be modular and self-sufficient, and he required a way for people to get around without roads. Zoomobiles promised complete air-ocean mobility for a global population unconstrained by cities and even national boundaries.

In other words, Fuller was trying to facilitate a self-organizing society, much as he’d observed in natural environments. Naturally inspired — an early premonition of what today gets called biomimesis — his global human ecosystem would allow people to live more harmoniously with nature. Yet his utopia was not a return to some imagined primeval idyll, for he never considered humans to be like other animals. Man is “adaptive in many if not any direction,” he wrote in his 1969 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. “Mind apprehends and comprehends the general principles governing flight and deep sea diving, and man puts on his wings or his lungs, and then takes them off when not using them. The specialist bird is greatly impeded by its wings when trying to walk. The fish cannot come out of the sea and walk upon land, for birds and fish are specialists.”

To foster a human ecosystem in which self-organization would come naturally for Homo faber, Fuller had to extend human capabilities beyond what was technically possible in the 1930s. He needed new materials and techniques to fully decouple us from our primate past.

We should be grateful that he didn’t pull it off. To set billions of people loose in private jets would be an ecological disaster. As Fuller later came to appreciate, there are environmental advantages to cities where resources can easily be shared.

However the practical flaws in Fuller’s plan are trivial compared to the conceptual promise. His world, like ours, was built on political and economic hierarchies with vast control over resources. Through their tremendous leverage, those hierarchies have profoundly altered our environment, increasingly for the worse. Nature can inspire different social structures, self-organizing and universally local. From flocks of ducks to deep-sea fish, we can sample different relationships as the basis of different political and economic systems, no jet stilts required.

Even the simplest organisms can suggest alternatives to current power structures. For instance, slime molds can solve complex engineering problems without a central nervous system: Set a slime mold atop a map of the United States with dabs of food in place of cities and the organism will find an optimal way to spread itself from coast to coast, forming a feeding network closely resembling the layout of our interstate highways. Slime molds achieve this feat through distributed decision-making, in which each cell communicates only with those nearest. The creature uses a form of consensus different from anything ever attempted by a government.

Slime molds can provide a new model for democracy, a novel method of voting that could prevent political gridlock. Imagine an electoral college system in which there were many tiers, such as states, cities, neighborhoods, blocks, households, and individuals. Individual votes would be tallied resulting in a household consensus, households would be tallied resulting in a block consensus, blocks would be tallied resulting in a neighborhood consensus, etcetera. (Like states in the present electoral college, households, neighborhoods and cities with larger populations would have more votes, but all votes for a household, neighborhood or city would be cast as a unit. ) Equivalent to individual cells in a slime mold colony, people would interact most with those closest to them. Their interactions would be intimate and intense, driven by a palpable sense of mutual responsibility. Real discussion would replace mass-media rhetoric. National decisions would emerge through local confluences of interest. Political gridlock is caused by the buildup of factions and breakdown of meaningful communication. Slime molds don’t have that problem. By emulating them — schematically, not biologically — we can be as fortunate.

Slime molds suggest just one opportunity. At the opposite extreme, the global cycling of chemicals such as methane, nitrogen and carbon dioxide may provide models for more equitable distribution of wealth and a less volatile world economy.

Maintained by natural feedback loops involving all life on Earth, the methane, nitrogen and carbon cycles optimize the use of global chemical resources. There is no waste every substance is valuable in the right place. That’s because organisms have co-evolved to exploit one another’s refuse. (The most familiar example is the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between plants and animals.) Humans can likewise cycle resources through reciprocal relationships. A minor example of this — already being tested in some cities — is the installation of industrial computer servers in people’s homes where the machines can provide warmth while keeping cool. These so-called data furnaces simultaneously save the expense of heating for families and air conditioning for cloud service providers. A global online marketplace for needs could facilitate many more such exchanges, making waste into wherewithal, transforming want into wealth. The world economy is vulnerable because of vast and increasing income disparity, reinforced by constraints on exchange which must be channeled through banks, mediated by money. Resource cycling requires no such funnel, and inherently tends toward equilibrium. We might even expect to see the co-evolution of supply and demand between communities, much as happens with communities of bacteria.

With the zoomobile, Fuller pioneered a form of biomimesis that is not reductionist but systemic. Once established, the system is feral, evolutionary, experimental. The results are unpredictable. Ultimately it’s about setting up an environment for the organic development of a different kind of society.

Fuller the sailor was never fixed in his thinking. “I did not set out to design a house that hung from a pole, or to manufacture a new type of automobile,” he informed Robert Marks in The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller. At his best, his mind was as free as a zoomobile. “I started with the Universe,” he said. “I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.”

This passage is excerpted from You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future, to be published in April by Oxford University Press. The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon.


Watch the video: Dan Neil: Dymaxion Car-Cool, How Does It Drive? (June 2022).


Comments:

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  2. Altair

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