Car of the Future . . . 80 Years Ago
October 18, 1933: R. Buckminster Fuller to Patent His Dymaxion Car
On this day in 1933, the American philosopher-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller applied for a patent for his Dymaxion Car. 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.
The Dymaxion was a front wheel drive three-wheeler, that could do a U-turn in its own length, carry up to 11 passengers, claimed speeds of 120 mph (fastest documented speed was 90 mph) and got 30 mpg’s. It could parallel park just by pivoting its wheels toward the curb and zipping sideways into its parking space.
The Dymaxion in action:
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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 “4D 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.
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 and a body made of ash wood, covered with an aluminum skin and topped with a painted canvas roof.
Many elements of the Dymaxion Car’s design—its streamlined shape, its fuel efficiency—have inspired later generations of automakers, but Fuller himself was probably best known for another of his inventions: the geodesic dome, as one historian writes, “they have proved to be the strongest structures ever devised.”
But there was a lot to like about the Buckminster Fuller-designed Dymaxion. Part of his Dymaxion brand – Dymaxion being an amalgamation of dynamic, maximum and tension – the 1933 car filled out a design lineup that included a house, a world map and Mr. Fuller’s own, oddly constructed sleep schedule (which consisted of 30-minute naps throughout the day).
In its day, and even now, the Dymaxion was pretty far afield of other automotive designs. It could seat 11 people, had a recorded top speed of 90 miles per hour, and with its rear-mounted, 85-horsepower Ford flathead V-8 engine the car could get up to 30 miles per gallon.
Think about how rare that has been until fairly recently, not many cars capable of carrying more than four people could boast fuel economy numbers that high.
According to Noel Murphy, the author of a documentary about the Dymaxion car – “The Last Dymaxion” – car No. 1, which had been damaged in the World’s Fair crash, finally met its end in 1941, when it caught fire in North Carolina. He said that No. 3 ended up being unceremoniously scrapped in a Wichita, Kan., junkyard during the Korean War. Car No. 2 is the last surviving original, having made its way through the hands of several less-than-illustrious owners before being acquired by William Harrah, the Las Vegas casino executive.
For more on Buckminster Fuller: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckminster_Fuller