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The Weird and Innovative Dymaxion Car That Never Got Off the Ground

What did that look like? A vision of the future with space for 11 people, three wheels, a periscope, and a streamlined ovoid body. ...

The American inventor, Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller, was a true futurist. So much so that his inventions were often so far ahead of their time that they were either laughed at or had people scratching their heads. His most famous invention is the geodesic dome that has been used for everything from military radar stations and civic buildings, but perhaps his most interesting was the ill-fated Dymaxion car.

The word “Dymaxion” was coined by Fuller himself and was derived from dynamic, maximum, and ion. So what did that look like? A vision of the future with space for 11 people, three wheels, a periscope, and a streamlined ovoid body.

What happened to it? It was involved in an accident that ruined its credibility before it was even available to the public.

This is the story of the Dymaxion.

The Idea

dymaxion car sketch
Credit: InsideInside

Fuller described the Dymaxion to his daughter as a “zoomobile” which meant that it could “hop off the road at will, fly about, then, as deftly as a bird, settle back into a place in traffic.”

That sounds amazing, but was it really possible in the 1920s? Fuller was fairly certain that he couldn’t get it fly (yet) but instead would focus on the “ground taxiing” phase, and to do that he got backing from a wealthy stock trader and socialite, Phillip Pearson, though some sources claim funding was secured from a Philadelphia socialite and casual acquaintance of Fuller, Anna ‘Nannie’ Biddle. Either way, he received solid financial backing.

In Fuller’s earliest sketches of what he was calling the 4D Transport, it already had the ovoid shape and three wheels on a triangulated framework. It was steered from the rear like a boat and even came with inflatable wings. When Fuller’s models were published in the magazine Shelter in 1932, he got an enthusiastic response and got started on building the actual car.

Building the Dymaxion

With funding secured and interest generated, Fuller recruited naval architect, Starling Burgess, who in turn recruited 27 workmen (many of them from Rolls-Royce) who all assembled at the Bridgeport workshop in March 1933.

Things didn’t go very smoothly with one of the first hurdles being the rear wheel which due to its fixed position caused it to lean into corners while the front wheels remained perpendicular. At high speeds you got a “death wobble.” To fix it, the team introduced a strategically placed hinge.

Issues, Trade-Offs, and Lies

The first prototype was completed on July 12, 1933, and was 20 feet long, built on a hinged two-frame chassis made from lightweight chromoly steel with dished lightening holes. Powering it was a Ford V8 engine good for 85bhp (63kW) in a rear-engine, front-wheel drive layout. The suspension used transversed leaf springs and the bodywork was sheet aluminium over an ash wood frame, while part of the roof was constructed canvas.

It was heavy, weighing in at around 2,700 pounds, and expensive at $8,000. For comparison, the 1932 Ford V8 Model 18 was 2,200 pounds and less than $700. Though it could turn in a radius only slightly greater than its wheelbase, something that would be very useful marketing tool.

There were other strange aspects of the car like an interior cooled with dry ice and a single headlamp. There were no windscreen wipers because it was believed the car’s shape would shed water, and instead of a rear window, it had a periscope.

Fuller made debatable claims that the because of the car’s shape it was able to achieve 40 miles to the gallon for a top speed of 120mph. However, it did manage to peak at 90mph which was still the fastest car that ever reached the public at the time.

There were other problems particularly with handling. Its low gearing made it hard to steer and the long suspension and weight at the rear cause it to twist when turning. Things weren’t better at high speeds either with the tail coming off the road which was a side effect of the original plan to include a rudder for steering, but practically, it was simply dangerous.

Fuller admitted and realised that the Dymaxion “was an invention that could not be made available to the general public without considerable improvements.” Thus a program of constant refinement and improvement to the car was introduced, according to Lloyd Steven Sieden’s 2000 book, Buckminster Fuller’s Universe. This was also why only a list of trained drivers were permitted to drive the Dymaxion.

Unveiling the Future?

None of this was evident though on its unveiling on July 21 before 3,000 observers. Fuller himself was behind the wheel and drove up to 70mph while showing off it’s turning circle by touching the shoulder of a traffic officer and turning the car around him without removing his hand.

It was a sensation and subsequent showcases involving driver Francis T. Turner, chauffeuring zeppelin passengers to the World’s Fair in Chicago were also talking points. After this initial showcase, Turner received a request to be driven to the airfield the following day setting the stage for tragedy.

On its way to the airfield, the Dymaxion rolled over during a crash that killed Turner and seriously injured his two passengers. Turner was wearing a seatbelt, in contrast to his passengers meaning they were thrown from the car while he was trapped when the canvas roof collapsed.

The cause of the crash, like plenty about the Dymaxion, is a matter of debate. The coroner never ascribed fault for the incident though there was another car involved driven by a shoe salesman, Meyer Roth. When Fuller discovered that another car was involved and the Dymaxion didn’t just simply roll over, he blamed the whole thing on Roth, whom he described as a powerful South Park commissioner. Eyewitness disputed this, stating that Roth only hit the Dymaxion after it began to roll.

Fuller’s version of events was one thing, but the press had other ideas. At no point did they mention that two cars were involved, instead headlines read “Freak car rolls over – killing famous driver – injuring international passengers,” according to Robert Marks’ The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller (1973).

Six months later, a second prototype was to appear at the 1934 New York Auto Show, but Chrysler wouldn’t let them inside. Instead, Fuller parked it right by the front door of the show.

Ultimately, consumer interest didn’t translate to sales leading to Fuller to blame the failure of the Dymaxion on the fatal accident, which again, is debated.

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