By on August 31, 2015

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To be completely honest, I’ve never really understood all the adulation showered upon Buckminster Fuller. Yes, I know he was a visionary who popularized (but did not invent) the geodesic dome, which has some practical applications, but a lot of his innovations seem to me to be just a bit crackpotish. With the exception of the aforementioned domes, few of his other projects were fully practical. Take his Dymaxion car for example.

Fuller, in fact, didn’t like to call it a car since he saw it as the first stage in developing a vehicle that could both fly like an airplane and taxi on the ground like an automobile. He originally envisioned it to have inflatable wings. However, like many other of Fuller’s concepts, those wings were strictly conceptual and required improvements in materials science and manufacturing before they could be effected. The same was true of the “jet stilts” Fuller proposed as propulsion units; the development of real jet engines wouldn’t take place for at least another decade.

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Fuller had no formal training as an engineer, which may explain the Dymaxion’s unusual layout and chassis. It’s a three wheeler in a reverse trike configuration, with the front wheels driven by a flathead Ford V8 engine mounted midship, behind the passenger compartment and in front of the rear wheel. The front wheels are just for propelling the car, they do not steer. The single rear wheel is responsible for steering the car. It has up to 90 degrees of lock so the Dymaxion could pivot on its own axis, making parking easy. For reasons unclear to me, Fuller decided to use two separate frames, one to support the body and the other to support the rear-mounted drivetrain, hinging the two frames with a pivot near the front wheels. While the rear wheel was suspended, according to the sources I found, the front wheels were fixed.

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Fuller had his drinking buddy, sculptor Isamu Noguchi, design the Dymaxion’s teardrop shape. Aerodynamics — then called streamlining — was in its infancy, but in modern wind tunnel testing the Dymaxion car has been shown to have an optimum low drag shape. The body was fabricated with aluminum skin mounted on an ash wood frame, with a large removable canvas roof.

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A total of three Dymaxion cars were completed. The initial plan was to sell them commercially and the first Dymaxion car was put on display at the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. Unfortunately, a politician trying to get a closer look at the Dymaxion as it approached the fair grounds, managed to hit it with his own car, overturning the prototype and killing its driver. Chicago politics being what it was, the politician fled the scene and his involvement was left out of the news stories, resulting in the Dymaxion car unfairly getting the reputation as a death trap. Investors abandoned the project and the company Fuller started to produce the Dymaxion car folded.

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While the reputation was not earned, it appears that the Dymaxion car still wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to drive. It was very difficult to drive in a cross wind, and its aircraft shape created lift at speed, causing the rear wheel to lose ground contact and making it impossible to steer the vehicle. Overheating was also a problem. Though there was a rooftop snorkel intended to draw in cool air, the heat in the engine compartment created positive pressure, reversing the air flow. Fuller knew of the shortcomings and stated that the Dymaxion “was an invention that could not be made available to the general public without considerable improvements.” He also only allowed trained drivers to pilot the prototypes.

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Only one of the three prototypes has survived and, until a recent restoration, it was not in operating condition. Jeff Lane of the Lane Motor Museum commissioned the fabrication of an accurate replica of the first prototype, which Lane felt was the purest expression of Fuller’s vision. Most of the work was done in the Czech Republic, with the eight year build being completed last year. To celebrate, Lane drove the replica from the museum’s home in Nashville to the concours held on Amelia Island in Florida. It took three days. “It was OK,” Mr. Lane told the Wall Street Journal. “You have to look ahead and watch the grade of the road.” Crosswinds are also a problem, with the vehicle wanting to steer into the wind.

You also have to pay attention to how the road is crowned. Both Dan Neil of the WSJ, and Autoweek, when Lane gave them access to the Dymaxion, report that driving it is a white knuckle experience. The single rear wheel wants to go downhill away from the crown of the road, making the car pivot, requiring corrective input from the driver. Because that back wheel is also suspended by what amounts to a huge swing arm, the corrections can induce oscillations, which Neil compared to the wobbling of a grocery cart’s bad caster. Autoweek said that driving the Dymaxion was “terrifying”, the scariest thing they’d ever driven.

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One can only imagine what it was like to drive as designed. Though the replica is accurate, hydraulic systems replaced cable actuated brakes and steering on the original and the steering, which Fuller designed to take an interminable 35 turns to go lock to lock, has been quickened to just six turns, making the needed constant corrections a bit easier.

I spoke with Lane when he was displaying the Dymaxion car as a featured special vehicle at the 2015 Concours of America at St. John’s. Interestingly, when I asked him how it drove, his remarks echoed those of oddball car collector Myron Vernis’ description of how the Davis Divan (another three wheeler, though with a traditional trike layout) drove: kind of scary.

Photos by the author. You can see the full gallery of photos here.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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58 Comments on “Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Car – Invention Ahead of Its Time or Death Trap?...”


  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    That politician may have done the world a favor – it sounds like this thing would have killed a lot of people had it ever gotten into production.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Don’t care. Still want one.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      You could replicate driving it with one of your driving simulators! Do you still sell those? I saw an old comment when I was re-reading an article from 2011 or something on here where you mentioned it. Someone asked about it at the time and you didn’t reply.

      It would be a cool article, as well.

      • 0 avatar
        PeriSoft

        Hah. We set up the center of yaw rotation in our current machine for, shall we say, more conventional vehicles… I suspect that it would be difficult to replicate that undoubtedly-unique feel of sitting in front of the front wheels while steering with a single rear one with our existing geometry.

        That said, if someone modeled the vehicle correctly, you’d still get a feel for the stability issues and wacky lateral accelerations and yaw oscillations you’d encounter. It would be a good test of a simulation’s physics engine; if you model a Dymaxion and it drives OK you know they took some shortcuts!

        I’ve been waiting for a long time for someone to do good models of older, crazier vehicles – pre-war Auto Unions, the early 1900s Grand Prix cars with giant displacement engines, etc. There hasn’t been a lot of work simulating classic or unusual vehicles, and I think it would be great when combined with modern simulation hardware.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Ah ha, so you do!

          Are your simulations for education or more for entertainment purposes? I’m guessing the former, because the latter is taken care of with arcade racers and GTA.

          You a designer/engineer, or just sales guy?

          • 0 avatar
            PeriSoft

            “Are your simulations for education or more for entertainment purposes? I’m guessing the former, because the latter is taken care of with arcade racers and GTA.

            You a designer/engineer, or just sales guy?”

            1) Both. We’ve sold plenty of machines that are used for entertainment centers and as attractions for trade show booths and such; we’ve also sold machines used for research (several universities), racing teams, some individual drivers, and some driver training outfits. The simulators are output devices; you can use them with anything from Mario Kart to iRacing to pro-level simulation packages.

            2) President and owner. But it’s a small company, so I do design and engineering as well as sales, photography, support, you name it. I wrote a big chunk of the code that ran the first generation of machines, but I’m backing off that now and trying to focus on bigger picture stuff.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Very cool, thanks.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        Believe it or not, folks have made cars that can be “driven” in Microsoft Flight Simulator. I have driven a couple of Bugattis; and recreated the portion of Charles B.D. Collyer and John Henry Mears flight around the world when their Fairchild 71 was unloaded from a ship and taxied with its wings stil folded through town to the nearest airport. It’s physics model would probably be a better fit for the quirky Dymaxion; though the gound details in most areas is not the best.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Which politician was it!? What a d-bag.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Glad to see someone mention that the emperor (in this case Fuller) generally has no clothes.

    Personally, I believe that Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier fall under the same category.

    Wright’s houses are generally unlivable. They leak and require constant upkeep.

    Corbusier’s planned communities and architecture are sterile to the point of alienation and his furniture is uncomfortable.

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Wright considered his houses art, and said something to the effect that they should last about three years or so, and the owner should feel the home had served it’s purpose if it lasted that long.

      Fallingwater has constant leaks. They stuff bits of paper and cardboard in the walls between extensive repairs to keep the water out. Drainage was not a concern for Wright, and his completely flat roofs in rainy temperate climates had no drains.

      Against garages as well, as they collected clutter. No matter that the high dollar client had more than one Rolls or Packard they wanted garaged.

      • 0 avatar
        bball40dtw

        It’s better to get a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired house. In my neighborhood there are a few, and they are all done very well. The houses designed by Minoru Yamasaki (World Trade Center) and Eero Saarinen (TWA Flight Center, Gateway Arch, Dulles Main Terminal, GM Tech Center), in my neighborhood, have held up quite well. If the opportunity became available, I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase one.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Have a look here.

          http://www.zillow.com/homedetails/6980-Knoll-Rd-Cincinnati-OH-45237/34313533_zpid/

          One of his originals (sold end of May, didn’t know that) was up for sale by original owner! It’s brilliant and brutalist, in a nice older part of town (lots of large older homes on large lots). It’s where all the wealthy Jewish people in Cincinnati live!

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            That’s pretty darn awesome.

            And if price is no object, it’s better to have an original FLW. If I had the cash, I wouldn’t worry about things like leaking water. My money could take care of it for me.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I feel like 900K isn’t that bad for that house, being as unique as it is. A more detailed listing I saw for it said the furniture was negotiable with the sale as well. I think they were asking 1.2, so they did come down quite a bit. I’d definitely want the furniture, it would be difficult and time-consuming to gather all those period-correct pieces in perfect condition. The original owners did an excellent job furnishing the house (the husband owned car dealerships, BTW).

            I love that Taliesin Red driveway.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            Yeah. It would be difficult to get all that period correct furniture. Modern furniture is expensive too. For example, a Grasshopper Chair costs at least $1500. An original Knoll one goes for way more.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I don’t even like that Grasshopper! Unless it’s one with the built-in footrest thing, in leather.

            I’m more into a Barcelona or Eames lounge.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            I’d love an Eames chair. I want to smoke a cigar and drink a Manhattan while sitting in one before I get into my 1962 Lincoln Continental.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I have had that vision before, so I understand. Don’t drink and pilot large vehicles that way!

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            Fine, I’ll have a cigar and Manhattan in my Eames chair after a leisurely drive in my Conti.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Perhaps a nice dinner out with the misses, to a supper club.

        • 0 avatar

          Someone once snarkily asked me “What do Detroiters know about style?”, so I mentioned that three of the leading architects of the 20th century, Yamasaki, Saarinen and Albert Kahn didn’t just take commissions here, their offices were in the Detroit area as well. The Eames also spent significant time as part of the Cranbrook community.

          • 0 avatar
            bball40dtw

            The Cranbrook Art Museum and Science Center is an underrated attraction. They have a number of pieces by both Eliel and Eero Saarinen.

            They have some prestigious schools too. I went to some summer programs there, but my parents never would have been able to afford to send me to Cranbrook-Kingswood.

    • 0 avatar
      wstarvingteacher

      Maybe they have no clothes but it sure is interesting. Was this ahead of it’s time or a deathtrap. No reason it can’t be both. I don’t believe anything with three wheels steers as well as something with two or four, but this system is totally bizarre.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    It looks like what a “designer” with no inkling of how things are actually built might design a car. It would have behooved him to take his design sketches to an actual automotive engineer, for which many of these problems would have been obvious.

    • 0 avatar
      mazdaman007

      “It looks like what a “designer” with no inkling of how things are actually built might design a car”

      I give you the Powell Motors ‘Homer’

      http://simpsons.wikia.com/wiki/The_Homer

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Typical pre production thing , made worse by speeding up the steering response ~

    Rear wheel steering is always nasty and reducing the ratio from 35 to _SIX_ is moronic unless designed as a display only being driven to park it , off or on the trailer etc. .

    It looks like a deathrap to me but so was every other Automobile made back then , you have to actually drive them (pre war vehicles) to understand I guess .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Yes compared to modern autos they are all deathtraps (no airbags – OMG) but the Dymaxion is in completely a different league than a conventional ’33 automobile. Cars by then were fairly refined and could be driven (at least in dry conditions and at moderate speeds) without much difficulty. Millions of people drove them every day and only a small % killed themselves doing so. The Dymaxion drives like a high powered motorized shopping cart and is downright scary to drive every time.

  • avatar
    cowboysanchez

    I am tempted to turn the Aerostar to a 4 wheeled homage of this.

  • avatar
    Jack Denver

    There is nothing wrong per se with the “reverse trike” or tadpole arrangement but AFAIK no one has ever implemented (successfully) a powered rear steering trike. I think that it’s pretty much impossible to safely drive something like this at high speed given the forces involved – the tail is always going to want to whip around to the front, ahead of the center of gravity. This is what is called a “ground loop” in aviation. No amount of engineering refinement could have fixed this unless they changed the layout.

    I’m guessing that the Dymaxion is more stable if you drive it in reverse.

  • avatar
    rockets

    Put that body on a modern chassis/drivetrain, and I think it would be great as a tour bus.

    • 0 avatar
      HotPotato

      Yep, in fact that’s similar to what the old Flxible buses looked like. Here’s a pic of a couple that have been converted to RVs. Flxible had to add a roof-mounted air scoop just like Fuller did…

      http://api.ning.com/files/HSXgAUYxWzPwyUuVysVJKwzDauJH9JrDWNlGk2e661fozBJUMKXo5BJ-Nn*IXu*CHI4H4DIKlT7o7jlPay79s2uZcV1DTcQT/FlxibleBusConversion.jpg?width=400&height=300

  • avatar
    JimothyLite

    Oscar Mayer’s Wienermobile, hold the stability.

  • avatar
    Jezza819

    A rolling suppository.

  • avatar
    thornmark

    Loved it. Looks great.

    Unsafe at any speed. Too bad.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    A streamlined shape and rear mounted engine was a bad combination in many of the early aero cars of the 1930s. Other notable examples were the Tatra and the VW Bettle; the Tatra was so dangerous to drive that German officers were banned from driving captured examples.

    The CoG ends up behind the Center of Area, which accounts for it’s poor handling in crosswinds. Tatra and some VW owners added a tail fin to help move the CoA back; but it was not enough.

    Having a steerable tailwheel makes sense if he intended it to fly; since most planes back then were tail draggers. But as already mentioned; the result was a car that had the same tendency to ground loop as an airplane. As a ground vehicle alone it was a crazy idea; but if he intended it to fly; there was some logic behind it.

    Even many professional designed race cars like the breadvan Ford GT had a bad tendency to develop lift and become unstable at speed. It is unfortunate that Fuller combined all three negatives into one vehicle; but if he intended it to eventually fly it explains a lot; nearly all flying cars suffer from similiar compromises that make them both poor planes and poor cars that can do both. This is the first time I had read that he intended to put wings on the Dymaxion.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      I think that the chief fault can be laid with the tail dragger layout. It was really more of a mid-engine design. See this chassis photo:

      http://assets.blog.hemmings.com/wp-content/uploads//2014/03/Dymaxion_03_10001-700×410.jpg

      And streamlining by itself does not make a vehicle unstable although you have to avoid creating lift.

      The steering position way out in front of the front wheels would have been loads of fun in a frontal collision.

      As I said before, they would have been better off turning the thing around and running it backward, although delta trikes have their own issues. If he had abandoned the rear steering (or set it up only to work at low speed) then it might have been more stable. I’ll bet nowadays you might be able to get something like this to be less dangerous thru electronic stability control but this was far beyond what was available in those days (the thing didn’t even have hydraulic brakes).

      They were obviously “thinking outside the box” and considering the problem as if the thing was a plane or a boat, but you have to remember that the “box” of conventional design was usually created in the first place for a reason and you can’t just dismiss it lightly.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        You are correct that it is a mid engine design; but unless you had a lot of passengers on board, the CoG was still well behind the CoA (the gas tank was probably in the back as well). It was the moment arm betwen the two that made them skitish in crosswinds. The Chrysler Airflow with it’s front mounted engine was more stable.

        Driving it would have been like high speed taxi-ing a Piper Cub with no tailfin. It would not have been stable at all.

        • 0 avatar
          Jack Denver

          Some of the sketches show a tail fin. And inflatable wings too.

          http://ecomodder.com/forum/showthread.php/dymaxion-deathtrap-31832.html

          If you understand it as a prototype for a flying car (that doesn’t fly) it makes a little more sense). The visionaries of the ’30s (thru the ’60s at least) always assumed that we’d get around to flying cars.

          There’s a big difference between being a visionary dreamer and building a safe and salable commercial product. If you are detail oriented enough to run a profitable business with a competent engineering staff then you probably don’t have the kind of mind that dreams of flying cars, and vice versa. This is why you have to give Musk a lot of credit. Von Braun also – he dreamed of flying to the moon – it wasn’t his fault that the rockets hit London instead.

          • 0 avatar
            wumpus

            Re SS Major [Sturmbannführer] Von Braum:
            Don’t forget how many slaves were worked to death to build those V2s.
            9,000 Brits (civilian and military) killed by military action.
            12,000 slaves killed to make the things.

            But he could launch a satellite into orbit (when only the Russians and his German team could). And he was good at PR, so he called the shots at NASA for a good long time.

      • 0 avatar
        jhefner

        Most of the early streamlined efforts were basically half a teardrop in profile; complete with a tapered tail. Unfortuntely, that same shape is like a wing in that it generates lift; Ronnie’s article mentions that the rear wheel wanted to lift off the ground at high speeds.

        Even today’s aero cars develop some lift at speed; though not enough on the highway to be noticeable. But that is why race cars have air dams, side skits, and wings; to take a shape that wants to generate postive lift and make them generate negative lift and greater traction.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      And sily me for omitting it; the Stout Scarab that Ronnie featured over the weekend is another example of a rear-engined 1930s streamliner that would have been fun in crosswinds as well as curves.

  • avatar
    chuckrs

    Great forward visibility. Rear visibility not much worse than many modern gun-slit windowed sporty cars.
    I checked on wikipedia – that thing is a full 20 feet long.
    It was a contemporary of the original Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. The Weinermobile would be more fun to drive and much safer too, despite being several feet longer.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    35 TURNS LOCK TO LOCK!

    What did he think it was, a ship of the line?

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      I can imagine getting rather tired driving it any distance, having to make such massive corrections with the wheel going round and round that way.

      Maybe he was thinking people would be too twitchy when driving it at speed (and roll it), so he would just make the wheel nearly non-responsive instead.

  • avatar
    craiger

    From the description given by Lane driving the replica on public roads sounds unforgivably reckless. He could have put it on a flatbed.

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    If I were a robot, I’d have a hunger-gasm at that rear 3/4 view.

    Aluminum grazing beast… NOM!

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Anyone can see for themselves what rear-wheel steering is like. Find a big empty parking lot, go tooling across it in reverse at 20 mph or so, and take your hands off the steering wheel.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    It’s a visionary death trap. The Stout Scarab was a much better realized example of the rear engined bubble car. The tadpole trike layout actually works well as long as the front wheels are the ones doing the steering. A body designed for downforce as well low drag and some proper suspension would make the Dymaxion a much more sensible proposition.

  • avatar

    Put the wheels more upfront, have the whole thing tilt in corners, and you’ve got something.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Fuller was one of my hero’s in college. Not so much for what he did, but what he said and wrote about. Good idea man.

  • avatar
    turf3

    Forget about whether the single wheel is in front or back, or the engine location, or the streamlining.

    The thing that makes this a death trap is the rear steering. I can tell you from extensive experience driving fork trucks that rear steering is an absolute abomination at any kind of speed, and is inherently unstable.

    Old style airplanes had a caster wheel in the back, and taxied at very slow speeds, wagging back and forth the whole way. Fork truck drivers, when they want to get somewhere fast, go in reverse so the wheels doing the steering are in the front of their direction of travel.

  • avatar
    mechaman

    Einstein invented a wing design … didn’t work …

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