Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion Car - Invention Ahead of Its Time or Death Trap?

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
bucky fullers dymaxion car invention ahead of its time or death trap

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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  • Turf3 Turf3 on Sep 02, 2015

    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.

  • Mechaman Mechaman on Sep 03, 2015

    Einstein invented a wing design ... didn't work ...

  • Jeff S Corey--We know but we still want to give our support to you and let TTAC know that your articles are excellent and better than what the typical articles are.
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  • Sckid213 I actually do agree that most Nissans are ultimately junk. (I also think many BMWs are also). I was talking challenging the 3 in terms of driving dynamics. Agree all were failures in sales.
  • THX1136 More accurately said, we are seeing exponential growth in the manufacturing capabilities in this market. Unless, of course, all those vehicles are sold with customers waiting until more a produced so they can buy. Indeed, there are certainly more EVs being purchased now than back in 2016. Is demand outstripping manufacturing? Maybe or maybe not. I sincerely don't know which is why I ask.
  • ToolGuy The page here (linked in the writeup) is ridiculously stupid https://www.tyreextinguishers.com/how-to-spot-an-suvLike, seriously stupid, e.g., A) Not sure that particular Volvo is killing the planet as quickly as some other vehicles we might choose. B) A Juke is "huge"??? C) The last picture shows a RAV4 Hybrid?