July 12: Buckminster Fuller’s Car of the Future

 

R. Buckminster Fuller, an 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 eleven 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 twenty-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

Dan Neil, “A Test Drive of the Death-Trap Car Designed by Buckminster Fuller,” Wall Street Journal