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August 14, 2016

Buckminster Fuller and the Dymaxion Car – A Three-Wheel Dream That Died At Takeoff in 1933

On October 18, 1933, the American philosopher-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller applies for a patent for his Dymaxion Car. The Dymaxion—the word itself was another Fuller invention, a combination of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “ion”—looked and drove like no vehicle anyone had ever seen. It was a three-wheeled, 20-foot-long, pod-shaped automobile that could carry 11 passengers and travel as fast as 120 miles per hour. It got 30 miles to the gallon, could U-turn in a distance equal to its length and could parallel park just by pivoting its wheels toward the curb and zipping sideways into its parking space.

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.

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.

Sketch by Buckminster Fuller of his 4D Auto-Airplane, Courtesy, The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.

Only three Dymaxion cars were ever produced. The first was involved in a fatal crash at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, an event which scared investors away from the project. It’s been said that the Dymaxion fell victim to a greedy auto industry which feared the futuristic car would ruin other models already in production. Whatever the reasons for its demise, the fascinating car lived on in the influence it had on later automobile designs.

Scale drawings of Car #1.

View of the Bridgeport plant building during the car's development.

Starling Burgess seated at the wheel of Car #1, before the chassis was road tested.

Chassis of Car #1.

Body construction of Car #1.

Rolls out of the Bridgeport factory on July 12, 1933.

Fuller and Starling Burgess with Car #1.

Crowds lined the private speedway to watch the first road tests. Extending through the roof above the driver's seat is the car's rear view periscope.

Crowds lined the private speedway to watch the first road tests.

Side view of Car #1.

Shown next to a contemporary Franklin.

Burgess (left) and Flyer "Al" Williams (right), who later bought the car.

Ralph de Palma, who brought the first Fiat to the USA, standing beside Car #1.

Comparison of relatively heavy two-frame structure of the Car #1 (right) with the delicate three-frame structure introduced (left) in Car #2.

Construction details, Car #2.

Construction details, Car #2.

Testing the wheels of Car #2 for strength and load distribution.

Car #2, complete. Headlights are recessed in the the body, providing air intake.

Another picture of Car #2.

The 1933 Dymaxion car used the same engine and drive train as the Ford of the same year next to it.

Car #3 at the Chicago World's Fair.

Car #3 at the Chicago World's Fair.

From Mary Herner Freeman []: "When my father, Raymond C. Herner, was working for the Bureau of Public Roads in the research division, their labs and testing ground were located at the Experimental Farm of the Department of Agriculture across the road from the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC..."

"... Somewhere around 1935 Buckminster Fuller came to the Farm and brought his Dymaxion car to demonstrate it. I have a couple photos of the car from when Mr. Fuller brought it to the site."

From Doug Gary []: "This is a picture of a Dymaxion that was used by my grandfather's bottling company for advertisement. I'm not sure what the exact date of the picture. According to my grandfather's brother, this vehicle was picked up in Washington, DC, and driven down to Charlotte, NC. It was lost in a fire when the operator forgot to put on the gas cap after filling up."

Car #3 rediscovered in Brooklyn in 1944.

Car #3 at the Wichita, Kansas airport next to a Republic Seabee amphibian plane, which was owned and piloted at the time by Fuller.

Concept illustration for Car #4, never built.

Bucky and his car pose with his 26' Fly's Eye dome during his 85th birthday party at the Windstar Foundation in Snowmass, Co. in 1981.

(via and washed ashore)


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