A Dymaxion replica (photo via Wikipedia, by Starysatyr)
A Dymaxion replica (photo via Wikipedia, by Starysatyr)

Imagine a car that seats eleven passengers, turns on a dime, has excellent fuel efficiency, and cruises happily at 120 miles per hour. The famed American architect, author, inventor, and futurist Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller imagined and designed such a car during the Great Depression, and in 1933, the Chrysler car company built several fully operational prototypes. This sleek, aerodynamic vehicle was dubbed the Dymaxion, a portmanteau of the words ‘dynamic’, ‘maximum’, and ‘tension’.

The Dymaxion was propelled by a new kind of powerplant, an early V-8 engine that Henry Ford had given Bucky Fuller to experiment with. This, along with the Dymaxion’s light weight and aerodynamic design, gave the car its appreciable 120mph cruising speed. The vehicle also made about 30 miles per gallon, which was extraordinary in its time. The front-wheel-drive car was almost 20 feet long, but it could make tight turns due to its unique wheel configuration; viewed from above it was egg-shaped, with two fixed wheels in the wider front, and a single steerable wheel in the narrow rear. This setup made the car nimble despite its size, able to corner well, and parallel park like a dream. But it made driving a bit counterintuitive at times, particularly when attempting to compensate for a cross-wind. Its unusual steering system would ultimately bring about the project’s demise.

Bucky Fuller had even grander ambitions for the Dymaxion, planning to add jump-jet style flight when suitable alloys and engines became available. But this car-of-the-future never had to leave the ground to impress and astonish, it was a marvel of automotive engineering. Few who saw it had any doubt that this sleek car—which looked nothing like a typical 1930s automobile—was a true example of the Car of Tomorrow.

In 1933, one of the prototypes could be seen cruising around the Chicago World’s Fair showing off its stuff. But it was there that the Dymaxion was involved in a fatal accident. The wreck was blamed on the backwards steering system, and the investors pulled out of the project after a flurry of bad publicity. The Dymaxion was later exonerated when an investigation showed that the other driver had likely been at fault, but the damage wreaked by the negative press had condemned the project to the scrap heap of history. Later, in a book called The Age of Heretics, author Art Kleiner asserted that the real reason for the demise of the Dymaxion was that Chrysler was forced by its bankers to abandon the project; purportedly the bankers threatened to recall their loans because they felt the car would overtake the automobile market, and destroy sales for vehicles already in the distribution channels. Whether this was true, or merely a crackpot conspiracy theory, we’ll probably never know for sure.

Only one of the original three Dymaxion prototypes is still intact; it is housed at the National Automotive Museum in Reno, Nevada, USA.