Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, who hailed from Milton, Massachussetts, just down the road a piece from the Car Talk Tower, was going to change the world. The futurist/inventor/architect/engineer/champion self-promoter claimed that his life (1895-1983) was “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” A lofty goal for one’s self, especially when so many of us toil lifetimes to change the world just enough to benefit ourselves…and fail miserably.
However, a larger truth is Fuller did not change the world. While remembered today as the man behind the geodesic dome, which last time we looked had yet to change the world, many of his signature works were actually quite a bit less successful.
A good case in point would be his Dymaxion car, a replica of which we have just driven at the Lane Motor Museum, in Nashville, Tennessee. While more than 300,000 geodesic domes have been erected to date, only three Dymaxions hit the streets back in 1933-34, with only one surviving to this day, at the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. Having now driven this stunning recreation, I am stunned. At how bad it is.
Not that it doesn’t look cool, or that the craftsmanship in its construction is anything less than amazing. A labor of love commissioned by museum founder Jeff Lane, it came together with the help of craftsmen in Pennsylvania who built the chassis -- borrowing heavily, like Fuller, from Depression era Fords -- and the Czech Republic, home of the Tatra, the great, avant-garde machines that sprung from the mind of Austrian designer Hans Ledwinka. To call Lane a Tatra fan would be an understatement. With 37 of them, the Lane Museum’s collection is the world’s largest outside the land of Tatra’s birth.
Like the great Tatras of yore, the Dymaxion has its V8 engine placed in the rear and a notably aerodynamic shape. Unlike them, it has only three wheels and that’s where its problems begin. Drive is sent up through the solid front axle, while a single rear wheel does the steering. And let’s not beat around the bush. You’ve pushed shopping carts with broken casters that handle better.
Whatever good the Dymaxion’s aerodynamic design – courtesy of the Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi --does for stability (and it is surprisingly unaffected today by crosswinds and buffeting from passing semis) its absurd chassis, with heavy engine at its stern and hallucinogenicly-geared third-wheel steering, takes away. The original car, which boasted an ability to turn 360-degrees in its own length, also sported an insanely excessive 21(!) turns lock to lock. In an understandable engineering fix, the Lane replica only requires six turns. And, thanks to sensible angle limiters for the third wheel, the car will no longer rotate in the length of its own wheelbase, eliminating a neat selling point while ditching the obvious hazard of a fully sideways rear wheel.
Yet catching the rear of the Dymaxion replica when something goes wrong still remains basically impossible for even the most skilled driver. With the steering’s self-centering action non-existent and the epic amounts of tiller-spinning still required, crowned roads, bumps and potholes can present life-threatening challenges. “Basically, with this set up, if you see a pothole, you’re going to hit it, so you might as well get used to it,” Lane advised as we took the helm.
A friend to the automotive friendless, Lane’s museum has a strong focus on what he calls “good ideas that weren’t.” Think propeller cars, micro-cars and Citroens. So he is necessarily more tolerant of the Dymaxion’s quirks. “One thing you have to do with the rear end when you have a little crown in the road is let it wander a little bit and not overcorrect. The toughest thing is, if you’re coming out of a side street into a two-lane road, you have to turn the wheel when you’re stopped so that when you move the back will immediately make the turn. Then you have to quickly turn [the wheel] back so the rear end doesn’t swing into oncoming traffic. It’s a different mindset. But once you’ve done it, once you’ve got used to it, it’s not bad. It’s just different.”
We beg to differ – it’s bad. And Lane, who admits that no one in his or her right mind would ever venture above 45 miles per hour because of the lousy handling, also acknowledges that the Dymaxion team’s contemporaneous papers indicate an eagerness to develop front-wheel steering for the car. It was, he submitted, a work in progress.
The Dymaxion car actually grew out of a project Fuller had conceived with William Starling Burgess, an aeronautic and naval architect, to study stresses on flying craft when they touched down on land or water. The original goal was to explore “ground taxi-ing quality, streamlining and steering of an omni-medium transport.” This wasn’t a flying car, but, in Fuller’s words, “the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin orientable jet stilts flying device.” But when funds didn’t materialize in sufficient quantity, a road-only car was the ever-optimistic Fuller’s fall back. The design would quickly be perfected, then, he hoped, a manufacturer would license it to sell in volume, with royalties sent his way forevermore.
The name harkened back to Fuller’s earlier, 1927 exercise in green housing. Originally called the 4D House, it, too, failed to set the world on fire, but during its short life a department store came up with the more exciting Dymaxion moniker – short for “Dynamic,” “Maximum” and “Tension” (or “Ion” depending on the telling.) Trademarked in Fuller’s name, it became a sort of futurist, proto-environmentalist lifestyle brand, to be recycled regularly.
The Dymaxion car was shown at major expositions in the 1930s, made the newsreels and was also championed in its day by forward-looking celebrities as diverse as H.G. Wells and the artist Diego Rivera. Yet, owing to financial constraints, basic engineering on the Dymaxion car – the first of which was sold to Gulf Oil as a promotional tool -- was never completed. That didn’t stop the huckster hyperbole from flying, with Fuller claiming the machine would go an astonishing 120 miles per hour and return as many as 40 miles per gallon, numbers that were widely repeated, and sound impressive even more than eighty years later.
Fuller also claimed the Dymaxion tipped the scales at a svelte 2,300 lbs. But the man who owns one knows better. “I’ve got to call BS on all that. The engine and gearbox weigh over 600 lbs. before you get started,” Lane observed, noting that his near as identical replica weighs in at 3,500 lbs. Similarly, Fuller’s top speed and economy claims have not been borne out in Lane’s experience, which includes recently driving the Dymaxion 650 miles to the concours at Amelia Beach, Florida. “There’s no evidence that he changed the rear axle ratio from the standard Ford, which went about 80-85 mph. And so there’s no way the engine could pull the kind of rpm that would be needed. But even if it could, the stability is not there.”
Meanwhile, fuel economy in the high teens is the best he’s seen. “At the speeds it can be driven, the aerodynamics, which ought to help, just aren’t that much of a factor.”
Before setting out, one notices that while it is as long as a pickup truck at 18 feet plus, the Dymaxion as configured seats only four, notwithstanding Fuller’s oft-repeated claims that it would seat eleven and 1930s newsreel footage showing scads of children emerging from its single rear side door with smiles on their faces. There’s also no particular room for luggage and almost no provision for ventilation. Though the engine is a healthy distance to the rear, on an only moderately warm day a driver starts perspiring immediately. In another good idea that wasn’t, drivers were meant to place a block of ice on a tray under the dash, over which outside air would blow, thereby cooling the interior. If only it worked like that.
Unexpectedly, forward visibility is not a strong suit and to the windowless rear, it’s predictably awful, with a roof-mounted mirror – visible only when taking your eyes off the road and craning one’s neck – providing a snapshot of just some of what’s going on – 25 feet behind you. Spotters are strongly recommended for reversing. In any event, keeping your eyes pointed directly ahead while driving is essential for drivers who prefer not to die. Texting or map-reading for even a moment is the Dymaxion equivalent of taking a loaded six-gun to your temple.
You sit knees up in the driver’s seat, atop the rigid front axle, which makes for an aerobicizing ride, though in Lane’s estimation better than most vehicles of the Dymaxion’s day.
The distinctive rumble of its low-rev Ford flathead V8 and the whine of its pre-historic gearbox are reduced strongly by their rearward placement and make for a cockpit markedly quieter than any ordinary Thirties’ machine. The driving experience is even a little pleasant to begin, with hydraulic drum brakes a worthwhile upgrade over the original cable-operated system. You might even say the Dymaxion is confidence inspiring. That is, until you get up to fifteen or twenty miles an hour, at which point the chassis’ innate treachery takes over, and you feel like the captain of a tiny sailboat whose rudder has just broken in an Atlantic squall.
So this is the stuff that some automotive legends are made of – a wacky idea, a shameless promoter’s dream and a credulous press, excited to herald the coming of a wonderful new future. “There were a lot of articles about it. But there was never a road test that we could find,” Lane recalled. “People talked about its features and how it was futuristic, but nobody ever said ‘I drove it.’ But do you think they would’ve let someone drive it? It’s terrible. I mean, it’s a ‘30s car, so not so terrible for the time, but I doubt they would’ve gotten glowing reviews.”
Thus, the story of the Dymaxion car reminds us, you don’t have to change the world to be famous. You just have to look like you did.