Concept cars attempt to predict the future, demonstrating new technologies to make our lives safer, more comfortable and enjoyable. With the 20-20 vision afforded by hindsight, Ford's 1963 World Fair Showpiece stands out as one of the most visionary concept cars in history. Many concept cars have forecast technologies that have become standard equippe but few have forecast as many technologies so far before their time as the Ford Seattle-ite XXI. Built to symbolize the future of American technological know-how for the 1963 World’s Fair, it encompassed some remarkable concepts – interchangeable fuel cell power units, interchangeable bodies, interactive computer navigation, mapping and auto information systems, and four driving and steering wheels.
The interchangeable power units included fuel cells and the possibility of “compact nuclear propulsion devices.” Nuclear fusion was at that time promoted as a safe and viable future power source, fell from favour, and is now once again on the agenda.
The brochure distributed at the World’s Fair makes interesting reading, given it was half a century before fuel cells are approaching viability, 15 years before NAVSTAR and a decade before the invention of the microchip.
“Advanced stylists are not restricted in their “dreaming” to designs based on existing facilities or scientific achievements. Unlimited freedom to speculate is the key to progressive automobile styling.
A styling experiment like Seattle-ite, with its many forward-looking features, could lead to exciting new concepts of styling, comfort and safety.”
“This dream car envisions four steerable front wheels and feature such advanced concepts as a travel programming computer, variable density glass, jaluosie windows, and finger tip steering.
“The entire front of the car would “break away” from the passenger compartment in order to permit conversions from an economical power capsule of perhaps 60 HP, to a high speed, transcontinental unit in excess of 400HP. All controls would be conducted through a flexible coupling that would simply plug into the passenger compartment. “ Forty years on, the fuel cell is now the heir apparent to the internal combustion engine and modular, multi-function vehicles are tipped to become commonplace in coming decades.
“Four front wheels would turn in tandem. Ford stylists believe this would greatly enhance tracking, traction, and braking efficiency.”
This was the first six wheeled car - a decade later the six-wheeled concept proved more than viable when Tyrrell’s fabled P34 actually won an F1 Grand Prix.
“Fingertip steering and a travel programming computer are among the interior features of the Seattle-ite. Virtually effortless fingertip steering would allow accurate “zeroing in” at all speeds. A viewing screen would show engine performance characteristics, road and weather conditions, position of the vehicle in relation to an automatically rolling road map, and estimated time of arrival at any selected designation.”
“Variable density glass around the passenger compartment would give cool, diffused light on the interior, eliminate glare and permit efficient air-conditioning.”
The benefits of four front wheels are many and were first encapsulated in 1962 by the Ford Seattle-ite stylists’ belief they would “greatly enhance tracking, traction, and braking efficiency.”
When Tyrrell used the layout in Formula One in the mid-seventies, the stated aim was to “... minimize induced drag by reducing lift at the front and to turn that gain into the ability to enter and leave corners faster.”
In a road-going sense, the passive safety afforded by two front wheels at each corner means a front tyre puncture will not cause the vehicle to lose control.
Then there’s the additional stopping power afforded by four front discs and four tyres to transmit the force - although the individual area of each footprint is smaller than that of a traditional tyre, the total area of two is greater.
The risk of aquaplaning is reduced as the two foremost wheels clear the water for the ones behind them, offering better road adhesion.
Bringing the six-wheeled debate to currency is a contemporary six-wheel sports concept car from Italian Auto designer Covini who cites all of the above and more as reasons why six wheels makes more sense than four.
Covini has also found that as each wheel has less unsprung weight, a more compliant suspension can be used to complement the greater grip and better directional stability.
With a well-matched set of tyres, says Covini, a 6W car can be expected to have higher cornering speeds than 4W and very expensive, low-volume supercar buyers not drive on the road with effective but uncomfortable rigid racing car suspensions.
The Covini argument is strengthened further by studying the development issues of the race car.