Highlights from the 2014 LA Auto Show

Norman Foster rebuilds Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion car

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October 13, 2010

The last remaining original Dymaxion (Photo: National Automobile Museum, Reno, Nevada)

The last remaining original Dymaxion (Photo: National Automobile Museum, Reno, Nevada)

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Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion car was never meant to be a car. Looking like something between a Zeppelin and a VW camper van it was intended to fly, but sadly only three of these concept vehicles were ever built after tragedy struck. Now, as part of a Madrid retrospective on Bucky Fuller's work, Norman Foster, Fuller's collaborator for twelve years, has rebuilt his hero's Dymaxion car.

Richard Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller was born July 12th 1895 in Milton Massachusetts. A natural mechanic, he was sent to Milton Academy, and later Harvard from where he was expelled twice; once for spending all his money partying, and again for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By 32 years he was bankrupt and unemployed and drinking regularly in order to remedy the pain of losing his youngest daughter to polio and spinal meningitis. He was finally moved from depression by a suicidal vision and embarked upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” He would become an early green environmentalist and futurist, engineer, prophetic visionary, poet and author, architect and designer, mathematician, map-maker and teacher.

For the next fifty years Fuller devoted himself to hundreds of ideas and projects particularly with relation to inexpensive, practical housing and transport. As an early environmentalist, he was aware of Earth's finite resources and promoted a principle that he termed "ephemeralization" which he used to mean "doing more with less". He gained fame for popularizing Geodesic domes which even now pepper our landscapes, but in the 1930s began a study with William Starling Burgess, a renowned aeronautical engineer and naval architect, of stress experienced by flying-craft during intersection with land or sea. A lack of funds drove him to use automobile parts to investigate the “ground taxi-ing quality, streamlining and steering of an omni-medium transport”, but as he had to get a license from the state to test it out on the highway the “Dymaxion” (said to be an amalgamation of “dynamic maximum tension”) thence became known as a car.

This may help to explain its peculiar characteristics. The three-wheeler Dymaxion introduced front-wheel drive, rear steering and rear engine mounting, emulating fish and birds in the natural world. It was 18 feet long and an elongated tear-shape, not unlike other flying cars of the time, and with the capacity to carry eleven passengers it anticipated the “people-movers” of later decades. It had one eighth-inch-thick aircraft-glass windows, a chassis of chrome-molybdenum steel, wraparound bumpers, and an aluminum body. It could park in a tight space and spin a graceful U-turn on its own length. Furthermore it was fuel-efficient for its time, running on 30 miles to the gallon, and Fuller claimed it had reached speeds of 128mph though it was only ever measured at 90 mph and in reality was hard to steer above 50mph.

The last remaining original Dymaxion (Photo: National Automobile Museum, Reno, Nevada)

Despite a high-profile crash which killed the driver and two passengers on the way to the Chicago World Fair, Fuller was invited back to feature the following year where he gained the support of Henry Ford who offered any car parts to Fuller at 70% discount. His second and third cars therefore would boast the newly released Ford V8 engine, and the rear axle of a Ford roadster used instead for the front axle. But when Fuller's second daughter was injured in another Dymaxion crash both he and investors lost interest in the project.

Sadly the first prototype survived the crash only to be destroyed by fire. The third toured USA promoting the Allied cause during World War II and was eventually sold for scrap in Kansas. The second enjoyed a triumphant journey around Manhattan with H.G. Wells before being abandoned in Arizona and restored by local engineering students and until recently was preserved in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada until Norman Foster's collaboration with his wife's company, Ivory Pres, brought it to England to fulfill Foster's dream of an authentic rebuild of Dymaxion #4. The car was painstakingly constructed by Crosthwaite and Gardiner, racing car restoration specialists, from drawings of car #3 and analysis of car #2. The Dymaxion,” says restorer Phil King, "was unlike anything I'd seen before: you almost have to forget everything you've learned about car engineering to understand how it works."

Like the first prototypes, the shell of Dymaxion #4 is built with an ash frame sheathed in hand-beaten aluminum sat backwards on the chassis of an old 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan and is strikingly painted in racing green with a white roof. Similarly the V8 Ford engine is rear-mounted and steered by the same single rear wheel, which acts like a boat's rudder, calling in mind Fuller's final epitaph “Just call me Trimtab”. In gratitude for the lending of Dymaxion #2 Foster offered to restore it, though the interior has been left hollow as they did not know what it was like. As of September 2009 the interior of #2 is being partially restored with the help of fans as Synchronofile.com.

Foster's new Dyamxion #4 (Photo: Gregory Gibbons, courtesy of Ivory Press)

A passionate car collector, Foster, of Foster + Partners, undertook the project as a tribute to Fuller, who he met in 1971 and collaborated with until Fuller’s death in 1983. He writes, “In 1951 Fuller drew attention to the ecological issues of today when he referred to ‘spaceship earth’ and the fragility of the planet, as such his work and observations are even more important now than they were in his lifetime.” It is hoped the show will travel the world but for now, 75 years after the originals, the Dymaxion #4 is on display in “Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth,” an retrospective of Fuller’s work open until October 30th at the Ivorypress Art + Books gallery in Madrid.

14 Comments

Bill Allison, the reknowned suspension engineer from Detroit, pointed out that any three wheeled vehicle is inherently dangerous. When I told him that I really liked the Mog, he said "Oh no! Very dangerous. So it is interesting that the two three wheeled vehicles entered into the Progressive Automotive X-Prize were not winners.

Bill held some 80 or so patents in suspension designs and developed the wonderful Packard Torsion Ride suspension which Jay Leno delighfully extolls in Jay's Garage. Alex Moulton was aware of Bill's work. He mentioned as a child getting in and out of a Packard with his friends to see it self-level.

Bucky and Isamu and Norman are all greats in my book and it is wonderful that Norman built this replica.

But make no bones about it, It is a dangerous design. Any notion that 3 wheels lessen rolling resistance was quickly refuted by Bill with scale models. Look at rail cars for over a century... bogied 8 wheel vehicles have the least rolling resistance. The Japanese professor has it right.

Bill also perfected the wind engine fan designs in his retirement achieving the theoretical maximum efficiency of 59%. So what are we doing putting up such low efficiency fans?

It seems that few understand the essence of fine engineering, just as few understand the beauty of Norman's work.

Bill

Island Architect
13th October, 2010 @ 11:13 am PDT

It'd be fun to see a derivative of this design, smaller fuselage, electric drive and modern materials.

jimbo92107
13th October, 2010 @ 01:07 pm PDT

The first Dymaxion didn't crash, it was hit by a truck. The truck was towed away before the media got to the scene to take pictures and write lies about how it crashed because it was unsafe. Conspiracy theories state that GM, Ford or Chrysler had the truck driver ram the Dymaxion and arranged its fast removal. Whether or not the reporters were paid to lie or if their stories of the "crash" came from seeing just the wrecked Dymaxion at the scene is another can-o-worms.

The first Dymaxion had a curved windshield made of plastic, but it scratched easily, which is why the later versions used several flat panes of glass.

The rear suspension of these vehicles is an amazing piece of engineering. The rear wheel is mounted to a giant V shaped arm which pivots at a point about the middle of the wheelbase. The reason is to minimize changes in caster for steering. The original design called for a downward bend in the middle of the V arm to minimize its intrusion on cabin space, but due to time, money and engineering constraints the first Dymaxion was built with straight V arm sides. Later ones had the bend.

Facebook User
13th October, 2010 @ 03:16 pm PDT

It is a mistake to dismiss all 3-wheelers as "inherently unsafe". As a quick google-search will show, there have been several very successful 3W designs over a number of decades; early examples include Morgan, Messerschmitt and Heinkel, more recently there has been an explosion of new 3W concepts and production vehicles. Designers are increasingly seeing the merits of the 3W in this age of lightness and efficiency. The fact that two of the X-Prize finalists WERE 3Ws clearly says it all.

It is true that some 3Ws are hopelessly unstable (Robin Reliant, Bond Bug..) - because they feature the 1 front/2 rear wheel configuration, guaranteed to fall over their noses when braking into a corner.

In the 80's, a popular motoring mag featured an article track-testing a Ford Sierra Cosworth against a genuine, original Morgan 3W wearing modern rubber and with upgraded brakes. The morgan lapped quicker - because it out-cornered the Cosworth!

technut
13th October, 2010 @ 04:48 pm PDT

Front two/rear one designs are VERY stable when the rest of the suspension is designed to modern standards. Some of the new hot-rod trikes give credence to their stability along with computer stability control (Can-Am Spyder, for example)

I think the rear-steering is unstable, though, and prone to ground-looping. But, just my 2 cents worth.

Doc Rings

Matt Rings
13th October, 2010 @ 07:54 pm PDT

Hi Facebook User, you obviously know a lot about the Dymaxion - thanks for your contribution! I never meant to imply that the Dymaxion was at fault during the crash; as you say, the media portrayed it badly and though stories blaming the car were later retracted, the damage to its reputation was already done. That said, Fuller admitted the button-down canvas roof did not provide sufficient crash protection. Thanks again!

Tannith Cattermole
14th October, 2010 @ 02:05 pm PDT

Bill Connolly, who designed the Delorean, later (1986) went into business for himself, designing a motor home called the Vixen (see vixenrv.org and .com). I've owned one for several years and love it. It looks a lot like the Dymaxion car, was designed in a wind tunnel, has less drag than many cars, and gets me 26 mpg.

I'd love to see it redesigned with carbon fiber and hybrid motors. Connolly designed it when gas prices started going up, but as soon as he marketed it, prices dropped again, and so did public interest. Maybe its time has come again.

Rich Mansfield
16th October, 2010 @ 09:24 am PDT

Paul van Valkenburgh would beg to differ with Allison. He ran a set of tests on three wheelers almost 30 years ago that proved they could be safe. The results of the tests are still available from the SAE here:

http://papers.sae.org/820140/

Robert Q. Riley would also disgree. My guess is that Allison is working almost purely from "conventional wisdom" as he was taught rather than any kind of firsthand experience. If Allison was so brilliant, his wind turbine design with the staggered blades would have seen some kind of production, even if only from a single manufacturer. As it is, that turbine is only known by a few as a historical curiosity that never left Allison's workshop.

Gadgeteer
16th October, 2010 @ 03:41 pm PDT

Just before this article, I read the one about the 100 most reliable cars of all time...tops was the Honda Accord.

You know, there's a crowd that wants to think that some esoteric, poetic, noble professor has the "right way" to design things from his head.

And then there's the engineer that things design comes sticking to the basics and getting those right.

There were 3 Dymaxions. There are millions of Accords.

John Bailo
29th October, 2010 @ 08:06 am PDT

Yes John and there is an even bigger crowd that thinks mankind are the epitome of all it surveys while it still races toward the abyss like lemmings!

P.S I think you will find visionaries pen most things we have before the engineering starts, even the Accord.

dgate
24th June, 2011 @ 09:11 am PDT

The reason why so many alternative vehicles are three wheeled (at least in the US) is because they can be road certified as motorcycles and don't have to go through stringent crash tests or have airbags. If you are a small vehicle manufacturer, these costs would easily sink you, so a lot of custom-builts are 3-wheeled.

And the Morgan was designed as a three-wheeler for tax reasons as the UK used to tax vehicles based on the number of wheels....

Chris Maresca
24th June, 2011 @ 11:46 am PDT

What a polymath he was! A real original thinker.

I get the 3 wheeled concept but agree with others above that 4 is more practical. And rear wheel steering is not good - like the person says above, "ground looping" becomes a possibility. 3 wheeled aircraft are the norm but most steer from the front for this reason.

I bet we see vehicles more like this one in the future - only about 100 years late.

Hogey74
28th June, 2011 @ 08:14 pm PDT

when a 4-wheel car begins to drift in a curve, it might as well be a 3-wheeler of the same orientation. in any vehicle it is better to avoid a collision or absorb the energy or safely conduct the energy away from the point of impact. a 4-wheel car can only absorb tangential impact forces better if the mass is significantly high enough. as soon as the mass is drastically reduced to gain efficiency, that advantage is reduced to near zero. since the advantages of the 2-front/1-rear 3 wheel design with front-steering are so much more pronounced than the disadvantages, it seems absurd that the four-wheel design should continue to be popular. this can only be explained by sheepishness or a desire to create a product that requires the maximum amount of maintenance in order to maximize economic return. for this reason, DIY designs prefer simplicity.

while rear-steering reduces the complexity of using the same vehicle for land and air use, the inherent danger that this produces on land is not advisable. our current level of technology in materials and design makes the rear-steering technique unnecessary for either land or air. if the front wheels are instead made to steer and contribute to a wing-warping front canard design both stability and safety will be maximized. therefore it would be better to move the bulk of the passenger space towards the rear of the vehicle. of course that would effectively destroy the unique silhouette of this design.

thank you all for restoring this piece of history to glory!

may we continue the development.

:)

Joe M. Wesson
30th June, 2011 @ 09:01 am PDT

I'll never forget seeing the Dymaxion at the museum in Reno. The windows were blocked out so you couldn't see the unfinished interior. I asked the person at the desk if it were possible to look inside and was told I could take pictures with a press pass for a hundred bucks. I didn't. Also just saw a blip of it at the Goodwood Revival.

Dale Lewis
25th January, 2012 @ 01:43 pm PST
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