Going for a Spin in a Dymaxion Car

Photos by John Griswold

 

 

As it rounded a corner in a parking lot at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, the Dymaxion Car made a nostalgic sound, throaty and hardworking. Its engine, a 1933 Ford Flathead V-8, has been described as one of the 10 best engines of the last century and was used for both cars and trucks, though it generates only 85 horsepower. (Your Hyundai Sonata has 180 to 290 horsepower.) The car pulled up to where a dozen people were waiting for rides, and its passengers struggled to open the doors in the aerodynamic fuselage to get out.

There were only three original Dymaxion concept cars built, by futurist Buckminster Fuller, and two have been destroyed. This one was a replica built by a team at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville. Director Jeff Lane was giving rides in honor of the 50th anniversary of Fuller’s geodesic dome on the SIUE campus, used as a “Center for Spirituality and Sustainability.”

Fuller intended the Dymaxion to be the first step toward a flying car for everyday use. While we are still working on that 90 years later, its early streamlining, front-wheel drive, and mid-engine design have been widely accepted. (Three wheels are still uncommon too, due to instability at speed and a tendency to tump over, but they did allow the car to turn in its own radius.)

The car has a passenger compartment a little like a stretch limo’s, if a limo was made of wood artfully joined. The front seats, where I rode next to Lane, were comfortable but slippery. The car does not have seatbelts, and the front end is all wraparound windows, so there was the feeling I would be outside looking in if there was an accident. The chassis is made of three different frames, so the ride was remarkably smooth, for an experimental design conceived in the depths of the Depression. Lane drove us a half-mile around campus, working the three-speed and clutch expertly, and cranking the wheel many times to make a turn.

I first saw a Dymaxion Car on my first visit to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, when I was 10. That, I believe, was the surviving original, now at the National Automobile Museum in Reno. Viewing it felt like an early awareness of time and culture. Buckminster Fuller was still teaching at Southern Illinois University Carbondale then, near where I lived. I had attended one of his lawn lectures on the future of humanity and seen several geodesic domes. It was personal.

But the car seemed impossibly old-fashioned, starting with it being displayed in a museum that also had a coal mine and a German submarine from WWII. Maybe I thought the Dymaxion looked like a cruder version of Airstream trailers, GMC motorhomes, and VW minivans popular at the time, so it could not possibly be modern. Now, almost 50 years later, it feels less nostalgic than it does like a Honda Insight with an interior by Ikea.

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