Richard Buckminster Fuller had a lot of nerve. In the 1930s, the great US inventor secured the first $1,000 he needed to build a giant futuristic car, called the Dymaxion. The socialite who gave him the cash was told: “If I want to use it all to buy ice cream cones, that will be that – and there will be no questions asked.” (Pics and Videos)
Fuller, born in 1895, is best known for his geodesic domes, but his ultimate hope was that the three-wheeled Dymaxion – which looked like a VW camper van crossed with a pinball flipper – would fly, allowing Americans to leave the highway vertically and touch down at lightweight aluminium homes, scattered wherever they fancied by a fleet of Zeppelins.
The Dymaxion was meant to be phase one of a social revolution, fuelled by the latest technology, but only three were ever built. No 1 caught fire and No 3 was turned into scrap; only No 2 survived. It now sits in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada – or it did until 18 months ago, when the architect Norman Foster decided he wanted to fulfil a dream, and build Dymaxion No 4. So he borrowed No 2 for inspiration.
Norman Foster and the Dymaxion
“The Dymaxion had the same engine and transmission as the Ford Sedan of the time,” says Foster, who worked with Fuller, his design hero, from 1971 until his death 12 years later. “However, at three times the volume, with half the fuel consumption and a 50% increase in top speed, it not only did more with less, but anticipated the ‘people mover’ of several decades later.”
Foster’s Dymaxion, which the architect has just unveiled, is striking and spacious. Boasting an emerald green body topped with a white roof, it looks part porpoise, part wingless aircraft, part beetle – like something from the 1930s sci-fi film Things to Come. And, until the end of October, it’s parked not in Foster’s garage, but at the Ivorypress Art+Books gallery in Madrid, the centrepiece of its Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth exhibition.
Hopefully, the show will travel the world, although whether it will encourage further orders for Dymaxions is anyone’s guess: they were never cheap, even though Fuller, with typical bravado, once told a reporter, even before the first lacquered aluminium creation emerged from the factory, that 100 were under construction and would soon be selling for as little as $200 (half the price of a run-of-the-mill Ford Sedan at the time). In reality, the cost of building each car was about $8,000.
Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car
I watched Foster’s Dymaxion No 4 being made in East Sussex, at racing car restorers Crosthwaite & Gardiner. Foster was introduced to this haven of automotive engineering by David Nelson, one of his partners and the co-designer of the elegant McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. It was a marriage made in heaven. “As a child,” says Foster, “I lived in a fantasy world inhabited by these cars and their legendary drivers: Bernd Rosemeyer in the rear-engined Auto Union and Rudolf Caracciola in the Mercedes-Benz, racing at Nurburgring, Tripoli and Monaco.”
The C&G team had many questions. Restorer Phil King went off to Reno to take 2,000 photographs of No 2, which was in a sorry state. Eventually, with the promise that Foster would create a new interior for the car, No 2 was shipped to Sussex. Meanwhile, Foster’s team worked through the Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University, while King and co improvised when clues were unforthcoming. The Dymaxion, says King, “was unlike anything I’d seen before: you almost have to forget everything you’ve learnt about car engineering to understand how it works.”
Why? Well, as with the originals, No 4’s shell comprises an ash frame sheathed in hand-beaten aluminium. This sits on the chassis of an old 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan, but front to back, so the back wheels of the Ford form the front wheels of the Dymaxion. Much of the detailing echoes Zeppelin design, while its V8 Ford engine is a mounted at the rear, under a long tailfin designed to both cool the engine and increase stability. It is steered by the single rear wheel, which acts like a boat’s rudder. This is, without doubt, the Dymaxion’s weakest point.
“The interior seemed extraordinarily roomy,” says Allegra Fuller Snyder, daughter of Fuller, remembering her rides in the original. “It felt almost like a living room. Riding in it was much more like floating.” Foster echoes Allegra’s sense of wonder. “Driving the Dymaxion is a revelation,” says this lifelong sci-fi fan and Fuller’s perfect disciple. “At slow speeds, it can turn on itself, almost like a spinning top. Moving faster, it is extraordinarily well-cushioned and feels more like a boat than a car.”
The Dymaxion Corporation sank, heavily in debt, within a couple of years of its founding. It had enjoyed a rollercoaster existence, with Fuller and his business partner, William Starling Burgess, notching up parties, affairs and engineering sorcery right to the end. Allegra believes that her father lost heart with the project after he crashed No 2, injuring her. Having lost his first daughter to polio, he was horrified at the thought of causing Allegra harm.
Whatever the ultimate reason for the Dymaxion’s fall from grace, Fuller’s magnificently optimistic fusion of architecture and invention never did fly – either from showrooms or in skies above America.