What is a Dymaxion Car?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Dymaxion car was an early concept car, created by the celebrated inventor and architect, Buckminster Fuller. Only three were ever made, despite the best efforts of Fuller and his team of craftsmen. The car was revolutionary in just about everything it did: it ran on three wheels, had vastly superior gas mileage and speed compared to its contemporaries, and was an enormous 20 ft (6 m) long.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Buckminster Fuller, a visionary designer, invented the car as a part of his Dymaxion line of products. These concept designs were meant to create mass-produced products that would be affordable, energy efficient, and highly convenient. In January 1933, an investment from a friend allowed Fuller to begin production on a prototype of the Dymaxion car, choosing to build the machine out of the newly available aluminum alloys on the market.

Fuller hired an eclectic collection of craftsmen and designers to produce the Dymaxion car, placing them under the direction of a famous yacht and seaplane designer named Starling Burgess. The car made use of several already available auto parts, including a Ford engine that Fuller obtained from fellow visionary Henry Ford, and a Ford-made rear axle that Fuller flipped upside down to make the front axel. After building and testing the basic body of the car, an additional 27 craftsmen from around the world were hired to complete the job.

Invented by a genius and built by a team of superior experts, the Dymaxion car looked poised for success when displayed at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. On 27 October 1933, the car was involved in a fatal accident when it flipped over and killed the driver and injuring two passengers. Some suggest that the accident was the reason that the car was never placed into full production, despite Fuller’s attempts to refine the design and make the car safer.

Although he would build two more prototypes, Fuller ran out of money and couldn’t put the car into production, despite orders from Amelia Earhart and several other celebrities. Many blame the auto industry for the failure of the Dymaxion car, suggesting that investors were pressured to drop out of the project, as the car was so revolutionary it would destroy the established automakers. By 1934, Fuller was forced to fire his team, giving them the second prototype to pay off his wage debt.

The Dymaxion car never made it to the production line, but has been a design inspiration since its first showing. The aerodynamics and fuel economy of the car were first-rate, and modern designers have studied what remains of Fuller’s original plans, trying to find practical applications. One clearly influenced design is that for the 2008 Aptera Typ-1 hybrid, a futuristic three-wheeler, is set to hit a limited market by the end of 2008, with greater production soon to come. The Aptera is said to get 130 miles per gallon (209 kpg,) and is, like the Dymaxion car, clearly inspired by aircraft aerodynamics. One can only imagine Fuller would be thrilled with the Aptera, which may finally bring his automotive concepts to life after more than 70 years.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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