Dymaxion; courtesy ZungDesign.files.wordpress.com
Dymaxion; courtesy ZungDesign.com. Click image to enlarge

By Bill Vance

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Buckminster Fuller was a brilliant designer who was best known for the geodesic dome, a strong, spherical structure that has housed everything from railroad round houses to radar installations. It is comprised of tubing fabricated into triangular elements that are combined to form a light yet strong enclosure. Examples are Toronto’s Ontario Place and the United States’ Expo ‘67 exhibit in Montreal.

Fuller patented his dome in 1954 but his interests extended beyond structures, leading to one of the most bizarre cars in history, the Dymaxion, a kind of minivan forerunner. The Dymaxion name, a combination of “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion,” denoted several of Fuller’s inventions, including the 1927 house suspended from a central mast.

Work on the design of the Dymaxion, or 4D Transport Unit, to give it Fuller’s formal name, began in the early 1930s. Its nose-up attitude and cigar-like shape resembled a stubby airplane with no wings. There were two wheels in front and one at the rear, with the front axle just ahead of the vehicle’s middle. Driver and passenger therefore sat ahead of the front wheels, which carried some 75 per cent of the Dymaxion’s weight.

Dymaxion cutaway; image courtesy IllustratorWorld.com and artist David McCord
Dymaxion cutaway; courtesy IllustratorWorld.com and artist David McCord. Click image to enlarge

The single rear wheel steered the car like a boat rudder, not entirely surprising because Fuller’s engineering advisor was naval architect Starling Burgess. Power was a 3.6-litre (221 cu in.) Ford flathead V8 mounted in the rear, turned end-to-end so the driveshaft ran forward to drive the front wheels.

The aircraft similarity did not end with the appearance. Construction followed similar principles – a high-strength chrome molybdenum frame and aluminum skinned body over a wooden superstructure. Separate front and rear frames hinged just behind the engine contributed to a smooth ride and the streamlined underbelly gave maximum aerodynamic efficiency.

Fuller’s 4D Co. obtained the bankrupt Locomobile Company of America’s Bridgeport, Conneticut plant and used one building for constructing his car. The finest craftsmen he could attract during the Depression completed the first Dymaxion in 1933.

With aircraft-type construction, it weighed only 1,043 kg (2,300 lb), which, combined with low aerodynamic drag, gave a claimed speed of 193 km/h (120 mph) and fuel economy of 11.8 L/100 km (30 mpg U.S.) at 113 km/h (70 mph).

The Dymaxion’s 5,791 mm (228 in.) length, 3,175 mm (125 in.) wheelbase and 1,778 mm (70 in.) width could accommodate up to 11 people. The rear wheel steered through a full 180 degree arc so the car could turn around in its own length. Parking was a breeze – simply nose the front end into a space and swing in the rear.

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