Sam Glover Dymaxion; a true vision of the future.
Joyriding in Buckminster Fuller’s vision of the future
Richard Buckminster Fuller was a ‘design scientist’ who intentionally worked at least half a century ahead of his time. He viewed technology as a means of ‘making the world work for everybody’. As well as being a convincing orator, he was an able engineer and mathematician – which gave him an improbable ability to translate far-fetched ideas into reality.
Fuller envisaged a ‘one-town world’ covered in self-sufficient and energy-efficient housing stacks. For this to work, people would need high-speed transportation to get around. Enter the Dymaxion. The concept began in the Twenties as flying machine that was also capable of driving on land (or ‘prolonged taxiing’ as Fuller put it). It was to be propelled by jet engines that swivelled for vertical take-offs. Sadly, these were yet to be invented. Thus, the Dymaxion had to be born as driving machine, though the idea that it would eventually take off remained central to the design.
The layout was characteristically removed from the conventional. It had a lightweight low-drag body with one steering wheel at the rear. A engine and transmission placed behind the cabin sent drive to a pair of non-steering wheels at the front. It looked like it’d fallen from space.
In March 1933 – the midst of the Great Depression – Fuller secured funding from varied sources, hired 28 world-class engineers and set up a factory. Dymaxion 1 was unveiled to an astonished press less than four months later. Its ash-framed aluminium body cloaked the engine, transmission and much of the chassis of a 1932 Ford V8. A redeveloped Dymaxion 2 appeared in January 1934 and a glitzier Dymaxion 3 later that year.
The money had run out by 1935 and Fuller sped off to pursue other ideas. While not entirely a conceptual success – and certainly not a commercial one – the Dymaxion and the publicity Fuller spun from it gave American car design a shake-up and a large helping of brain-food. Without it, the postwar years would probably not have been as interesting.
A futurist kebab
Dymaxion 2 is the sole survivor, now residing in the The Harrah Collection, Nevada. Two replicas also exist: Dymaxion 3 commissioned by British architect Norman Foster and Dymaxion 1 built at the Lane Motor Museum, Tennessee. As luck would have it, this is where I found myself one sunny lunchtime.
‘Shall we jump in the Dymaxion and grab a kebab?’ asked Jeff Lane, the museum’s virtuoso curator. I assumed he was joking. His recently-completed Dymaxion was basking centre-stage in museum’s magnificent main hall. He wasn’t joking. He clambered in, fired up the V8, swung it round in its own length and slalomed through exhibits to the door. ‘The body is Dymaxion 1 but the chassis is a three-part construction like the later cars,’ explained Jeff as we admired it outside. ‘We tried to pick the best of what Bucky did – and we started with the same Ford V8 as a donor car.’
‘You’ve got to watch the back end as you pull away from junctions, or it swings right out onto the other side of the road,’ said Jeff, demonstrating that he’d mastered the art by joining the busy road outside the museum at some speed. ‘Once you’re going, it’s not too bad,’ he continued, accelerating with impressive oomph. ‘You’ve just got to fight the urge to over-correct the steering. You drive like a drunk at first – but we took it 650 miles to a show in Florida last year and we kinda got used to it.’
As a passenger, I found it unusually civilised for a Thirties-designed car. The V8 burble was wellmasked, the cabin cavernous and the ride creditably smooth. It seemed to go pretty well, too. The 180° screen provided a perfect vista from which to enjoy the shock and awe of oncoming motorists. Jeff swept into the kebab restaurant and parked among the trucks and wheelie bins at the back. In such mundane surroundings, the Dymaxion looked more bonkers than ever. If only the future had turned out to be as cool as Fuller envisioned 80 years ago.
An exhibition of Thirties futurism behind a kebab diner in Nashville.
Jeff Lane's Dymaxion took nine years to build. He's covered thousands of miles in it since its completion in 2015.