Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion car was never meant to be a car. Looking like something between a Zeppelin and a VW camper van it was intended to fly, but sadly only three of these concept vehicles were ever built after tragedy struck. Now, as part of a Madrid retrospective on Bucky Fuller's work, Norman Foster, Fuller's collaborator for twelve years, has rebuilt his hero's Dymaxion car.
Richard Buckminster ‘Bucky’ Fuller was born July 12th 1895 in Milton Massachusetts. A natural mechanic, he was sent to Milton Academy, and later Harvard from where he was expelled twice; once for spending all his money partying, and again for his “irresponsibility and lack of interest”. By 32 years he was bankrupt and unemployed and drinking regularly in order to remedy the pain of losing his youngest daughter to polio and spinal meningitis. He was finally moved from depression by a suicidal vision and embarked upon “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” He would become an early green environmentalist and futurist, engineer, prophetic visionary, poet and author, architect and designer, mathematician, map-maker and teacher.
Sick of Ads?
More than 700 New Atlas Plus subscribers read our newsletter and website without ads.
Join them for just US$19 a year.More Information
For the next fifty years Fuller devoted himself to hundreds of ideas and projects particularly with relation to inexpensive, practical housing and transport. As an early environmentalist, he was aware of Earth's finite resources and promoted a principle that he termed "ephemeralization" which he used to mean "doing more with less". He gained fame for popularizing Geodesic domes which even now pepper our landscapes, but in the 1930s began a study with William Starling Burgess, a renowned aeronautical engineer and naval architect, of stress experienced by flying-craft during intersection with land or sea. A lack of funds drove him to use automobile parts to investigate the “ground taxi-ing quality, streamlining and steering of an omni-medium transport”, but as he had to get a license from the state to test it out on the highway the “Dymaxion” (said to be an amalgamation of “dynamic maximum tension”) thence became known as a car.
This may help to explain its peculiar characteristics. The three-wheeler Dymaxion introduced front-wheel drive, rear steering and rear engine mounting, emulating fish and birds in the natural world. It was 18 feet long and an elongated tear-shape, not unlike other flying cars of the time, and with the capacity to carry eleven passengers it anticipated the “people-movers” of later decades. It had one eighth-inch-thick aircraft-glass windows, a chassis of chrome-molybdenum steel, wraparound bumpers, and an aluminum body. It could park in a tight space and spin a graceful U-turn on its own length. Furthermore it was fuel-efficient for its time, running on 30 miles to the gallon, and Fuller claimed it had reached speeds of 128mph though it was only ever measured at 90 mph and in reality was hard to steer above 50mph.
Despite a high-profile crash which killed the driver and two passengers on the way to the Chicago World Fair, Fuller was invited back to feature the following year where he gained the support of Henry Ford who offered any car parts to Fuller at 70% discount. His second and third cars therefore would boast the newly released Ford V8 engine, and the rear axle of a Ford roadster used instead for the front axle. But when Fuller's second daughter was injured in another Dymaxion crash both he and investors lost interest in the project.
Sadly the first prototype survived the crash only to be destroyed by fire. The third toured USA promoting the Allied cause during World War II and was eventually sold for scrap in Kansas. The second enjoyed a triumphant journey around Manhattan with H.G. Wells before being abandoned in Arizona and restored by local engineering students and until recently was preserved in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada until Norman Foster's collaboration with his wife's company, Ivory Pres, brought it to England to fulfill Foster's dream of an authentic rebuild of Dymaxion #4. The car was painstakingly constructed by Crosthwaite and Gardiner, racing car restoration specialists, from drawings of car #3 and analysis of car #2. The Dymaxion,” says restorer Phil King, "was unlike anything I'd seen before: you almost have to forget everything you've learned about car engineering to understand how it works."
Like the first prototypes, the shell of Dymaxion #4 is built with an ash frame sheathed in hand-beaten aluminum sat backwards on the chassis of an old 1934 Ford Tudor Sedan and is strikingly painted in racing green with a white roof. Similarly the V8 Ford engine is rear-mounted and steered by the same single rear wheel, which acts like a boat's rudder, calling in mind Fuller's final epitaph “Just call me Trimtab”. In gratitude for the lending of Dymaxion #2 Foster offered to restore it, though the interior has been left hollow as they did not know what it was like. As of September 2009 the interior of #2 is being partially restored with the help of fans as Synchronofile.com.
A passionate car collector, Foster, of Foster + Partners, undertook the project as a tribute to Fuller, who he met in 1971 and collaborated with until Fuller’s death in 1983. He writes, “In 1951 Fuller drew attention to the ecological issues of today when he referred to ‘spaceship earth’ and the fragility of the planet, as such his work and observations are even more important now than they were in his lifetime.” It is hoped the show will travel the world but for now, 75 years after the originals, the Dymaxion #4 is on display in “Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth,” an retrospective of Fuller’s work open until October 30th at the Ivorypress Art + Books gallery in Madrid.