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Buckminster Fuller Was Good at Ideas, Terrible at Car Design

Fuller held more than 30 patents during his life, but many of his ideas didn’t make it off the page–or not for long

It looks a bit like a blimp–unsurprising, since Fuller meant it to fly. (Poet Architecture/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

Buckminster Fuller, born on this day in 1895, designed or imagined a lot of things: geodesic domes, synergetics and theoretical worlds like Spaceship Earth and Dymaxion World. Some of his ideas stood the test of time, while others have faded into the history. Where he ran into trouble–at times–was in the execution.

Take the Dymaxion Car, which was first produced on this day in 1933—Fuller's birthday.

Its three-wheeled, rounded design was meant to make it highly aerodynamic and efficient, transporting up to 11 passengers at speeds of 90 miles an hour. Most 1930s cars had a top speed of around 60 mph and could carry only a handful of people, making Fuller’s speedier design promising. But there was a hitch: the Dymaxion Car was deadly.

“The Dymaxion Car went on display at the Century of Progress exposition in Chicago,” writes History.com. Just a few months later, “the professional driver Francis Turner was killed after the Dymaxion Car turned over during a demonstration.”

At a later date, it “was burned to the axles in a refueling incident,” writes Matt Novak for Gizmodo. In 2015, a museum-quality model of this original car was built, revealing just how horrifying the original was. The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Neil, who test-drove the replica, described it as the “Fuller death-mobile.” The car was powered by the rear wheel–unconventional but not necessarily a problem. The thing that made the Fuller death-mobile singularly deadly was the fact it was also steered by the rear wheel, making it hard to control and prone to all kind of terrifying issues.

Only three Dymaxion Cars were ever built, wrote Benjamin Preston for The New York Times in 2013 when Fuller’s plans for the car were rediscovered. After the crash at the Expo, he writes, investors in the new car evaporated. The last Dymaxion ended its days in a Wichita junkyard, while the second is a true collectors’ item. It wound up in Reno, Nevada, at the National Automobile Museum.

Fuller had big plans for the car: He eventually saw it flying on inflatable wings, even though the jet engine hadn’t yet been invented, writes Graham Kozak for Autoweek. But the car never took flight. “If its hypothetical airworthiness was on par with its roadworthiness, that’s probably a good thing for all of us,” he writes.

Fuller designed the car as part of a series he called Dymaxion World–it stands for DYnamic  MAXimum tenSION, writes the Buckminster Fuller Institute. The Dymaxion Car, the Dymaxion House and the other designs he came up with were intended to “yield the greatest possible efficiency in terms of available technology,” the Institute writes. Of all of them, the Dymaxion Map, a map that could be unfolded in different ways to emphazise different parts of the world, is the one that gets the most interest today.

Not everything Buckminster Fuller designed went badly--as Dan Falk writes for Mental Floss, Fuller’s designs saved the lives of pilots in world War I. “He invented a winch for rescue boats that could pluck downed airplanes from the water in time to save the lives of pilots,” Falk writes.

Editor's note: This article originally misstated that the National Automobile Museum is in Las Vegas. It is in Reno. Smithsonian.com regrets the error.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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