R. Buckminster Fuller lived an adventurous, if unconventional, life. A philosopher, architect and futurist, Fuller is best known for his geodesic designs, including geodesic domes that have found many applications both in housing, industry and military. His Dymaxion Car, however, was not the success he had hoped for.
The Dymaxion Car
“Dymaxion,” a Fullerism, blended the words dynamic, maximum, and tension. He used it to describe several of his designs, including his Dymaxion House and, in 1932, his Dymaxion car.
He managed to produce three prototypes in a Bridgeport, Conn., factory, and to display them at the 1933-34 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. It didn’t go well.
The Dymaxion car was futuristic in virtually every sense. A three-wheeled, aerodynamically efficient car, Fuller designed it to bring elements of aircraft and boat design to automobiles. It had a thin metal skin made of aircraft aluminum and a canvas top. It had front-wheel drive. And it could carry 11 people, but was remarkably maneuverable. Fuller also believed it could travel at well over 100 miles per hour, though he never tested it above 90. As for fuel efficiency, it got a remarkable 30 miles per gallon.
Fuller was born in Milton, Mass., on July 12, 1895, a grand-nephew of Margaret Fuller and grandson of Unitarian minister Arthur Buckminster Fuller. An inventive child, he attended Milton Academy and Harvard College, though he didn’t fit in with the fraternity environment. Harvard expelled him twice.
He earned a machinist’s certification and worked as a mechanic in a Canadian textile mill. He also served in the U.S. Navy during World War I. In 1917, he married Anne Hewlett, and they had a daughter, Alexandra. She died of complications from polio and spinal meningitis before she turned four. Fuller went into a deep depression and, while walking along Lake Michigan in Chicago, considered suicide.
But then he had a revelation. A voice told him he had no right to kill himself, that he had to fulfill his role by converting his experiences to the highest advantage of others.
Fuller then began to work on his Dymaxion House. He wanted to design an energy-efficient house that could function off the grid and was easy to ship and assemble. Eventually, the U.S. Army ordered Fuller’s Dymaxion Houses for the Persian Gulf during World War II.
Fuller began working on his futuristic car with his friend Isamu Noguchi, a Japanese-American artist and landscape designer. Noguchi created plaster models to test their aerodynamic efficiency in a wind tunnel. Noguchi later took a road trip through Connecticut in a prototype car with playwright Clare Booth Luce and socialite Dorothy Hale.
In 1933, Fuller formed the Dymaxion Corp., set up shop in an old Locomobile building in Bridgeport and hired another friend, Starling Burgess, a naval architect. With a $5,000 investment from Philip and Temple Pearson, he hired 27 mechanics, some of them former Rolls-Royce employees.
They finished the first prototype in three months. But as you might guess, the Dymaxion Car was fairly unstable and susceptible to wind gusts. Fuller put it on display in the 1933 World’s Fair, and it went disastrously badly. The car crashed on a test track, killing its driver. Investor enthusiasm dried up after that and Fuller stopped Dymaxion production at prototype number three.
But the failure did nothing to stop Fuller. He went on with his life as a prolific thinker, lecturer and writer. Among his books: The Operating Manual for the Spaceship Earth. And his ideas and concepts, such as his buckyballs, many of which struck people as odd, have nevertheless inspired modern designers in numerous fields. Even some of the ideas he was tinkering with in his car have shaped more modern automobile engineering. Though unconventional in many of his beliefs, he was no doubt one-of-a-kind.
This story last updated in 2023. Images: Dymaxion car replica By Starysatyr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32840885. Dymaxion building By Unknown – Hemmings Motor News http://blog.hemmings.com/index.php/2009/11/13/in-search-of-the-birthplace-of-the-dymaxion/, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46578872. Black-and-white photo of Chicago World’s Fair By https://www.flickr.com/photos/saschapohflepp/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/saschapohflepp/1922098141/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9753378. Dymaxion Prototype 2 By brewbooks from near Seattle, USA – 1934 Dymaxion, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32851253. Dymaxion House By Rmhermen at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1917827