March 1, 2011
One for the Road
Norman Foster and a team of auto restorers finally realize a roadworthy version of Buckminster Fuller’s legendary (and legendarily flawed) Dymaxion Car.
Seventy-eight years after the first model rolled out of the shop, R. Buckminster Fuller’s grand experiment in transportation design—the Dymaxion Car—still looks wildly futuristic, like a relic from World’s Fairs past. It is, in the words of Norman Foster, “pure Bucky.” Indeed, Foster’s decision in 2008 to honor his former mentor by creating a fourth Dymaxion—Fuller’s company made just three, and only Car No. 2 survived—is pure Bucky as well. “It was just one of those crazy ideas that came out of the blue,” Foster says.
But meticulously re-creating the Dymaxion proved more complicated and costly than he first imagined. Given Fuller’s legacy, this is fitting. His ideas were often more advanced than his ability to execute them, and the Dymaxion is a perfect case in point. Initially bankrolled by a wealthy racing aviator, Anna Dale Biddle, Fuller embarked on the project with characteristic unbridled enthusiasm. He joined forces with William Starling Burgess, a brilliant aircraft engineer and yacht designer, setting up a factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and hiring 28 employees.
The resulting car was both a media darling (there’s news-reel footage of Bucky playfully maneuvering one around a befuddled policeman) and the subject of controversy. Critics thought the vehicle’s unique wheel configuration—two in the front, one in the rear—was inherently unstable. Two Dymaxions, in fact, suffered mishaps. Car No. 1 was involved in a fatal collision outside the gates of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. An investigation determined that the car’s design did not cause the accident, but the incident was a public-relations disaster. Two years later, Fuller’s faith in the car was shaken. While he was driving to his Harvard reunion with his family, a component failed in Car No. 2’s steering mechanism, forcing the vehicle up an embankment, where it overturned. Fuller’s wife and daughter were slightly injured.
Still, the Dymaxion was a sleek, stunning, aerodynamically robust car, capable of reaching speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. Remarkably light and fleet for a vehicle of its size, it got a reported 35 miles per gallon (an unheard-of efficiency in the 1930s). Although it was conceived as a mass-production prototype, the Dymaxion was anything but: the budget for Car No. 2 was about $7,700, roughly $130,000 in 2010 dollars.
The making of Dymaxion Car No. 4 was characterized by the kind of detective work typical of historic restorations. Foster—who paid for the project himself and utilized his firm’s staff, notably David Nelson, a partner—also enlisted the help of Crosthwaite & Gardiner, vintage-race-car specialists. They had access to two principal sources: the Dymaxion Chronofile at Stanford University, where Foster + Partners had done work and had extensive contacts; and the National Automobile Museum, in Reno, Nevada, home to the only surviving Dymaxion. Phil King, the leader of the C & G effort, took more than 2,000 photographs of the car. The design team attempted to track down many of the original off-the-shelf components, but for the most part the factories that made them had long since disappeared. In these cases, replicas were built from scratch at the C & G shop.
Re-creating the inside of the car was even trickier, given the deteriorated condition of Car No. 2’s interior. (During research, the car was loaned to C & G, and as part of the agreement with Foster, the interior was later restored.) Using interior photos of Car No. 1, along with images and samples of the frayed remains of No. 2 (very little documentation exists for the inside of No. 3), they created a new interior that could best be described as a historic approximation.
The finished car—which debuted last fall at a show in Madrid that Foster cocurated, titled Bucky Fuller and Space-ship Earth—is likely to become a regular at exhibitions in the future. But it’s also something else important to Foster: licensed and roadworthy. “I’ve driven it,” he says. “There’s something in that feel as you wind the steering wheel and increase the power. The horizon just kind of spins around the cockpit. It’s quite extraordinary. And it’s a showstopper. Even now, seventy-eight years later, it still has the power to stop people in their tracks.”