The very word screams “futuristic design," and rightly so. It was industrial designer R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller’s term for his exotic road vehicle, so unusual it hardly seems fair to call it a “car.”
Dymaxion, a term Fuller used for describing his geodesic domes as well, was shorthand for Dynamic Maximum Tension. It was aerodynamically shaped like a zeppelin, with a strong and lightweight trussed frame. It had three wheels, two in the front and one in the back. The full-blown version would be nearly 20 feet long, fuel-efficient, and designed to carry up to 11 people. In partnership with design polymath Starling Burgess, Fuller produced a working prototype in their Bridgeport, Connecticut workshop and debuted it at the Chicago World’s Fair (formally known as the “A Century of Progress International Exposition”) in 1933–1934. National columnist Howard Vincent O’Brien described it on August 15, 1934:
[The Dymaxion car] is on exhibit…in the Crystal House, and is well worth a look if you are interested in knowing what sort of vehicle may soon be taking you about.
It’s a three-wheeled affair, driven from the front wheels, and with the engine in the rear. It turns on its own base, and, using a standard Ford engine as a power plant, it will go — says Mr. Fuller — 125 miles an hour, doing 30 miles to the gallon of gasoline.
I haven’t ridden in it yet, but those who have say it floats like an airplane.
Unfortunately, the vehicle never went into production. An accident in October, 1933 killed the test driver and injured several bystander investors, which dampened prospects for further commercial development. The design occupies the fringe area of “good ideas that weren’t practical.”
But visionary industrialist Henry J. Kaiser gave it a shot.
Kaiser made history when he entered the automobile market in 1945, applying his industrial mass production skills to a postwar world hungry for vehicles. He partnered with veteran automobile executive Joseph Frazer to establish the new Kaiser-Frazer Corporation, from the remnants of Graham-Paige, of which Frazer had been president. Kaiser’s name would grace the affordable and practical end of the line, and Frazer would be the nameplate on the upscale side of the lot.
It’s not commonly known that years earlier, at the end of 1942, Henry J. Kaiser paid Bucky Fuller to engineer and produce a ¼ scale model Dymaxion, to be completed in early 1943. At that time Henry Kaiser was committed to various wartime vehicle projects under federal support, including building cargo ships and “baby flat top” aircraft carriers, prototyping lightweight jeeps, and even experimenting with giant flying wings. So it should come as no surprise that, with the support of the Board of Economic Warfare (on which Fuller served as staff member), he explored the advantages of Fuller’s Dymaxion.
According to Fuller scholar J. Baldwin, the updated design would include several of these features:
Powered by three separate air-cooled "outboard" type (opposed cylinder) engines, each coupled to its own wheel by a variable fluid drive. Each of the engine-drivewheel assemblies was detachable. The engines themselves were run always at the same speed; the speed of the car was controlled by varying the quantity of fluid in the coupling;
Low-horsepower engines — 15 to 25 hp, cut down to one engine at cruising speed, for 40–50 mpg;
Steered at cruising speeds by the front wheels, rear-wheel steering was used only as an auxiliary for tight turns, or to move sideways;
High speed stability enhanced by extending the rear wheel on a boom to lengthen the wheelbase.
Alas, the prototype results were not impressive.
In August, 1946, author Lester Velie wrote this in a three-part series on Henry J. Kaiser for Collier’s magazine:
Kaiser had dabbled with cars since 1942. In that year he commissioned Buckminster Fuller, the industrial designer, to design a car. Fuller came up with what he called a dymaxion car, a three-wheel job, with a motor that could be hitched to front or rear, or to any of the three wheels. He made a mock-up of the car's tear-drop body in plywood. This and engineering drawings he submitted to Kaiser, expecting Kaiser to commission him to do the further necessary engineering toward a completed prototype.
Kaiser shipped the plywood mock-up of the dymaxion car to his cement plant at Permanente, Calif. There, without waiting for such refinements as a specially designed motor, he slung a secondhand Willys-Knight engine on the three-wheel job and started riding.
The dymaxion turned over.
Undaunted, Kaiser brushed himself off and went to New York where he announced belligerently before a National Association of Manufacturers audience that if the automobile industry lacked the courage to plan postwar automobiles now, he would have to do it himself.
Despite Henry Kaiser’s enthusiastic and reckless test drive, the Dymaxion’s road stability was not an insurmountable design flaw (it did have a few, including poor rear visibility and an unfortunate tendency for the rear to lift off the ground at speed). But the project ended there, and it never saw mass production.
In 1957 Henry J. Kaiser and Bucky Fuller would again collaborate on another project, the commercialization of aluminum geodesic domes.
Jeff Lane, director of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, has been faithfully recreating a working model of the first Dymaxion prototype, and Noel Murphy is directing a documentary film on this magnificent, though flawed, vehicle. Recently a set of original blueprints turned up, and an excellent set of Dymaxion photos can be seen here.
On the broader subject of the vision of Henry J. Kaiser and his role in the automotive industry, listen to the stirring podcast by Hemmings Motor News' Jim Donnelly and read his companion article "Master of the West: The Towering Accomplishments of Henry J. Kaiser" in the Hemmings Classic Car March, 2015 issue.