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Into another dimension - Norman Foster's Dymaxion

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World-renowned architect Norman Foster commissioned a perfect replica of the revolutionary Dymaxion car - and Octane joined him for his first drive.

This is the Dymaxion car. Looks pretty weird, doesn’t it? You should try driving it. Smile if you must, but the Dymaxion is no laughing matter. Far from being a joke, this early ‘green’ dream car of 1934 was part of one remarkable man’s utopian vision for our sustainable future on what he called Spaceship Earth. The genius behind this unlikely machine was almost a century ahead of his time, a cultured polymath with radical ideas on housing, transport and almost every branch of human activity.

And here is his astonishing car, recreated perfectly down to every last detail. Commissioned by Norman Foster, it is the work of Crosthwaite and Gardiner. Even now, 86 years on, the Dymaxion still has things to tell us. On the other hand, you might say, this is what happens when an eccentric architect designs a motorcar. Oh yes, this philosopher, poet, inventor, cartographer, cosmogonist, mathematician, visionary prophet and many other things besides was also the distinguished American architect, Richard Buckminster Fuller.

His Dymaxion car never made it beyond the prototype stage. It stands as an aesthetic statement that challenged the automotive establishment of its day. Thanks to its shape, its fuel consumption was far superior to that of the Ford Tudor on which it was based. A credible 36mpg (Imperial) was claimed. However, it is still a car and, as car enthusiasts, there are certain questions we always want answered right at the start.

Here goes: the Dymaxion is a three-wheeler with front-wheel drive via a Ford live axle turned and widened by eight inches, powered by a rear-mounted 3.6-litre Ford V8 engine; and it’s 20 feet long but, with its rear-wheel steering, it can turn right round almost in its own length… and if that potted summary of its specification hasn’t left you slightly stunned, then I have been in the wrong game for the past 40 years.

The Dymaxion name was coined in 1927 by the advertising guru Waldo Warren. A combination of ‘dynamism, maximum and tension’, it became the brand name for the products of Buckminster Fuller’s 4D, or ‘fourth dimension’, enterprise. Fuller had designed a house of the future plus much else and the cars that followed in the early 1930s were part of his wide-ranging vision for a new order of living for mankind.

Fuller’s co-designer in these projects was Starling Burgess – aviation pioneer, naval architect and racing yacht designer. Initial financial backing for the Dymaxion car project came from one of Fuller’s ardent admirers, wealthy aviatrix Anna ‘Nannie’ Dale Biddle. In 1933, however, Biddle became the fourth of Burgess’s five wives and Fuller soon fell out with both of them.

Three prototype Dymaxion cars were produced at the Connecticut base, all along similar lines. The chassis varied but essentially there’s one platform carrying the engine, gearbox and front wheels, a subframe for the rear wheel and steering, and a separate steel platform to bear the body: an aluminium skin on an ash frame and rather boat-like in its construction, complete with plywood flooring. Leaf springs were used all-round.

The first Dymaxion car appeared in July 1933 and was much smaller than the next two, which were completed the following year. This one is based on the third, and exists because Norman Foster wanted to pay homage to Bucky Fuller. Norman is none other than Lord Foster, founder in 1967 of Foster and Partners, and the most famous British architect alive today. Just in case anyone needs to be reminded, he designed London’s Swiss Re Building, better known as the Gherkin. As a young architect in the 1970s, Foster collaborated with Bucky Fuller on several major projects, developing a deep respect for the American who was 40 years his senior.

Fuller died in 1983 but Foster has never forgotten his old mentor, which is why he commissioned Crosthwaite and Gardiner to create this Dymaxion. Colleagues at Foster and Partners, including the head of design David Nelson, became enthusiastically involved in the early research. Only one Dymaxion car, number two, has survived but they were able to borrow it from Bill Harrah’s National Automobile Museum in Reno. Without that, the task would have been impossible.

After tracking down drawings, studying photographs and examining every tiny detail in the manner of forensic specialists, Crosthwaite and Gardiner applied their extraordinary skills to recreate what surely amounts to a perfect copy of car number three. They called on other specialists for specific tasks: Peter Freebody and Co, Thames boat builders for 300 years, made the ash frame in boat style; Roach Manufacturing formed most of the aluminium body. Any temptation to introduce modern improvements was resisted completely but, even so, Norman Foster has quite properly elected to call his new toy Dymaxion Car Number Four.

This concept from long, long ago still has the power to make us think about what the car was meant to be originally and what it will become in the future. The first cars appeared to be playthings for the rich but it soon became obvious that they were somewhat faster than horses, as well as being far cheaper to run.

By the 1920s the motorcar had become reliable, firmly established as the quickest, cheapest, most comfortable and convenient means of getting about, and so it remains to this day. Since then, cars have simply become more reliable, safer, quicker, more comfortable and, in real terms, ever cheaper to run.

The average car buyer hasn’t always seen it quite that way. The car was always just so efficient, so comparatively cheap to run that, historically, buyers have only paid lip service to the question of fuel consumption – so it’s high time we nailed one great big lie. History would have you believe that the motor industry is conservative. By all accounts, Buckminster Fuller thought exactly that when he thrust this revolutionary car so provocatively into the equation.

If so, he was not entirely right. The motor industry, rather than forcing conservative designs on a market eager for real advance, has always been ready for new developments but has remained aware of the need to offer whatever the car-buying public wants to buy. The conservative thinking came mainly from the vast majority of car buyers, who have traditionally been more concerned about their personal image than any quest to get more performance from a gallon of petrol.

The list of idealistic manufacturers that have gone to the wall by offering their notion of a better car for the future, some of them too wacky for words, is very long indeed. Dymaxion is one of them. Despite its unusual appearance, car number one attracted a huge amount of positive publicity at first but a devastating blow occurred when it was mysteriously hit by another vehicle outside the gates of the 1933 World Fair in Chicago. The Dymaxion’s driver was killed and after that the American public did not need Ralph Nader, who was born only three months after the Fair closed, to turn them against Fuller’s car.

One eternal truth of car design is that, however good the machine may be, you are dead in the water as a manufacturer if the buyer’s neighbours laugh at him. The Dymaxion was never in that bracket, thanks to a certain elegance that demands respect. Fans of Bruce McCall’s cartoon parodies of a future world will certainly recognise something here but, from a styling point of view, Fuller’s Dymaxion car was successful.

The teardrop or possibly fish-like shape suggests a purity of aerodynamic theory but the truth is not that simple when it comes to motorcars, which supposedly hug the ground instead of travelling freely through air or water. It was soon discovered that cars require a different shape to maintain aerodynamic stability and that was perhaps better expressed by Chrysler’s Airflow and certainly by William Stout’s Scarab, both of which were produced in Detroit in 1934. Both failed in the market, partly because of the ever-conservative nature of car buyers.

The Dymaxion, more adventurous and radical than either the Airflow or the Scarab, would never have succeeded in production. There were too many fundamental flaws. The rear-wheel steering would probably get the majority of drivers into trouble. Before you set off it’s a good idea to take a look at where the back wheel is pointing. If it’s not straight ahead, the back end will swing as soon as the car moves.

Fuller considered front-wheel steering, which would have been better, but his great party trick was to demonstrate the spectacular turning circles of his Dymaxion prototypes and it seems he could not bring himself to relinquish that stunt. His reluctance there was understandable yet I can’t help wondering what it would be like to steer a Dymaxion at high speed in a crosswind. Although the weight is distributed evenly between the three wheels, that’s only because of the vast overhang at the front. The weight of the engine and gearbox is well to the rear, just ahead of that back wheel.

Another option considered for Dymaxion cars was supplementary rear steering by rudder: at low speed, the back wheel would have done the job but there was a plan to arrange the machine so that the back wheel lifted off the deck at cruising speed. Interesting. Think of the yaw angle of a fleet of Dymaxions at speed and then imagine what would be required of the drivers as they went under bridges. What exactly would a sudden change in crosswind do to such a shape? Either way, in Dymaxions with or without rudders, it is possible that the average driver might have had a little difficulty.

Our driving day was held at RAF Kemble, now also the Cotswolds Airport. Norman Foster flew in from Madrid at the controls of his private jet, with his wife and two children on board. After his first experience of driving his brand new Dymaxion, I asked for his impressions.

‘It’s like driving a boat,’ he said. ‘It’s very soft and comfortable and everything happens in slow motion. There is an incredible, panoramic view from the driver’s seat. I still feel slightly apprehensive but a sense of familiarity is developing, even though it’s unlike anything I have ever driven before. The suspension is soft but not floppy and I’m beginning to suspect that it would feel forgiving when cornered fast.’

Foster, clearly delighted by his Dymaxion, added: ‘Bucky Fuller made many claims but, even if you debunk them mercilessly, there is still a lot of substance to what he said. And don’t forget that during the Second World War, one of these did 700,000 miles around the States, promoting the campaign “All Out Aid to Great Britain and the Allies”.’

Fuller, a natural showman, made outrageous claims, one being that he’d exceeded 120mph in a Dymaxion. The gearing alone renders that implausible.

For Norman Foster’s second spin on the airfield perimeter road, I jumped into the back seat. The passenger compartment is so vast that I could stretch my legs out straight without touching the back of the front seat. It is neatly and correctly trimmed with a light, corded carpet and black leather upholstery. Sitting back, I noticed a slot in the roof, with a concealed rear-view mirror for the offside passenger. There is a similar mirror above the driver on the left in the front. On the move, the ride was extraordinarily smooth with no sense of being bounced around by the rear wheel, probably because it is so far back.

Norman and his family then had to leave and soon we were watching his jet zooming along Kemble’s runway. Turning to one of the Crosthwaite & Gardiner engineers, I remarked: ‘It’s taking an awfully long time to get off the deck, isn’t it?’

‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘it’s full of fuel. They’re flying to New York now.’ Blimey, what a bloke, I thought, but then it was my turn to have a drive of his Dymaxion. Sliding onto the bench seat to get behind the wheel, the first thing you notice is that panoramic view. It’s like being in the cockpit of a large 1930s airliner, with loads of glass all around. The controls look normal enough, right down to the lever for the three-speed Ford gearbox, sprouting from the middle of the floor. You have to reach forward a bit to get at it but it feels extremely positive, with no play, even though the gearbox itself is more than eight feet behind you.

As we set off in the normal car fashion, the photographer asked: ‘What’s it feel like?’ And I replied: ‘There is no feel at all.’ The steering does, however, respond predictably and an open 90º right-hander required only a small input, perhaps half a turn, to take us safely round. In the space available, we could get up to about 50mph and the Dymaxion remained stable and easy to drive.

Turning it around was extraordinary. The weak brakes – hydraulic drums with minimal action on the rear wheel – are typical of the period but good enough. Then you wind the wheel round and round as if in a boat and the back swings instantly right about while you feel as if you are sitting on a spot, which you almost are. Endless fun but it occurred to me that the differential was never designed for such antics. The acceleration of those little cogs, especially with the widened axle, must be way beyond what they were designed to take. Too much of that game and I doubt that they would last very long.

There are nearly 12 turns from lock to lock, I noted, so you need to wind it back to the straight-ahead position with care. That is not difficult but I still wonder what the Dymaxion would be like in a crosswind when flat out. The steering mechanism is a system of steel cables which acts on a motorbike chain that’s wrapped around much of a large, 92-tooth sprocket at the back. Back in 1935, Fuller was driving Dymaxion number two with his family through Connecticut when this little lot came apart. Unable to steer, they went up a bank and turned over. They all escaped with minor injuries but the incident is said to have shaken Fuller’s confidence in the Dymaxion car permanently.

We need free-thinking visionaries such as Buckminster Fuller and this tribute to his memory is a wonderful thing. The Bucky Fullers of this world might not produce infallible theories every time but they have the ability to stop us in our tracks and inspire fresh thinking. They are the sort of people who might have looked at the new Morris Marina in 1971, only to step back instantly and ask: ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing, making something like that?’ Long may such geniuses thrive.

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