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Today in History: The Dymaxion Car

Engineer/architect Buckminster Fuller was a true early-20th-century eccentric, perhaps best known for his geodesic dome and semi-prefab Dymaxion House, which could be assembled on-site almost anywhere.

In the 1920s, Fuller began drawing up his Dymaxion Car (the name  is a mashup of “dynamic,” “maximum” and “ion”). The first sketches were pure left-field stuff, with a teardrop design, a single tail fin and a third wheel that was intended to lift off the ground at speed. After some redesigns, Fuller set up a production facility for the Dymaxion in an old Locomobile automotive factory in Connecticut. The first Dymaxion was produced on July 12, 1933, with a steel frame and a body made of curved ash wood panels with an aluminum skin and painted canvas roof.

The Dymaxion was projected to top 120 mph, with a drag coefficient that could deliver 28 miles per gallon. In one of the earliest demonstrations of the car, however, it rolled over, killing professional driver Francis Turner. Investors were spooked and the Dymaxion never went much farther.

The Dymaxion was a flawed design and too radical for the market, but it did help the public accept forward-thinking designs like the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, and was an early proof-of-concept for the futuristic rear-engine designs of the 30s such as the Tata and Volkswagen. In typical Fuller fashion, he said of the car, “I knew everyone would call it a car…[instead] it was the land-taxiing phase of a wingless, twin-orientable jet-stilts flying device.”