27 July 2015

Looking Back at Tomorrow

THE REAR-ENGINE, REAR-STEER, THREE-WHEELED DYMAXION WAS ONE MAN’S VISION OF THE FUTURE

Jeff Lane had a bemused look as he climbed back into the aluminum-clad Dymaxion after a fuel stop in southeastern Georgia. Although it’s an authentic replica, there were only ever three original Dymaxions. A local man, however, had just told him, “I’ve not seen one of those in years.” The gentleman at the gas station may have seen an Airstream or a flying saucer, but he certainly hadn’t seen another Dymaxion.

DYMAXION BEGINNINGS
The man behind the Dymaxion was inventor, designer and futurist Buckminster Fuller. Fuller had a dream to change the way people lived and traveled. His work included a design for the “4D House,” “4D Tower” and the “4D Auto Airplane.” In 1932, he proposed the radical “4D Transportation Unit,” which Dymaxion historian and author Norman Foster described as “a streamlined vehicle with twin four-cylinder petrol engines and no wings.” Although it was never built, Fuller was invited to show his drawings at the 1932 World’s Fair.

Meanwhile, Fuller continued to refine the design, until it evolved into a teardrop-shaped, front-wheel-drive car with a rear-mounted flathead Ford V-8 over a steerable single rear wheel. With funding largely from socialite Nannie Biddle and a tenuous partnership with yacht and airplane designer Starling Burgess, work got underway in a rented workshop in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Just three Dymaxions were built before the project failed, and though they shared essentials, each one was different.

While the sole survivor, Dymaxion No. 2, is ensconced at the National Motor Museum, that doesn’t explain the polished aluminum teardrop from the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville. Knowing that he could never have an original Dymaxion, museum director Jeff Lane decided to build an accurate replica of Dymaxion 1, which had been destroyed in a rollover in 1939. Like the original, the project was based on a Ford engine and chassis, in this case, the engine was a 1940 and the chassis a 1935. Modification and fabrication of the frame fell to Chuck Savitske and Bob Griffith, while Czech-based master craftsman Mirko Hrazdira fabricated the intricate wooden body frame. Also in the Czech Republic, noted restoration company ECORRA and Vítezslav Hinner combined to construct the aluminum outer skin, build the interior and complete the car. Many of the final details were addressed by Greg Coston and Michael Hüby back in the Lane Motor Museum restoration shop as the eight-year project neared completion.

A CLASSIC ROAD TRIP
In February, I received an e-mail from Hagerty colleague Brad Phillips. He asked, “Would you be interested in a story about driving the Dymaxion 600 miles from Nashville to Amelia Island for the concours?” Assuming that he would be involved in writing the story, a day later I was surprised to receive a personal invitation to be part of the trip.

Phillips and I arrived at the Lane Motor Museum early on March 11 and found it to be a very busy place, despite being closed on Wednesdays. The other six members of our international team (Lane, Coston, Mirko Hrazdira and his brother Milan, Rob Stewart and Frenchman Claude Gueniffey) were busy stowing their luggage in the chase vehicles.

After the obligatory group photos, we set off and immediately encountered a recurring hazard: gawkers and rubberneckers, often driving while attempting to take pictures or video from cell phones. With a goal to stay off interstates as much as possible, we trundled south out of Nashville on U.S. 41 Alternate, a motley caravan of the spaceship-like Dymaxion, followed by the museum’s Mini Cooper S, Claude in his yellow French-market Renault and Greg towing a trailer long enough to accommodate the Dymaxion.

The Dymaxion was remarkably civilized inside, and the flathead V-8 behind the rear bulkhead throbbed away unobtrusively, though when the canvas roof was fully fastened and the fuel level low, we could smell fumes. Otherwise, with comfortable seats, safety belts and relatively little interior noise, the Dymaxion offered a hospitable environment.

Buckminster Fuller may have claimed a fanciful top speed of 120 mph, but Lane found 45 mph to be as fast as he could comfortably drive, considering the Dymaxion and high-speed stability had never been introduced. On a perfectly smooth road, the car tracked straight, but on undulating or steeply crowned roads, it had a disconcerting tendency to wander. And the faster it was going, the more it wanted to aim at the roadside ditch. Despite slow steering, Lane masterfully corrected any wayward behavior the car threw at him (I would discover the Dymaxion a challenge to keep on course even at 25 mph). One key was to manually center the non-self-centering steering about half way through a corner, unless you wanted to oversteer into the opposite lane.

At fueling time, people often gathered to watch the process: The twin filler necks under the floor in the passenger compartment had to be uncovered, uncapped and the hose from the pump snaked through the rear side door.

The only reliability issue was that the flathead tended to get hot on long grades, so several times we stopped to add coolant and let the engine cool. Of course, it meant that people would come over and look at the engine and ask more questions. Once when pulled over, several workers at an auto repair shop came to look and even donated a fire extinguisher, just in case…

At the end of that long first day, we stopped in Oxford, Alabama. Although the car was quite comfortable, we were happy to get to our hotel and to walk across the parking lot to dinner. It was also fun because the Czech brothers had never experienced a hibachi dinner before. With the Dymaxion parked for the night under the hotel portico, we entertained guests who crowded around for photos.

My first stint at the wheel came the second morning. I also discovered why Lane suggested starting out on a deserted access road. Mastering the slow steering and the wild feeling of pivoting on the rear wheel took a little time. The reverse-pattern Ford three-speed manual transmission was relatively easy and the clutch was light. As with any early Ford V-8, torque was generous and came on at very low revs. After making a few passes for photography, the staff of a muffler shop flagged us down to ask questions and take pictures of their own.

Back on secondary roads, our only challenges were the wanderlust of the Dymaxion, occasional gas fumes and the warm running flathead, unless you count the absence of Czech-language menus and trying to a get gluten-free, dairy-free anything at Cracker Barrel.

We spent our second night in Dawson, Georgia. Instead of giving us directions, the motel owner decided it would simply be easier to retrieve us from the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. “How will I recognize you?” he asked. “We’ll be in the strangest silver tube you’ve ever seen,” I said. He found us easily.

Friday morning, we began our final day on the road, only by this time we’d traded Brad Phillips for photographer Gabe Augustine. Lane continued to keep the Dymaxion pointed in the right direction and we occasionally stopped for fuel and to cool the flathead. The excitement came when Augustine and I took the Dymaxion for a photo opportunity. While doing a K-turn on a narrow country road, I discovered that Jeff hadn’t told me how to operate the reverse lockout on the manual gearbox. While I managed to get it into reverse, extracting it was a bit tougher. We returned to our entourage no worse for wear and were ready for our last leg to Amelia Island.

As road trips go, the Dymaxion journey was about as good as it gets. We had no failures, and people were curious and friendly. We had hills, twisty roads, long flat stretches, swerving amateur videographers, napping passengers and enough rain to rediscover that Rain-X works when you don’t have windshield wipers. But most of all, our crew was huge fun, particularly the Czech brothers, who made their personalities known despite limited English for Milan and absolutely no English for Mirko. Which proves once again that while cars are great, they're even better when you share them.

1 Reader Comment

  • 1
    Greg Hale Tucson, AZ November 16, 2015 at 11:40
    thanks for furthering Buckys automotive legacy . Good job!!!

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