The Buckminster Fuller designed Dymaxion – image: National Automobile Museum
Often the growth of green cars comes in fits and starts, and new ideas are rushed to market regularly before they’re ready. Visionaries with dreams of changing the world may have little real-world experience and find themselves in over their heads after they jump in too quickly. Even pure charlatans sometimes emerge from the woodwork to hawk new ideas that they may or may not have any intention to produce.
All these have happened in abundance through the history of boosting fuel economy and promoting new electric cars.
Here, we’ll take a look at a dozen or so of the most bizarre models through history, from the Depression when there were some notable exceptions to cars becoming more standardized, through the end of the 20th century. Many of these cars were developed to meet the needs of more austere times—and some found significantly more success than others. We’ll present them all in chronological order to preserve the historical arc of technological development.
Developments have come so fast in the 21st century that missteps have also been more frequent. We’ll save those for Part II.
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, designer, author, and inventor known perhaps best as the inventor of the geodesic dome house in the 1950s. In the 1930s, he built three examples of the Dymaxion car (a name he applied to many of his inventions, though he reportedly chafed at the application of the word car to his road machine at all.)
The Dymaxion road zeppelin, as it was sometimes called (it’s not a house or a notebook like other Dymaxions, after all), was designed to apply aircraft aerodynamics to a road-going vehicle to save fuel. It was a hit at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Fuller intended to make it into the first flying car, so its fuselage shape might have made sense had the Dymaxion ever grown a wing, but none ever did.
It used a reversed chassis layout, with two driven wheels in the front, a Ford flathead V-8 mounted in the middle, and a single rear wheel that steered. This layout, combined with aerodynamic lift from the body, conspired to make the car dangerously unstable as the steered rear wheel would lift off the ground at speed or under heavy braking with the weight of the driver up front. Fuller depleted his inherited fortune building the three prototypes, and the experiment came to an end after a test driver was killed in a rollover accident.
Half car, half suitcase, the Peel P50 was a three-wheeled city car built on the Isle of Man starting in 1962 and listed in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest car ever built.
It had two wheels in the front and a single one in the rear for stability and used a 50-cc single-cylinder engine from DKW to achieve a top speed of 37 mph.
The company advertised it as being able to hold “one adult and a shopping bag.” It weighed in at 123 pounds. Its 3-speed manual transmission had no reverse gear, so the P50 was equipped with a handle on the back which drivers could use to lift the car and drag it backwards or turn it around.
The car was built until 1965, when Peel converted to building the Trident, a bubble car of the same configuration but with a lift-up class canopy over the cockpit. During the financial crisis of 2010, two British entrepreneurs revived the Peel and made a limited run for $124,000 each.
Messerschmitt was a German aircraft manufacturer which was formed during World War II from the remains of BFW, which had built German war planes during WWI.
After WWII, the armistice prevented the company from building airplanes for 10 years, so it turned to tiny bubble cars instead, building two successive versions of the Kabinenroller (“cabin scooter”), which were three-wheeled two-passenger cars that looked like nothing so much as the disjointed cockpit of a piston-pounding fighter plane on a literal skateboard chassis.
The bubble-top was made of glass, Plexiglas, and sometimes fabric. Passengers sat front to back in seats slung between steel bars. The driver steered with handlebars. It was highway legal with a top speed of 50 mph from its 11-horsepower, 175-cc single-cylinder engine. It was later enlarged to 200 cc. Pull-start was standard, while an electric starter was optional.
Like the later Peel, it had no reverse gear, but could be rolled backwards. Fuel economy estimates ranged from 67 to 80 mpg. Messerschmitt built 40,000 KR200s through 1964, while Germany recovered from the war.