Three-quarters of a century after the last of the original models, Car #3, rolled off the production line, a new Dymaxion Car has been created, Car #4. Based on the drawings of Car #3 and painstaking analysis of Car #2, it was built in the English countryside in the East Sussex workshops of Crosthwaite & Gardiner, which specializes in restoring 1930s racing cars. The new car was commissioned by Norman Foster, the British architect of such modern landmarks as Beijing Airport, the new Reichstag in Berlin and the “Gherkin” in London. A passionate car collector, he undertook the project as a labor of love and an homage to R. Buckminster Fuller, who he met in 1971 and collaborated with until Fuller’s death in 1983.
Car #4 is now on display in “Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth,” an exhibition of Fuller’s work running through Oct. 30 at the Ivorypress Art + Books gallery in Madrid. The story of all four models is told in a new book “Dymaxion Car: Buckminster Fuller” published by Ivorypress, which is owned by Mr. Foster’s wife, Elena Ochoa Foster.
What a story. It begins with Mr. Foster’s moving description of Fuller as “a dear friend — as far as it is possible to be with someone who is also one’s mentor.” Jonathan Glancey, the British architectural critic, then recounts Fuller’s struggle to produce the cars that he envisaged as being but one component of a dazzlingly futuristic “Dymaxion world” for which he also intended to design housing, boats, maps and something sounding startlingly like a hovercraft.
As Mr. Glancey points out, it is a complex, often confusing tale. By 1933, when Fuller opened the Dymaxion Car workshop, he had made his name as a gifted and charismatic, but rambunctious, design maverick who had twice been expelled from Harvard and had started several ill-fated entrepreneurial efforts to manufacture his designs.
To develop the car he collaborated with two nearly as colorful characters. One was W. Starling Burgess, a Harvard dropout who had become a brilliant aviation engineer, yacht designer and poet, but also a womanizer, alcoholic and morphine addict. The other was Nannie Dale Biddle, a wealthy socialite and aviatrix who financed the project until she clashed with Fuller (an occupational hazard for his business partners) and fell for the dashing Burgess, becoming the fourth of his five wives.
Car #1 was built using the chassis frame, gearbox, running gear and V8 engine of a 1932 Ford Tudor sedan. Inspired by science, aviation and nautical design, Fuller and Burgess constructed a long, lean vehicle with two front wheels and one at the rear. The body was built like a boat with an aluminum-coated wooden frame. A fortnight before Car #1 was finished, Fuller told a journalist that it had already “done 100,000 miles” and that 100 more were being made.
This was nonsense, but Car #1 did make a triumphant journey to Manhattan before its fateful crash a few months later just outside Chicago, where it was to debut at the 1933 World’s Fair. It wasn’t to blame, but the tragedy cast a cloud over the Dymaxion project at a time when Car #2 was still under construction.
By the time it was completed in January 1934, Fuller had ousted the Burgesses and was preparing to start work on Car #3. He refined the design of each model and, though none of the three was quite as fast or fuel-efficient as he boasted, they could be driven for 35 miles a gallon, twice as far as a typical car of the time. The Dymaxion Car was also, as Mr. Foster puts it: “So visually seductive that you want to own it, to have the voluptuous physicality of it in your garage.”