Forgotten Concept: 1958 Ford Nucleon
It's rather difficult today to understand how the horrific aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki launched the Atomic Age, but that's exactly what happened. The creepy optimism of the Fifties saw nuclear technology not as potentially devastating but as promising and useful. Long before the No Nukes movement and the Three Mile Island meltdown, there was every expectation that nuclear energy would soon power a Jetsons-like utopia. But since personal spacecraft had yet to be developed in the mid-'50s -- remember, the auto and aviation industries were still furiously trying to deliver their promised flying car -- this future was still going to need cars. Enter the Ford Nucleon. Looking vaguely like a streamlined Ford Ranchero pickup with all four of its wheels located underneath its bed, the Nucleon's truly distinctive feature was its "power capsule." This small nuclear reactor was placed behind the passenger compartment where the pickup bed would have been. To be fair to the decade's starry-eyed dreamers, at the time the thinking was that nuclear tech would progress such that reactors could be miniaturized. Ford even imagined that the reactor could be swapped out, something like a battery pack in an electric car.
Estimates of a 5,000-mile range were bandied about in the same way that carmakers in later eras would gloat about 200-mph top speeds from their nonfunctional concepts. Of course, Ford never even built a prototype of the Nucleon, just a 3/8-scale model. Some historical photos show it with fins, while in others images the fins are gone and the styling is reminiscent of Ford production vehicles of the early 1960's.
Over 50 years later, the Nucleon seems like a farce, something dreamed up by the editors of The Onion to tweak auto manufacturers for their collective lack of haste in adopting alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Yet for all the obvious idiocy inherent in this rolling Chernobyl, nuclear technology and its supporters may get the last laugh. As we continue to search for sustainable "green" alternatives to power our fossil-fuel-based lifestyle -- including our transportation system -- nuclear power generation has some former opponents cheering for its adoption, including one of the founders of Greenpeace.
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