Consensus among car guys is that the first "concept car" was the 1938 Buick Y-Job, a legendary vehicle that charted a direction the entire auto industry would follow for nearly two decades. But another experimental vehicle that was developed during the Great Depression might have forged an even more radical path for Detroit. While Harley Earle's famous Buick was built by GM to test out some of the design chief's ideas for future models, the Dymaxion car was designed by futurist Richard Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller. It was inspired by aerospace technology, with an aerodynamic, tear-shaped, aluminum body that promised 30-plus miles per gallon.

To modern eyes the giant Dymaxion car may look like an Airstream trailer, the 20-foot-long, 1,600-pound, quasi-van must have seemed more like a spaceship torn from a Sunday Flash Gordon serial than an automobile. Early plans for the car had actually called for it to fly, but those never got past the crazy brainstorming phase.

Unheard of for its time, the Dymaxion car seated 10 passengers plus a driver and was supposedly capable of over 100 miles per hour, though its highest recorded speed was a mere 90. It had a downright odd drivetrain configuration, with a rear-mounted Ford V8 driving the front wheels, and steering accomplished through a single rear wheel. While triple-digit speeds may have been attainable, the screwy steering and a complicated suspension, one that was designed more for a smooth ride over rough terrain than stability at speed, made such a feat verifiably dangerous.

Prior to an appearance at Chicago World's Fair of 1933, the first of just three Dymaxions ever produced would crash, killing its driver and pretty much putting an end to commercial interest in Fuller's production plans. A patent on the car was issued in 1937, but Fuller's ideas never really caught on in the auto industry. His thoughts on aerodynamics, however, stayed in vogue for a while in the Thirties, as can be seen in vehicles like the Chrysler Airflow and the Stout Scarab. But the aerodynamic movement was never really allowed to run its natural course, as the entire auto industry went on a hiatus during World War II. Afterward, the booming economy of the 1950's ensured that design excess, rather than efficiency, would rule the day.

Even so, these first aerodynamic experiments have always had their fans. Architect Norman Foster may be able to tout himself as the biggest, as he's recently unveiled his own recreation of the Dymaxion car, which you can read about here.

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