Driving the Dangerous and Dynamic Dymaxion
The first rule when driving someone else’s pride and joy is DON’T BREAK IT. So it goes against all my instincts to bang this Ford’s non-sequential three-speed gearbox into first gear. I’m, thankful the car’s owner Jeff Lane is riding shotgun and gives me a look that says If you don’t give it a hard shove, I will! That’s one challenge down... but there’s still many to go behind the wheel of a 1933 Dymaxion re-creation. This three-wheeler is dangerous, forgiving, huge, agile, powerful, genius, and wild like a puppy breaking free from his leash. And because I must have been a good boy that day, I’ve been entrusted to add a few miles to the odometer of this very unique machine. RELATED: See More of the Weird and Wonderful Dymaxion
Lane (pictured below) is a lover of many cars that don’t get mainstream attention. His Nashville museum is focused on housing vehicles you don’t see elsewhere like microcars from Europe or amphibious military vehicles. Even in this group the Dymaxion car is truly special.
Famed inventor Buckminster Fuller only built three examples between 1933-1934 and each was unique. The first one was destroyed in a 1943 fire. The second one was lost, found decades later as a chicken coop, and is now at the National Automobile Museum in Reno (it’s cosmetically restored and is awaiting proper mechanical repair.) The third was cut up for scrap during the Korean War.
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Since the only survivor wasn’t running or for sale, Lane embarked on a seven-year journey to have the most accurate re-creation possible. He was ready with his new-for-1933 Dymaxion #1 just in time for last year’s Amelia Island Concours. The car is road legal, so Lane and his crew jumped in and drove from Tennessee to Florida.
They stuck to back roads so 1930s technology wouldn’t have to be introduced to modern interstates. Comfort wasn’t an issue because the interior has seating for four, but its motorhome-like size means it could fit nearly a dozen people. The rear mounted flathead V8 motor and multiple frames make the drivetrain mounting heavy, but the overall weight is svelte thanks to the aerodynamic aluminum panel body stretched over a lightweight wood frame.
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Ventilation comes from peeling back the canvas sections of the roof. For really hot days there’s a vent around the single front headlight. Fresh air could be channeled through there when driving, pass by a bucket of ice, and then cool off the cabin – true ‘30s style air conditioning.
By the time I got my turn at the wheel there was already over 750 miles on the odometer. Ford’s V8 feeds the front wheels, but the steering comes from the single rear tire. The rudder-like steering gives the Dymaxion an exceptionally tight radius. It must truly be amazing for onlookers to see this self-propelled Airstream make a complete 360 rotation in the kind of space a Camry would need a three-point turn.
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The same rear wheel that’s pivotal for low speed maneuvering loses its goodwill once the car gets up to speed. I’ve driven three-wheeled vehicles before, but none with the steering in the back. More than just going against decades of driving instincts, this car is a handful from a constant sensation of overseer. I don’t mean the back end breaks free in turns like an old Porsche 911; I mean the rear wants to do the Jitterbug even on the straightest roads.
No one ever described his/her favorite racecar as a situation of where the tail wags the dog. So I’m amazed anyone was brave enough to test Fuller’s original 120 MPH top speed claim.
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I’m comfortable with sticking to 30 MPH and weaving within my lane. From this safe speed it’s much easier to appreciate some of the more interesting points of the Dymaxion. Forward vision is excellent. It has a massive front glasshouse that feels like piloting a B-29 Bomber. There is no rear vision thanks to the complicated suspension masked by the aerodynamic teardrop shape. Instead, side mirrors and a periscope keep traffic in view.
Lane did make one concession on this car. Steering and brakes were changed from the original’s cable operated system to hydraulic. So, while it is a white-knuckle drive, all of my constant corrections are made with ease.
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It’s this spirit of ingenuity that makes the Dymaxion so charismatic even with all of its faults. While the world already respects Buckminster Fuller, I cannot help but admire Jeff Lane. It’s one thing to invest in your dream car, but it takes something much greater to allow strangers into the driver’s seat and slam the gears. Lane has taken what was once only seen in grainy pictures and brought it back to life.