Future Tense

The Dramatic Failure of Buckminster Fuller’s “Car of the Future”

And how he covered for his mistakes.

A man stands next to an ovoid car with a smooth exterior.
Fuller with Dymaxion Car #1 (1933). Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.

On July 21, 1933, the architectural designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller unveiled the first prototype of his iconic Dymaxion Car. It was a streamlined, futuristic vehicle with three wheels, a periscope, and an ovoid body that reminded observers of a tadpole or a flying fish. Fuller—who became famous years later as the visionary behind the geodesic dome—hoped that it would revolutionize both transportation and urban design, but only three were ever made. Today, it endures in the form of a single surviving car, a small number of replicas, and a handful of evocative images captured in photographs and newsreels.

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According to Fuller, his astounding car was doomed by a freak accident in Chicago, where its driver was killed in a crash on Lake Shore Drive. A typical account appears in The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, by Robert Marks, who wrote the book in close collaboration with his subject: “The Dymaxion was rammed by another car….When reporters arrived on the scene, the other car, which belonged to a Chicago South Park Commissioner, had been removed….It was established [at the inquest] that the accident was the result of a collision of two cars racing each other and weaving through traffic at 70 miles an hour.”

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This narrative is repeated in countless books about Fuller, both popular and academic, and is widely seen as a tragic example of how an innovative design can fail for reasons outside its inventor’s control. It also happens to be false. As I reveal for the first time in my new biography Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller, the primary sources—which include contemporary newspaper accounts, official records, and Fuller’s own correspondence and notes—tell a very different story. The fate of Dymaxion Car #1 was indeed a tragedy, but for reasons that had nothing to do with the myth that Fuller invented.

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To understand what really happened, we need to consider the car’s origins. In 1928, Fuller was thirty-two, overflowing with ideas about technology and design, and trying to raise money to build prefabricated houses on an industrial scale. On the advice of a business contact, he read the book Towards a New Architecture by the Swiss-French architectural theorist Le Corbusier, who became one of his role models. Le Corbusier also casually threw out specific ideas that Fuller would pursue at length, including the concept of a streamlined car with an ovoid frame.

A chart of shapes with their wind resistance.
Table of wind resistance of various shapes, including “Ovoid body: the greater mass in front,” from the English translation of Le Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture (1927). Public domain.
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“The first motorcars were constructed, and their bodies built, on old lines,” Le Corbusier wrote. “This was contrary to the necessities of the displacement and rapid penetration of a solid body.” In his earliest sketches of what he called the 4D Transport, Fuller borrowed the ovoid contours illustrated in the architect’s book but added three wheels on a triangulated framework. It was steered from the rear, like a boat, and it came with inflatable wings. In Fuller’s imagination, it wasn’t just a car, but an omnidirectional vehicle that could potentially take to the air.

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Four years later, Fuller commissioned a series of striking models of the 4D Transport from his close friend Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American sculptor, which were published in the magazine Shelter in 1932. Although the magazine—which Fuller was editing at the time—folded shortly afterward, the models drew an enthusiastic response. Early the following year, Fuller was approached by a casual acquaintance, a thirty-year-old Philadelphia socialite named Anna “Nannie” Biddle, who offered to fund a working prototype on his terms.

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Fuller prepared to disrupt an entire industry by building the car of his dreams. Since a flying version was beyond his means, he decided to focus on the vehicle’s “ground taxiing” phase, which would take the form of the car that his young daughter Allegra called the Zoomobile. He later spoke of it as a part of the home that had broken off, “like hydra cells going off on a life of their own,” liberating people from cities, and it seemed easier to produce than an entire house.

When Fuller accepted Biddle’s funding, he was careful to establish control up front. Remembering his frustration with similar projects in the past, he stipulated an “ice cream cone” clause: “If I want to use all of it to buy ice cream cones, that will be that, and there will be no questions asked.” Under these incredible conditions, Biddle advanced him $1,000—with the promise of more to come—in February 1933. It was the most access to capital that he had ever received, and it came from an investor who seemed willing to follow him anywhere.

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Fuller promptly recruited Starling Burgess—a famed yacht and aircraft designer who was bankrupt after a series of failed marriages—as the first employee of what became the 4D Dymaxion Corporation. (“Dymaxion” was the brand name that Fuller had adopted for most of his inventions.) For automobile parts, they spent $450 on a Ford Tudor that they plundered for its engine, running gear, chassis frame, and gearbox. To complete the prototype, Burgess estimated that they needed another $1,500, which Biddle agreed to provide.

In March, they headed for Bridgeport, Connecticut, a small city that was conveniently close to Burgess’s home. The decline of the local auto industry during the Great Depression had left plenty of infrastructure, enabling them to commence operations at the Boudreau Machine and Tool Company on the morning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration. A thousand workers reportedly applied for a handful of positions, and Fuller allegedly prioritized men with families, who sometimes wept with gratitude.

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Privately, Fuller thought that the rent was too high, and the tools were unusable, forcing them to subcontract much of the construction of the chassis. Worrying that Burgess was overspending on custom parts, he dealt with the pressure by drinking with his workers and eating cake at a boardinghouse in nearby Darien. He gained weight, and his wife, Anne, wrote to complain of their tense visits: “We waste so much of the little time we have together by your scolding and fussing about what you consider to have gone wrong the time before.”

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Men working on the Dymaxion Car.
Dymaxion Car under construction in Bridgeport, Connecticut (1933). Fuller is kneeling to examine the engine compartment at the far left. Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.
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On April 19, a test revealed drawbacks with the prototype’s single rear wheel, which was fixed in place, causing it to lean into corners while the front tires remained perpendicular. At high speeds, the result was a “death wobble.” They eliminated the defect with a strategically placed hinge, and Fuller was encouraged enough to allow his daughter to take a ride. He received another $5,000 from Biddle, who was in the middle of a painful divorce, and he proposed that Burgess become a partner, although he had no intention of sharing his voting power.

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Since the shop often flooded, they moved to the Automatic Machine Company on East Washington Avenue. Fuller seethed when Burgess took more interest in building a yacht for a prominent lawyer, Elihu Root Jr., but despite the distraction, they successfully remodeled the chassis with parts from Ford, Studebaker, and Chevrolet. The staff grew to seventeen, including what the writer Robert Marks later described as “Polish sheet metal experts, Italian machine tool men, Scandinavian woodcraftsmen, and former Rolls-Royce coach makers.”

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Fuller was already making outrageous claims. He stated falsely to one contact that the prototype had been driven one hundred thousand miles, that a hundred cars were being built, “most of which have been sold at $2,500,” and that the price would fall to $200 as production rose. In fact, the one car that they were actually assembling was proceeding slowly. Because of a lack of space, they moved again in June, this time to a Bridgeport factory that had belonged to the Locomobile Company of America, where Burgess—again to Fuller’s frustration—spent most of the next two weeks working on the yacht.

Fuller’s mood improved when Anne and Allegra joined him in Connecticut, and he hoped to arrange for another reunion by enlisting Isamu Noguchi. “It seems to me,” Fuller wrote to the sculptor, “that this is the chance that you and I have always looked forward to in the matter of your executing the best of design.” Noguchi, who was working out of a studio in London, never came, so Fuller reached a deal with Burgess instead on future house, boat, aircraft, and writing projects, stating in a letter that he hoped that they could spend their lives developing ideas “vested in us by the sagacity of the Universal mind.”

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In practice, Fuller became annoyed when Burgess put both of their names on the sign in front of the building, and a more personal conflict was brewing. At their first meeting in Bridgeport, Burgess was charmed by Biddle, who commended Fuller for having hired an expert instead of a “nobody.” On another visit from Biddle, Fuller grew suspicious when Burgess led their benefactor away by the arm. Shortly afterward, Burgess declared his love for the wealthy socialite, and the feeling turned out to be mutual. According to Fuller, Biddle claimed that Burgess “aroused her maternal instinct more than anyone else had ever done.”

Fuller foresaw a struggle for power, but he concentrated on the task at hand. On July 12, 1933, his thirty-eighth birthday, they put the final touches on Dymaxion Car #1. It was nineteen feet in length, weighed about 2,700 pounds, and cost $8,000. (In comparison, the 1932 Ford V-8 Model 18 was fourteen feet long, weighed 2,200 pounds, and retailed for less than $700.) Under its canvas roof, a body of lacquered aluminum was built over a wooden frame, with lightening holes drilled in the chassis, and the Ford transmission was reversed to put the engine at the rear.

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Like Fuller’s sketches, the car had three wheels, two in front and one in back. It was steered by its rear wheel, using steel cables in sheaves, and could turn in a circle with a radius only slightly greater than its wheelbase. The roomy interior was cooled by dry ice, with a single headlamp and a crush zone of balsa wood installed in front. Its wraparound windscreen lacked wipers, on the faulty theory that its shape would shed water, and instead of a rear window, it had a periscope.

Fuller later implied that it was the first streamlined automobile, which was untrue. He liked to contrast it with a standard sedan, which resembled a horse and buggy, but Chrysler had conducted wind tunnel tests for years, and cars with similar profiles included the Arrow Plane and the Alfa Romeo Castagna Aerodinamica. Other vehicles had been designed with three wheels, and an existing German patent became a source of particular concern at the company, since any competitor could simply purchase the American rights.

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According to Fuller, the car’s ovoid lines allowed it to achieve 40 miles to the gallon and 120 miles per hour, although that was debatable. Burgess had wanted an “air-cooled aviation engine,” but the Ford V-8 that they used was less powerful, and to arrive at the quoted figure, Fuller may have simply multiplied its specifications with the top gear ratio. It evidently peaked around 90 miles per hour, which was the fastest that it ever went in public.

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Fuller claimed that the Dymaxion Car was stable enough to drive across fields and railroad crossings, but it had real problems with handling. Its low gearing made it hard to steer, and its long suspension and the concentration of weight at the rear led to a pronounced twisting effect when turning. As a result, cornering was difficult, and it suffered from severe tire wear. A later observer found that it was plagued even on smooth surfaces by “uneasy, oscillating swivels.”

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Even worse, at high speeds, its tail came off the road, leading to a dangerous lack of control. In his original plans, Fuller had proposed steering by rudder when the rear wheel rose, but on a practical level, his vision of it as a flying machine made it worse as a car. Its three wheels were justified by a forced analogy to landing gear, which had very different requirements than a car on the ground, and Fuller admitted that it was even less stable in crosswinds: “I had to practically fly her along the highway on a northwest gusty day; I wouldn’t allow anyone else to do it.”

None of these flaws was evident when it was unveiled on July 21 at the Locomobile plant, where it was demonstrated before three thousand observers, including the painter Diego Rivera. Fuller was filmed behind the wheel of the car, which he accelerated to seventy miles per hour at Seaside Park. After the mayor of Bridgeport spoke, Fuller drove him to city hall, stopping twice to touch the shoulder of a traffic officer and drive around him in a circle without removing his hand.

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Fuller’s friend Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer and ethnologist, had introduced him to Alfred J. T. Taylor, a mechanical engineer from London who was interested in a license for sales overseas. Taylor agreed to pay $5,000 for a demonstration car, but Burgess postponed starting work on the second vehicle, which deepened Fuller’s growing distrust of his partners. On a visit to Maine, he learned that Biddle had told his mother that Fuller “was tired out and needed someone to look after him.” Biddle was seen opening his mail at his desk in his absence, and a mutual friend warned that she was spreading rumors that Fuller was “going mad.”

Feeling pushed out, Fuller brought the prototype to New York, where he was cited for speeding and supposedly set a record at a “midget racing car track” in the Bronx. On one occasion, he drove editors from Fortune and The New Yorker down Fifth Avenue and impressed a policeman by turning around him in a tight circle. At every intersection, officers asked for a repeat performance, so it took an hour to drive one mile. The car drew attention wherever it went, and after causing a traffic jam in the financial district, Fuller was reportedly asked to stay above Canal Street.

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At Roosevelt Field airport, the car was tested at ninety miles per hour by the company’s sales manager, Frank T. Coffyn, a former daredevil pilot. Coffyn happened to be friendly with Alford F. Williams Jr., the head of the aviation products division of the Gulf Refining Company, who wanted to buy the prototype as a promotional vehicle for air shows. Although Williams’s offer of $2,500 was far below its cost, Fuller took it. After an argument over control, Biddle had cut off additional funding, and they badly needed the cash.

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In October, Fuller filed a patent that treated the vehicle’s three wheels as optional. A pair of rear wheels would have fixed a “bug” in which the back tire became stuck in slippery ruts, but Fuller was reluctant to revise the design, especially when the future of the company itself seemed unclear. Burgess was acting erratically, with pain from an ulcer and an old operation forcing him to take daily shots of morphine. After consulting a psychiatrist, Fuller tried to put him into a sanitarium, but Burgess fled with Biddle to Reno, Nevada.

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The European market remained their most promising lead, and toward the end of October, Stefansson heard from Colonel William Francis Forbes-Sempill, a British aviator who had expressed interest in an investment. Sempill, who was friends with Alfred Taylor, called by radio from the Graf Zeppelin, on which he was traveling as an official observer. The German airship would be in Chicago for less than a day, and he wanted to see the car while he was there on October 26.

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Stefansson arranged for the Dymaxion to be driven to Chicago by a Gulf employee named Francis T. Turner. On his arrival, Turner took Sempill around in the car and ran passengers from the zeppelin, including its captain, to the World’s Fair. He spent all night chauffeuring Gulf employees who were in town for a convention, and when he returned to the Stevens Hotel, he found a note under his door from Sempill requesting a lift to the airfield in the morning.

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Sempill offered a ride to another passenger, the aeronaut Charles Dollfus, an attaché with the French Air Ministry. When the car turned up at the hotel on the morning of October 27, Dollfus was surprised by its unusual appearance, but he obligingly climbed into the backseat on the driver’s side, while Sempill took the seat next to Turner. They departed shortly after eight. Five minutes later, they passed the Field Museum, heading south on Lake Shore Drive. To the east was the entrance to the World’s Fair, which was the worst imaginable place for what happened next.

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The five lanes of southbound traffic were moving at around forty miles per hour. As they approached the light island, where there was a slight bend, Turner turned abruptly to the left. Dollfus testified afterward that they swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle, but that was implausible—they were in the second outermost lane, far from any cars coming the other way. The asphalt had patches of water and grease, and Turner may have braked sharply when one wheel was in a spot where the road was slick, causing him to skid and turn broadside.

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Whatever the reason, he turned in front of a car being driven in the same direction by a man named Meyer Roth. The Dymaxion rolled, smashing its canvas top, and Dollfus instinctively tucked his legs and covered his head. On the second roll, Roth struck the car, sending it tumbling further, but he managed to steer clear. Sempill and Dollfus, whose belts were unfastened, were flung out. Dollfus hit his head on the roof, suffering cuts to his chin and right eye, and landed on his feet behind the car. Sempill fell in front, breaking his skull in two places.

Turner was trapped by his seatbelt. Losing its grille and windows, the car stopped after three or four rolls in the second northbound lane. Two police officers ran to help, along with a passing motorist, and found that Turner’s face was crushed, although he was still alive. Dollfus regained consciousness, but the others remained unresponsive as they were rushed to Mercy Hospital, where Turner died of fractures to his skull. He was just thirty-three, and he left behind a wife and two sons.

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Fuller heard the news in a call from the editor of the Bridgeport Post, followed by a telegram from Samuel Halsted, a consulting engineer for the company in Chicago. Flying out the next day to contain the crisis, Fuller immediately went with Halsted to the hospital, where a nurse brought them to see Sempill. Fuller thought that the colonel looked all right—“not disfigured, color good,” he said in a telegram to Stefansson—and the doctor told them that he was expected to recover.

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From there, they headed for a garage associated with Gulf, where the car had been taken after the crash. Fuller wanted to examine it, hoping to exonerate his design, but it was under the jurisdiction of the South Park Commission, and the officers there refused to let them inside. Fuller’s cable to Stefansson later that day contained an implicit admission about the absence of safety features: “Steel bows would apparently have saved all hands.”

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The following morning, Fuller and Halsted visited the scene of the accident, making sketches and interviewing an officer who had witnessed the crash. Fuller met afterward with Al Williams to advise rebuilding the car with metal bows over the top, which supposedly had been part of his original plan. Williams agreed, although he wanted to avoid any changes that would imply a lack of safety. He also reconfirmed his support: “I believed in the car, and I still do.”

After deciding not to attend Turner’s funeral, Fuller accompanied Williams later that day to inspect the car at the garage. He checked the steering cables, which looked fine, and returned to the hospital to visit Sempill. While he was there, the colonel received a call from the British consul, whom Fuller later magnified in his recollections to the king of England himself.

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An inquest into the crash, which had been postponed after Turner’s widow collapsed on the first day, was held on November 16. After hearing from Roth and Dollfus, it returned a verdict of accidental death, with the coroner’s certificate stating that Turner had died while “driving odd type car for publicity.” Halsted attended the proceedings and sent a detailed account to Fuller, who learned for the first time that another car had been involved.

Witnesses had stated unequivocally that the second driver struck the Dymaxion Car only after it had begun to roll, but Fuller seized on the new information, telling Stefansson that Turner and Roth had been “apparently having a race,” which was a total fiction. He found it suspicious that the second car had been rushed away from the scene, and, in subsequent retellings, he transformed Roth—who evidently worked as a shoe salesman—into a powerful South Park commissioner who arranged to have the entire incident covered up.

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Fuller also claimed that Roth had caused the crash by striking the Dymaxion’s bumper, although Dollfus recalled “no such collision,” and he alleged that the two drivers had been racing at seventy miles per hour instead of forty. In reality, Roth was an innocent victim, but Fuller, eager to blame any convenient target, even considered leaking the allegations to Time magazine. His latest business partners were more interested in pushing out Burgess, who had recently married Biddle in Reno. Biddle reluctantly agreed to the buyout, complaining afterward that it took advantage of “the pressure of finances and our personal life.”

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By the end of the year, Sempill had recovered fully. Surprisingly, he told Vilhjalmur Stefansson that he still had a favorable opinion of the Dymaxion Car, saying it was no riskier than sports model test vehicles that he had driven before, although presumably not along city streets. Sempill sailed on the HMS Majestic back to England, where he became infamous years later for passing wartime secrets to the Japanese. For now, though, the colonel reportedly joked to his friends, “In future, I’ll stick to flying. It’s safer than the road.”

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Although Fuller implied that the crash irretrievably damaged the car’s reputation, the word Dymaxion was absent from most news stories, and the positive coverage continued for a year and a half. Gulf repaired the vehicle, which appeared at promotional events, and later sold it to an engineer who had tested it at the National Bureau of Standards. After changing hands again, it was used to advertise soft drinks, and it was destroyed in 1943 when it caught fire after being refueled.

Only two more cars were built before the company folded. Fuller never discussed the true extent of his failure, and he even falsely claimed that he had paid back his investors, whom he sometimes erased from the story entirely. His official biographies removed Biddle, implying that all the funds had come from another backer, and Fuller once stated that he had financed the car himself “with the little money I had from lecturing and from Shelter magazine.” He also said that his partners refused to understand that he just wanted to produce one prototype.

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In fact, the project had been undermined by interpersonal conflicts, funding shortfalls, and persistent design issues that he was unwilling to acknowledge. Fuller was far from the last technologist to underestimate the risks of the automotive business, where the cost of error was measured in human lives, but he always spoke as though the Dymaxion Car had been destroyed by nothing but public ignorance and bad luck. Decades later, he still insisted, “She was the most stable car in history.”

Adapted from Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee. Copyright © 2022 Alec Nevala-Lee. Reprinted with permission from Dey Street Books, HarperCollins Publishers.

Cover of book Inventor of the Future, with photo of Buckminster Fuller
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