Category: Automobile


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The Burdick Springwound Car (1895)

In the early days of the Automobile Age, no one knew that gasoline-powered cars would become the industry standard . . . so inventors tried to move horseless carriages with just about anything except horses.  One example was the 1895 Burdick Springwound Car, powered by a spring, the same way old-fashioned watches ran off of a mainspring.  Owners could “wind up” their car by hand, or by rolling it down a hill.  Energy stored in the spring on the way down a hill was used to climb the next hill.  It seemed that the car could run indefinitely.

Fatal Flaw:  Unless the landscape was an endless series of small hills separated by short, flat valleys, the car quickly ran into problems:  it overwound itself going down large hills, it could never climb a hill larger than the one it had just gone down, and it ran out of power on long flat stretches.  All it took was one test drive for most people to give this car a pass.

The Barsaleux (1897)

Automakers of the 1890s faced major obstacles in winning public acceptance of their newfangled contraptions.  People still trusted horsedrawn vehicles over the unreliable early autos, and because automobiles occasionally spooked the horses they passed on the road, many people considered cars a public nuisance.

In 1897, carmaker Joseph Barsaleux came up with a brilliant solution; he built a car that looked like a carriage, with a full-size replica of a horse in front.  The horse camouflaged a fifth wheel that provided power and steering, literally pulling the rest of the vehicle along the road.  The driver steered the vehicle using a brace and bit attached to the faux horse’s mouth.

Fatal Flaw:  Once the public got used to automobiles, there was no need for the Barsaleux and the horseless-carriage-with-a-horse was put out to pasture.

The Octo-Auto (1911)

Milton Reeves admired Pullman railway cars.  Strangely, although Reeves was smart enough to invent his own automobile, he was also dumb enough to think that what gave Pullman cars their smooth ride was the fact that they had eight wheels, not four.  He ignored completely the fact that trains rode on smooth rails and most cars still ran on bumpy dirt roads.  So in 1911 he invented the Octo-Auto, which looked like a Model-T Ford except that it had extra sets of wheels in front and back.

Fatal Flaw:  The extra wheels made the cars vibrate like jackhammers at high speeds and impossible to turn even at slow speeds.  And they added so much weight that the only thing train-like about the Octo-Auto was its sluggish acceleration, which reminded people of a train pulling out of a station.  Besides, eight-wheeled cars were just plain goofy looking.  Ultimately, Reeves realized that even if he worked out the technical glitches, the cars were so ungly that the public would never buy them.  In 1912, he replaced the Octo-Auto with the Sexto-Auto, which had only six wheels.  “Like its ill-fated predecessor,” one observer wrote at the time, “the Sexto-Auto had more wheels than buyers.”

The Hungerford Rocket (1929)

In 1929, Daniel, Floyd, and William Hungerford, brothers from Elmira, New York, stripped a 1921 Chevrolet down to its frame and converted it into a “Hungerford,” the world’s first commercially made rocket car.  The Hungerford was actually a hybrid:  it kept the original Chevy engine for low-speed travel, but when the car hit 50 mph, the driver flipped a switch and the gasoline-powered, forced-air rocket engine roared to life.  The Hungerford looked like a hot dog on wheels, except the rear end tapered to a point and had five rocket nozzles (four of which were fake).  Safety was not an issue:  the Hungerford’s gave their cars sophisticated braking systems, and built the bodies out of linoleum and cardboard, so passengers could kick their way out of the wreckage in the event of an accident.

Fatal Flaw:  The Hungerford Rocket was doomed from the start.  It only two miles per gallon, had a disappointing top speed of 70 mph, and left a 20-foot-long flame as it traveled, making it impossible to drive in traffic.  The Hungerford brothers, never able to attract enough investors, went out of business in 1939.

The Nucleon

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During the 1950s, much of the world was quivering with anticipation over the exciting prospects of nuclear power.  Atomic energy promised to churn out clean, safe electricity that would be “too cheap to meter.”  It seemed that there was no energy problem too large or too small for the might atom to tackle during the glorious and modern atomic age.

It was during this honeymoon with nuclear energy, in 1957, that the Ford Motor Company unveiled the most ambitious project in its history:  a vehicle design that had a sleek futuristic look, emitted no harmful vapors, and offered incredible fuel mileage far beyond that of the most efficient cars ever built.  This automobile of the future was called the Ford Nucleon, named for its highly unique design feature:  an ultra-compact atomic fission reactor in the trunk.

Ford imagined a world in which full-service recharging stations would one day supplant petroleum fuel stations and where a depleted reactor could be swapped out for a fresh one lickety-splits.  The company’s automotive engineer intended to use a reactor modeled after those found in nuclear submarines, but miniaturized for automobile use.  It would use uranium fission to heat a steam generator, rapidly converting stored water into high-pressure steam that could then be used to drive a set of turbines.  One turbine would provide the torque to propel the car while another would drive an electrical generator.  Steam would then be condensed into water in a cooling loop, and sent back to the steam generator to be reused.  Such a closed system would allow the reactor to produce power as long as fissile material remained.

Using this system, designers anticipated that a typical Nucleon would travel about 5,000 miles per charge.  Because the power plant was an interchangeable component, owners would have the freedom to select a reactor configuration based on their personal needs, ranging anywhere from a souped-up uranium guzzler to a low-torque, high-mileage version.  And without the noisy internal combustion and exhaust of conventional cars, the Nucleon would be relatively quiet, emitting little more than a turbine whine.

The vehicle’s aerodynamic styling, one-piece windshield, and dual tail fins (which were absent in some photographs) are reminiscent of spacecraft from the 1950s-era science fiction, but some aspects of the Nucleon’s unique design were more utilitarian.  For instance, its passenger area was situated quite close to the front chassis, extending beyond the front axle.  This arrangement was meant to distance the passengers from the atomic power plant in the rear and to provide maximum axle support to the heavy equipment and its attendant shielding.  Another practical design aspect was the addition of the air intakes at the leading edge of the roof and at the base of the roof supports, apparently to be used as part of the reactor’s cooling system.

Perhaps more than any other atomic-era aspirations, Ford’s nuclear automobile embodied the naive optimism of the era.  Most people were ignorant of the dangers of the atomic contraption and of the risk that every minor fender-bender could have the potential to become a radioactive disaster.  In fact, the public greeted the Nucleon concept with great enthusiasm.  Some sources even claim that the U.S. government sponsored Ford’s atomic car research program.

The Nucleon’s silent, sleek, and efficient design seemed poised to secure its place in the American lifestyle of the future.  It appeared inevitable that the internal combustion engine would fade into obscurity, becoming a quaint relic of a pre-atomic past.  But the Nucleon’s design hinged on the assumption that sufficiently small nuclear reactors would be developed, as well as lighter shielding materials.  When those innovations failed to appear, the project was scrapped due to conspicuous impracticality; the bulky apparatus and heavy lead shielding didn’t allow for a safe an efficient car-sized package.  Moreover, as the general public became increasingly aware of the dangers of atomic energy and the problem of nuclear waste, the thought of radioactive “automobiles” zipping around town lost much of its appeal.  Atoms had broken their promise.  The honeymoon was over.

Ford never actually produced a fission-powered prototype, but nevertheless the sleek Nucleon remains an icon of the atomic age.  In spite of the Nucleon’s flaws, its designers deserve a nod for their slap-dash ingenuity.  Their reckless confidence demonstrates that one shouldn’t consider a task impossible just because nobody has tried it yet – some ideas need to be debunked on their own merit.

With today’s looming energy crisis and slow migration to alternative fuel sources, we may not have seen the last of this automobile concept.  A safe atomic vehicle may not be beyond our reach, as the U.S. Navy has demonstrated with its (so far) perfect record of nuclear safety.  Perhaps one day fossil fuels will wither under the radioactive glare of the mighty atom and our highways will hum with the steam turbines of mobile Chernobyls.  It would be a real blast.

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