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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.