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A 3-Wheel Dream That Died at Takeoff

BUCKMINSTER FULLER’s 1933 Dymaxion, a streamlined pod on three wheels, is one of the lovable oddballs in automotive history. Three were built, fawned over by the media and by celebrities, but the car pretty much disappeared after one crashed, killing the driver.

Only one of the cars survives, and New Yorkers will get a chance to see it this summer in an exhibition opening June 26 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York called “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe.” The car, a nonrunning shell, has been lent by the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nev.

“The Dymaxion was the zenith of the first wave of semi-scientific streamlining,” said Russell Flinchum, a design historian. It showed up in newsreels and magazines, along with teardrop designs drawn by Norman Bel Geddes, the futurist. It helped lead to public acceptance of streamlined cars like the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.

The Dymaxion appealed to the era of the Depression, when people dreamed of radical new technological solutions to solve overwhelming problems.

“There is a real fascination about Fuller,” said K. Michael Hays, adjunct curator of architecture at the Whitney and one of the curators of the show. Hugh Kenner, the literary critic, rated Fuller with James Joyce and T. S. Eliot and wrote a book about him.

Fuller was neither architect nor engineer, but a philosopher and preacher, a man more in the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau. His houses and cars were arguments, not products. He made up the word Dymaxion, combining dynamic, maximum and ion, and used it as a personal brand.

The architectural firm of Norman Foster, the Pritzker Prize winner who once worked with Fuller, is planning to build a replica Dymaxion.

“The Dymaxion car was a thing of great beauty, and it was made at a time when creativity was at the fore in automobile design,” said David Nelson, senior executive head of design at Foster Partners in London, who is directing the re-creation.

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