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A 3-wheel car from 1933? Buckminster Fuller’s invention was ahead of its time

Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
A replica of Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion Car sits parked Nov. 12 near SIUE’s Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, also known simply as the Fuller Dome.

Buckminster Fuller, affectionately known as “Bucky,” had a vision for a future that worked for everyone — aboard what he described as “Spaceship Earth." The American architect died in 1983. But his futuristic, sustainability-focused legacy lives on, including in the St. Louis region.

One of Fuller’s geodesic domes — the Fuller Dome — is at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Also known as the Center for Spirituality and Sustainability, it marks its 50th anniversary this fall and has been enjoying a yearlong celebration. Last week, a replica of Fuller’s 1933-patented Dymaxion Car was parked nearby. Jeff Lane transported the three-wheeled vehicle from the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville.

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Jeff Lane, founder of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, takes the Dymaxion Car for a spin around campus.

The one-of-a-kind car didn’t just sit there: To the delighted surprise of hundreds of visitors, Lane invited them aboard for a spin around campus.

“The car was made out of wood and metal, and I thought that was really interesting,” said Katja Kopp, a retired science teacher and sustainability enthusiast. “The inside is kind of like a wooden boat, and that was cool. And then we have these windows that go out like the prow of a ship, so you really feel like you're out there in the drive instead of way back behind the hood of a car.”

Lane pointed out that Fuller had no interest in becoming a car manufacturer but rather in driving change.

“What he wanted to do was develop some new concepts in the building of cars,” the museum founder explained. “One of them was streamlining, so they would have a higher top speed and get better fuel economy.”

Indeed, the Dymaxion boasted an impressive 30 miles per gallon of fuel in the 1930s — and could move at up to 90 miles per hour. And as Benjamin Lowder, the director of the Fuller Dome, noted, the vehicle was just an entirely different beast at the time Fuller patented it.

“[If] you look at the other cars that existed in the late 1920s and early ’30s, I mean, they basically look like horse-drawn carriages without the horses,” Lowder said.

Inside Buckminster Fuller’s 1933 Dymaxion Car

Fuller is often described as a father of the sustainability movement. He was known for “providing solutions and answers to questions that a lot of his contemporaries weren’t even asking yet,” said Lowder, who sees the futurist’s legacy becoming more relevant “with every passing news cycle.”

“He was thinking back in the 1920s, analyzing data and energy consumption and population, and he projected that if we continued on that path that we were on … that it was unsustainable,” Lowder said. “It would lead to an environmental crisis. And we find ourselves there today.”

Kopp, who serves as a board member for the Fuller Dome, draws a sense of urgency from Fuller’s example of taking real action.

“We need to do it now,” she said, “for the love of your grandchildren and for the love of the beautiful fall days and the rains and the gorgeous coasts.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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