The Buckminster Fuller designed Dymaxion - image: National Automobile Museum
Often the growth of green cars comes in fits and starts, and new ideas are rushed to market regularly before they're ready. Visionaries with dreams of changing the world may have little real-world experience and find themselves in over their heads after they jump in too quickly. Even pure charlatans sometimes emerge from the woodwork to hawk new ideas that they may or may not have any intention to produce.
All these have happened in abundance through the history of boosting fuel economy and promoting new electric cars.
Here, we'll take a look at a dozen or so of the most bizarre models through history, from the Depression when there were some notable exceptions to cars becoming more standardized, through the end of the 20th century. Many of these cars were developed to meet the needs of more austere times—and some found significantly more success than others. We'll present them all in chronological order to preserve the historical arc of technological development.
Developments have come so fast in the 21st century that missteps have also been more frequent. We'll save those for Part II.
Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, designer, author, and inventor known perhaps best as the inventor of the geodesic dome house in the 1950s. In the 1930s, he built three examples of the Dymaxion car (a name he applied to many of his inventions, though he reportedly chafed at the application of the word car to his road machine at all.)
The Dymaxion road zeppelin, as it was sometimes called (it's not a house or a notebook like other Dymaxions, after all), was designed to apply aircraft aerodynamics to a road-going vehicle to save fuel. It was a hit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Fuller intended to make it into the first flying car, so its fuselage shape might have made sense had the Dymaxion ever grown a wing, but none ever did.
It used a reversed chassis layout, with two driven wheels in the front, a Ford flathead V-8 mounted in the middle, and a single rear wheel that steered. This layout, combined with aerodynamic lift from the body, conspired to make the car dangerously unstable as the steered rear wheel would lift off the ground at speed or under heavy braking with the weight of the driver up front. Fuller depleted his inherited fortune building the three prototypes, and the experiment came to an end after a test driver was killed in a rollover accident.
Peel P50 via eBay
Peel P50 via eBay
Half car, half suitcase, the Peel P50 was a three-wheeled city car built on the Isle of Man starting in 1962 and listed in the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest car ever built.
It had two wheels in the front and a single one in the rear for stability and used a 50-cc single-cylinder engine from DKW to achieve a top speed of 37 mph.
The company advertised it as being able to hold "one adult and a shopping bag." It weighed in at 123 pounds. Its 3-speed manual transmission had no reverse gear, so the P50 was equipped with a handle on the back which drivers could use to lift the car and drag it backwards or turn it around.
The car was built until 1965, when Peel converted to building the Trident, a bubble car of the same configuration but with a lift-up class canopy over the cockpit. During the financial crisis of 2010, two British entrepreneurs revived the Peel and made a limited run for $124,000 each.
Messerschmitt was a German aircraft manufacturer which was formed during World War II from the remains of BFW, which had built German war planes during WWI.
After WWII, the armistice prevented the company from building airplanes for 10 years, so it turned to tiny bubble cars instead, building two successive versions of the Kabinenroller ("cabin scooter"), which were three-wheeled two-passenger cars that looked like nothing so much as the disjointed cockpit of a piston-pounding fighter plane on a literal skateboard chassis.
The bubble-top was made of glass, Plexiglas, and sometimes fabric. Passengers sat front to back in seats slung between steel bars. The driver steered with handlebars. It was highway legal with a top speed of 50 mph from its 11-horsepower, 175-cc single-cylinder engine. It was later enlarged to 200 cc. Pull-start was standard, while an electric starter was optional.
Like the later Peel, it had no reverse gear, but could be rolled backwards. Fuel economy estimates ranged from 67 to 80 mpg. Messerschmitt built 40,000 KR200s through 1964, while Germany recovered from the war.
Perhaps the best-known bubble-car, the Isetta used a single door across the front that opened with the steering column and wheel to access two side-by-side seats. Drivers sat more upright than in the low-flying Messerschmitt.
Originally designed by Italian firm ISO, the Isetta went on to be manufactured in many countries around the world and became the best-selling single-cylinder car of all time. It was powered by a 250-, and later 300-cc split-single motorcycle engine. Unlike the Peel or Messerschmitt, most Isettas (except those built in Britain) had four wheels, but a narrow, 19-inch rear track eliminated the need for a differential.
The best-selling Isettas were those built by BMW in Germany. The company sold 161,000 of them with its own 1-cylinder motorcycle engine and later stretched the design into a two-row four-passenger version with a 2-cylinder engine called the 600.
These British three-wheeled, fiberglass two-door sedans became the butt of slapstick gags from cartoons to Top Gear for their propensity to roll over in turns.
With a 4-cylinder engine atop the single front wheel producing 39.5 horsepower, the Robin had a top speed of 85 mph, which was plenty to land a lot of drivers in trouble. British buyers flocked to them, because they only required a motorcycle license to drive and qualified for lower taxes with only three wheels. The Regal was first produced in 1953 with an aluminum body. In the 1960s, Reliant converted to fiberglass after the price of aluminum became prohibitive.
Less of an actual car than a concept, the Dale was heavily promoted for a few years in the late 1970s as a sub-$2,000, 70-mpg, 85-mph three-wheeled car. At least they had the layout right, with two wheels in front, unlike the Reliant Regal and Robin. That may have been about all they got right. The company seemed to spend more time promoting the cars through gambits such as giving away one that never existed on The Price Is Right TV game show than actually developing the cars.
Company founder Liz Carmichael was a 6'-1", 200-pound transgender woman who claimed to be a widow with five children, while the man's name that was on her birth certificate was wanted for counterfeiting. The company came under investigation for selling as much as $30 million in stock without a license and selling cars to dealerships without a manufacturer's license. The jig was up when the company's former public relations manager was found murdered in his office in 1975.
Corbin Sparrow jelly beans
Mike Corbin made his fortune in custom seats for motorcycles. One day in the 1990s, according to the story he loves to tell, he was standing on an overpass in L.A. waiting for a meeting to begin, after feeling frustrated by traffic. He noted that motorcycles were saving gas by using the carpool lane and getting where they were going sooner. As a guy with a lot of experience with motorcycles, though, he knew their riders would wish for some rain protection. So he developed the three-wheeled Corbin Sparrow, an electric car with 40 miles of range and a 26-hp electric motor that could go 70 mph. Corbin claimed the car was made from polycarbonate plastic similar to a motorcycle helmet for safety. The car found few buyers at its $14,000 price point, and those who did buy the Sparrow had problems with its motor controller, which Corbin was unable to fix before running out of money.
Part II to come, with seven more crazy green cars. We'll let readers judge whether they're any crazier than these.