I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Reinventing the Wheel (and Everything Attached): Concept Cars

by Kristen Bialik
Aug. 21, 2011

Looking at vintage concept cars, I can’t help but think, man that was a time of innovation! A time when, if you could stick a wheel on it, anything was possible! Today we expect certain things from cars, like reasonable enclosure or the ability to fit in standard parking spaces. But not these engineers. They asked the world, who says cars need to have four wheels? Or, since when has anyone really needed brakes? These are the vehicle assumptions Dr. John Purves challenged when he designed the Dynasphere in 1932. The Dynasphere was a monowheel electric car that a driver could sit inside like an oversized, motorized hamster wheel. And actually, the Dynasphere was not immune to the monowheel risk of “gerbilling.” As a result of braking or accelerating too hard, gerbilling victims would lose all stability previously lent by gravity and be sent spinning around the inside of the wheel. A vehicle to behold, the Dynasphere challenged aesthetics - and safety! Dr. Purves tested his creation on a beach at Weston-super-Mare, prompting a witness to recall, “As a lad I lived in Weston. One day in the 1930s I went to the beach and saw a man trying to drive a huge wheel across the sands. It wasn’t very successful and wobbled about. I have always wondered what it was or whether I imagined it.”

Certainly, what the young witness of the Dyasphere felt was not unique. Many of the concept cars in this collection seem unreal, a sci-fi dream induced after reading too much H.G. Wells. But perhaps the craziest thing is that they are real, and concept cars are almost always inspired by something -- a practical application of new technology, art, or social trends. The Dynasphere was inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings. A few decades later, many cars (concept or otherwise) were inspired by the tangible bit of future seen in the upcoming Jet Age. GM took a nod from airplanes in the 1950s when designing everything from the then jet-inspired concept cars, Oldsmobiles and Buicks, to their ultimately failed Aerotrain. These machines and others, like the Davis 3-Wheeler, borrowed airplane aesthetics such as long, bulbous noses and tailfins. The Davis three-wheeler even ganked its three-wheel design from airplane landing gear. Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car was also a three-wheeler, though an unconventional one that could hold 11 passengers at 20 feet in length. Oh, and did I mention it had a periscope? And while I’m not sure what could have inspired Greg Zanis’ pyramid car other than UFO sightings or Masonic symbolism, it exists. So it’s not just an idea anymore- it’s also ugly.

The pyramid car (or as Zanis calls it, Dream Car 123) has one saving grace; it’s a concept car on a mission, taking one bulky step forward for the environment 80 batteries at a time. Our collection is called “Vehicles from the Lost Future,” but that doesn’t mean the future is lost or that vehicle designers are being any less radical these days. Modern concept cars continue to stretch the ideas of earthbound travel and are shaping their concepts around a greater purpose. Take the terrifying porcupine on wheels, the BMW Lovos. Consisting of 260 identical particles on interchangeable hinges, the car’s thin, photovoltaic solar panels turn with the sun, can be opened or closed, function as air brakes, and can even form wind turbines on the car’s wheels. Seeming to give an aesthetic nod to the Dynasphere, the Nissan Pivo 2 features a robotic agent to assess and soothe the mood of the driver through conversation and facial monitoring technology, ultimately making the road a safer place. The Pivo 2 can also be driven sideways through independent control of each of the four wheels, and a 360-degree revolving cabin ensures the driver can always face forward when driving – no matter what direction.

Mercedes-Benz is pushing technological design by pulling from nature in ways even Buckminster Fuller would have likely found unthinkable. Their Bionic Car project used an interdisciplinary collaboration of biologists, engineers, and designers to design a car that mimicked evolutionary successes in nature by exploring aerodynamic and energy efficient animal movement. The team’s research led them into the depths of the ocean where they found their paragon of streamline and safety in the unexpected form of the tropical boxfish. A cross-section of the boxfish’s rectangular body proved to be near identical to that of a car. But surprisingly, the boxfish’s shape and rigid outer shell made up of hexagonal plates allow it fantastic maneuverability and stability while conserving its energy. Using a clunky little fish, Mercedes-Benz was able to create a full-size car that gets around 70 mpg.

And hold on to your monowheel seat, but Mercedes-Benz is actually working on a car that could be grown in a lab instead of being built on a production line! Hubert Lee, head of the Mercedes-Benz advanced design studios, said of the BIOME project, “We wanted to illustrate the vision of the perfect vehicle of the future, which is created and functions in complete symbiosis with nature. The Mercedes-Benz BIOME is a natural technology hybrid, and forms part of our earth's ecosystem. It grows and thrives like the leaves on a tree.” The car would be grown from DNA in two Mercedes stars on the front and back ends of the vehicle, while the wheels would be grown from four separate “seeds.” Made up of a lightweight, but invincibly strong material called BioFibre, the BIOME would also be completely biodegradable. Insanely imaginative? Check. Bordering on Proteus-type freaky? Check. Impossible? Ask Buckminster Fuller.

The truth is, as crazy as some ideas seem, they are inevitably born out of some precedent. Vehicles like the Aerotrain and the Hover Scooter were heralded as “futuristic” because a little piece of that invisible future had been obtained in the form of a Ford Model-T or a plane taking off at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Even if the precedent is only set in literature or science fiction, engineers have shown and continue to show that a concept is all it takes to build a car. And it’s safe to say that concept cars, like all ideas, have a way of coming back to us in one way or another. Barbie behemoth Mattel Inc. produced a screw-driven toy car, not unlike the Fordson snowmobile. Architect Norman Foster remade Fuller’s Dymaxion, and for the guy who has everything, you can still buy a Hover Scooter from Hammacher Schlemmer for an easy $13,000. How’s that for being cyclical in nature?  


Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.