Inventing neither fish nor fowl


This week in history is a pivotal one for automobile design. Separated by more than two decades, a pair of radical hybrid designs were presented to the American public. One would become an iconic muscle car. The other a footnote to history.

On October 16, 1958 Chevrolet introduced the El Camino, a sedan/pick-up truck hybrid. The first El Camino was built on the Impala body, with the same “cat’s eye” taillights and dramatic rear fins. Chevrolet marketing billed the creation as, “the most beautiful thing that ever shouldered a load!” … “It rides and handles like a convertible, yet hauls and hustles like the workingest thing on wheels.”

Twenty-five years earlier, on October 18, 1933, the renown philosopher and inventor, R. Buckminster Fuller, introduced his prototype “Dymaxion.” The car was a three-wheeled, 20-foot-long, pod-shaped automobile capable of carrying 11 passengers at speeds up to 120 miles per hour. It got 30 miles to the gallon, could U-turn in a distance equal to its length; and could parallel park just by pivoting its wheels toward the curb and sliding sideways into its parking space.

The El Camino was born out of Chevy’s attempt to catch Ford’s Ranchero, introduced two years earlier. The first run of El Caminos were not popular. Indeed, the whole concept of car/truck hybrid wasn’t well received by the car buying public. The Ranchero sold steadily, but was no show-stopper. The El Camino flagged. So lack-luster were its sales, Chevy dropped the model after just two years.

The car maker re-introduced the model in 1964. This time, the El Camino was built on the more powerful Chevelle platform. In 1968, incorporation of the powerful SS engine made the El Camino into one of the iconic muscle cars of the era.

In 1987, Chevrolet dropped the El Camino for good. There were briefly held plans to revive it in the last decade — this time as a Pontiac. Instead, GM shuttered Pontiac and finally closed the hood on the El Camino.

Fuller’s Dymaxion had a much different trajectory. Its sculptural design made the Dymaxion the object of celebrity attentions. The rich and famous clamored to ride in it and invest. Sadly, in the same month Fuller applied for a patent on the vehicle, it was involved in a deadly crash. The accident garnered so much negative publicity that investors withdrew their money and the project was canceled.

Fuller first envisioned the car as half-car, half-airplane. Theoretically, when it got going fast enough, its wings were supposed to inflate.

In 1932, the Japanese-American sculptor, Isamu Naguchi, helped Fuller solidify the final design — a long teardrop-shaped chassis with two wheels in front and a third in back that could lift off the ground. In reality, this turned out to be a terrible idea. As the vehicle picked up speed (putatively accelerating for take off), the third wheel bounced off the ground.

In so doing, it became nearly impossible to control the vehicle. Many blamed this handling problem for the fatal crash of the prototype car, even though an investigation revealed that a car full of sightseers had actually caused the accident by hurtling into the Dymaxion’s lane.

Both these automobiles make an important point about tastes and perception. The theoretical utility of the El Camino was subordinated to its panache and bluster as a muscle car. It had a niche following, but is remembered as iconic.

On the other hand, the Dymaxion’s streamlined shape and fuel efficiency inspired generations of car designers. Its influence is still seen today. Nonetheless, it was an idea that never got off the ground — literally or figuratively.

Both vehicles offered an interesting mix of form and substance. Both were derided. Both heralded. One was a success. The other a failure. Interestingly, it’s hard to say which is which.