The Friday Fillip: The Car

The car was the computer of its day:

  • A shiny piece of technology that “everyone” had to have,
  • an object that divided owners into geeks who delved into the entrails and users who, trained-pigeon-like, merely pushed the provided buttons,
  • a people-connector of immense and unprecedented power,
  • the reason for the creation of a vast and intricate infrastructure, and
  • the principal element in the industrial structure of the west.

I say “was” because I think that the car’s days are numbered, at least as we now know it, the first edge of this change being evident in Google’s self-driving camera cars, I’d say. All of which is the preliminary to a look back at a (very) few of the (myriad) odd — and splendid — metal beasts that once carried us around.

One of my favourite oddities is the Dymaxion car designed in 1933 by the ever-odd Buckminster Fuller. As you see from the image below, the thing resembles what might have happened to a Volkswagen camper bus that had been subjected to a vicious wind tunnel.

A three-wheeler, this beauty could manage 90 mph and carry eleven people (!) at 36 miles to the gallon. Sadly only three were ever built, for reasons that are debatable to this day. But one factor, surely, was the initial public run, described by Wikipedia in these words, fittingly odd:

An accident at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair damaged the first prototype badly, killing the driver, and seriously injuring the two passengers, one of whom was William Sempill, aviation pioneer and Japanese spy.

(This didn’t stop British architect Norman Foster from building his own beautiful version recently, by the way.)

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

From a bus to something that was barely a car for barely one person, the Peel Engineering Company’s P-50, the smallest car ever put into production, according to Wikipedia — if making 50 counts as production. This baby (term used advisedly), a creation of the early sixties, ran on three wheels (and made on the Isle of Man, natch), had no reverse gear, but was light enough for the driver to get out and turn the car around by lifting the rear end. The P-50 is once again being offered for sale, in case you’re interested, though at a price bigger than the thing itself.

Of course, most of yesterday’s cars that we now restore and treat with reverence aren’t as peculiar as these two. And many are quite simply beautiful triumphs of engineering. For a glimpse of a few of these, take a look at the online gallery of RM Auto’s Restoration division or their auctions page, where you’ll find pictures of dozens of more run-of-the-mill “classics” lovingly restored and offered for sale.

In light of this lucrative nostalgia for old cars, I’m saving up my old computers so my grandchildren can refurbish them and make their fortune. Sensible, right?

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