Ford Nucleon

The Big Three of 1950s Detroit car makers all had elite design teams charged with transforming half-baked dreams into roadgoing realities. Ford’s Nucleon seized the high ground of the Atomic Age by suggesting a brave new world in which the internal combustion engine was replaced by a small nuclear reactor!

The power plant was suspended between heavy load-bearing booms, very slightly forward from the rear axle; and to compensate for its weight, the passenger compartment was cantilevered far ahead of the front axle.

Visually, the Nucleon resembled a pick-up truck with shark fins; and with an otherwise fairly conventional, but entire family car, somehow growing out of the front where only the driver’s cab should be. No amount of futuristically smooth styling could integrate the Nucleon’s hybrid components.

Ford’s designers envisaged a genuine scientific pedigree for the Nucleon and its claim to travel 5,000 miles on a single charge, but unwittingly acknowledged their own economy with the truth by stressing how the Nucleon was designed to keep passengers as far from anything radioactive as possible.

In fact they had no real notion of how nuclear energy could be harnessed in any way applicable to a car, and the Nucleon remained a scale model of a theory about an idea.

As the New York Times much later remarked, it was one of a number of concept cars that ‘each deserves credit for charging full-throttle down an amusing blind alley’. The Nucleon never got any throttle at all. It was actually one of the great conceptual ‘rollers’ — so called because they had to be rolled onto the stage, lacking any means of self-propulsion. Half a century later, you still wonder ‘what if?’.

COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:

USA

FIRST MANUFACTURED:

1958

ENGINE:

Power capsule with radioactive core (different ‘sizes’ were ‘designed’ to be interchangeable according to varying demands of performance or distance to be travelled)

PERFORMANCE:

N/A

YOU SHOULD KNOW:

In 1958, nuclear power was pregnant with possibility. There was every reason to think the Nucleon might presage an automotive revolution; and every reason to fear that possibility. At least the Nucleon contributed to the design of the DeLorean-based time machine featured in the film Back To The Future.

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