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“The spirit of invention… and the anguish of failure:” Lane Motor Museum celebrates the thinkers who came up short

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Lane Motor Museum.

The term “failed successes” sounds like an oxymoron or perhaps a riches-to-rags story, but Rex Bennett at the Lane Motor Museum believes it best describes those Icarian characters from automotive history whose visions aimed high but missed their mark.

“Their designs might be great, but for one reason or another, they just never took off,” he said of the inventors and visionaries at the heart of the museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Eureka! Innovative Ideas That Were Ahead Of Their Time.”

Or, as the Lane’s description of the exhibit defined “failed success:” “innovative designs that… never found a market, or were just a little too unusual for the motoring public.”

A prime example – and one that just happens to be in the museum’s collection already – is Alex Tremulis‘s circa 1967 Gyro-X. Tremulis, an accomplished designer for Cord, Tucker, Ford, and other automakers, later in his career began to explore the concept of a two-wheeled gyroscopically balanced car, which he believed was the ultimate expression of aerodynamic design. Not only that, it would reduce fuel consumption and its slim shape would help alleviate highway congestion.

After designing the Gyron at Ford, Tremulis began work on a full-size prototype, scratchbuilt at Gyro Transport Systems Inc. in Northridge, California, using a Mini 1275cc four-cylinder for power, chain drive, and a hydraulically driven gyroscope. The $750,000 company failed after the construction of just one working prototype car, which disappeared for a few decades. When it re-emerged, Jeff Lane at the Lane Motor Museum bought it and immediately set about restoring it over a multi-year process that culminated with its debut at last year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance as part of the American Dream Cars of the 1960s class.

Dymaxion replica (above). Captain James Martin’s microcars (below).

“We have a lot of these kinds of cars in the museum,” Bennett said. “Cars that were too out there. Even though the technology and the ideas worked, they didn’t fit the market.”

True, Tremulis’s Gyro-X didn’t at all precede fleets of gyro-stabilized two-wheelers, just as Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion – another vehicle in the museum’s collection that will anchor the exhibit – didn’t herald a golden age of streamlined zeppelin-like rear-steered three-wheelers. However, Bennett pointed to a number of vehicles in the exhibit that foreshadowed future innovations and successes, sometimes by decades.

“We’ll have a replica of Henry Ford’s Quadricycle, which is ostensibly terrible, but that’s only because Ford didn’t have a point of reference,” Bennett said.

1961 Chevrolet Corphibian (above). 1984 Sinclair C5 and 1994 Hobbycar B612 (below).

Another example, the Citroen-based Minima, debuted in 1973, and though the microcar format and mechanicals were all proven concepts, the purpose of the car – to ease city congestion via a contractless car rental scheme – was not. Only in latter years have city planners and entrepreneurs embraced the Minima’s concept with ridesharing schemes and companies like Zipcar.

Electric cars will also figure into the exhibit, Bennett said, with a Henney Kilowatt, a Fisker Karma, and an Omega electric from the Eighties. “We’d also like to include an example from the earliest days of electrics,” Bennett said. “They’ve stopped and started electrics over and over again many times.”

The Lane’s Eureka! exhibit will open May 24 and run through May 20 of next year. For more information, visit LaneMotorMuseum.org.