Not every technological advancement is a success. Some don’t function as advertised, like the 1899 Horsey Horseless, while others — like the Stout Scarab — were simply ahead of their time. The lesson has been learned time and time again, from microcars to helicopters. The Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine, intends to tell the story of the technologies that didn’t catch on in its newest exhibition, a three-year installation entitled Fads and Failures.
The collection will include cars, bikes, flying machines, and wheelchairs when it opens this weekend. Although all of the items featured are part of the museum’s collection, some have not been on display for more than ten years.
The new exhibition will occupy the “State of Maine” wing alongside the museum’s “Faster” exhibition. Sophie Gabrion, the Communications Manager for Owls Head, told us a little bit about what classifies something as a fad and what determines a downright failure.
Some of the products were good ideas with poor executions. Others were simply bad ideas with bad executions. Even good ideas with good executions failed too. Sometimes, Sophie says, there are “environmental factors completely out of the manufacturer’s control that make [the product] fade into nothing.”
The 1950s BMW Isetta, Sophie tells us, is a good example of a fad. A product of a devastated post-war European economy, the Italian-designed, German-marketed Isetta was cheap to build, cheap to buy, and cheap to maintain. The design was quirky, with one forward facing front-door, but it achieved more than 50 miles per gallon and cost only $1048 when new in 1955, an unbelievable 1/9th of what BMW’s roadster of the same year, the 507, sold for. A one-cylinder, four-stroke, 13 horsepower motorcycle engine took nearly thirteen seconds to get the mini-fridge-esque Isetta up to 30 miles per hour.
The Isetta was by no means a bad car and is often credited with saving BMW as the company floundered after World War II, offering expensive vehicles that people simply could not afford. As the economy improved however, the Isetta’s charm wore off, and stiff competition from the more car-like Fiat 500 and Mini Cooper made it harder to justify the Isetta’s strange shape and door. Although BMW produced 161,728 Isettas over seven years, the nameplate never returned. In its short lifespan however, it paved the way for its successor, the BMW 700, which was better-received and even more of a sales success.
Other vehicles in the exhibition did not inspire future innovations the way the Isetta did for BMW. The 1947 Gazda Helicospeeder aimed to fix common issues with early helicopters. It incorporated a unique tail design that would help steer the craft and achieve speeds of up to 300 miles per hour, making it faster than any other helicopter at the time. The machine failed to hit its promised top speed and sustained damage when Antoine Gazda took it on its first flight. The Helicospeeder never flew again.
Most of the vehicles featured in the exhibition are from the early 1900s, with outliers from as early as 1885 and as late as 1958. Other notable highlights include a 4.8 horsepower 1965 Centaur Folding Suitcase Scooter, and a 1938 Eliot Cricket III, a test-bed of then-new technologies featuring an early example of a torsion-bar suspension. The Eliot also brought lighting innovations such as a slotted “no glare” headlight and a roof-mounted headlight that turned with the vehicle, a feature found on many luxury cars today.
Rob Verbsky, the museum’s curator, says that the new exhibition will be joined by other interactive exhibits.
“When a ten year old comes to the museum I can’t let him drive a Model T,” Rob says. “So we are trying to find ways to incorporate more doing and less just looking.” One of these efforts is the Ferrari Driving Simulator. Featuring three functioning pedals, Rob tells me that the simulator is a good way to teach kids to drive a manual before they’ve even driven an automatic, an idea that gearheads everywhere can get behind.
To see these vehicles and other intriguing exhibitions, stop by the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine. The Fads and Failures exhibition will open on Saturday, June 15, at noon. For more information, visit OwlsHead.org.