Hot swappable battery packs and fuel cells that convert gases created by a soup of overactive algae into electricity may seem like futuristic enough automotive propulsion ideas now, but they have nothing on the era of scientific optimism that brought forth the Ford Nucleon atomic-powered concept of 1958.
With styling that falls somewhere in between an early-Sixties Ford Econo-line pickup and a late-Fifties swept-wing jet bomber, this car of the future had a designed range of up to 5,000 miles without refueling. The rear section of the Nucleon was made up of twin booms, which were intended to carry a nuclear reactor and shielding. Ford left it up to top scientists to determine whether the reactor, or power capsule, ran off nuclear fission or fusion. The power capsule could then be tailored to driving style, much in the same way present day automobiles have pushbutton modes for sport or economy. Radioactive cores could be swapped out of the Nucleon as necessary at charging stations that Ford envisioned replacing the traditional gasoline service station.
The passenger section of the Nucleon took the cab-over configuration of a van or over-the-road truck into the world of atomic motoring. A single, molded piece of pillarless glass would allow for
maximum forward visibility. A cantilever roof section would join the front windshield with the compound curves of the rear window. Air intakes at the leading edge of the roof and at the base of the cab would assumedly draw in air for cabin ventilation for the driver and passengers, and hopefully bring forth some measure of cooling for the atomic power capsule. Energy generated by the nuclear reaction going on out between the booms would get converted into electricity, and then utilized to drive the wheels via one or more electronic torque converters. The drivetrain would no longer be a series of cogs, sprockets and mere fluid couplings—but rather a power package. The last paragraph of the Ford Nucleon brochure sums up the unbound optimism for the future in a mid-century America.
"Cars such as the Nucleon illustrate the extent to which research into the future is conducted at Ford Motor Com pany, and point up the designer's unwillingness to admit that a thing cannot be done simply because it has not been done."
In reality, the Ford Nucleon only ever existed as a design and engineering concept. Engineers counted on inexorable progress to provide high-powered and compact reactors with enough shielding to protect driver and passenger alike from bathing in isotopes while hurtling down the highways of tomorrow at atomic velocities. Sadly, the compact reactors never materialized, and the Nucleon concept never moved past the 3/8-scale model stage. Millions of nuclear reactors speeding down the road may or may not have ended well, but engineering concepts like the electronic torque converter have since been patented for use in combustion-electric parallel hybrids. That electricity-generating algae soup fuel cell, however, has not yet been perfected for public use.
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