The Evolution of Automobile Construction

The evolution of automobile construction played a significant role in Buckminster Fuller’s design of the Dymaxion House, specifically in the fields of available construction systems and materials.

Significant Dates:

1900: At the beginning of the 20th century, automobiles were first built entirely out      of wood, and soon gained steel body panels that covered a wooden frame. In the first few years of vehicle production, the idea of body-on-frame design was introduced, and the machines were built with a load-bearing wooden chassis that supported all their mechanical parts, covered with steel sheathing on the exterior. Unlike its popularity in the Dymaxion House, aluminum was not used in car production until the end of the 20th century.
Body-on-frame construction was a process in which a separate body was mounted onto the rigid frame that supported the vehicle’s working components. Originally, the frames were made out of wood, commonly ash, but the material was replaced by steel in the 1930s. The frames in these structures were ladder frames, not the later monocoque, and differed from the later development by being made out of numerous wooden parts assembled together as opposed to a single molded piece of the material. Although not as strong as the later monocoque, ladder framing had the benefit of easy part replacement and repair. Monocoque framing did not appear in the car industry until the 1960s.

1901: Olds Automobile Factory in Detroit begins to make car parts for larger vehicle companies, introducing the beginnings of mass production into the car industry.

1903: The Electric Ignition System is introduced.

1905-1914: Over the course of World War One, the Brass Era, also known as the Edwardian Era, of vehicles emerged. Cars were characterized by their front rear-wheel drive internal combustion engines, sliding gear transmissions, and less expensive body materials. The covers were known as tonneau, steel hard covers opened by hinges or folding mechanisms. The systems used in these vehicles may have had an impact on Fuller’s design of the Dymaion House and his principles of tensegrity and synergetics, as they enabled leaf springs in a suspensions system to hold the wheels in place.

1905: Safety glass was introduced as a vehicle material. This may have influenced Fuller’s design of the window’s in his Dymaxion Houses.

1906: The Steam Car is developed.

1908: With their Ford Model T, the vehicle company introduced assembly line production, replacing the earlier handcrafting methods, and producing the first ever mass produced car.
The development used machines more than people in the production of a vehicle for the first time in history. The vehicle had features like completely interchangeable parts, financially benefiting middle-class customers. The model also evolved on the suspension systems used in cars, by including a semi-elliptical spring in the front and rear axis of the wheel. Again, this most likely affected Buckminster Fuller’s own developments of a suspended home.

1913: The first moving assembly line for vehicles is developed by Ford.

1911: The car industry moves away from using wood frame and metal panel structures, and instead turns to wood frame and reinforced steel construction, producing vehicles with more rigidity. This is named armoured wood construction.
This move towards an entirely metal frame is reflected in the material’s chosen by Fuller’s design.

1914: All-steel bodies are introduced by Budd Company.

1915: The Unibody is created. This structure involves body members fashioned into a tubular form to provide metal rigidity without using an interior frame. It is also referred to as the Ruler Frameless process. This development influenced Fuller’s concept of lightweight, self-supportive structure that did not require any traditional, internal support.

1919-1929: The vehicle market experiences a radical shift in popularity from open to closed roof cars.

1930: Car manufacturing greatly decreases on account of the Great Depression. Factories experience an abundance of unsold products, useless machinery, workers, and materials. Buckminster Fuller’s concept of mass production was even more grounded with this development, as he now had an abundance of factories in which his house would be a welcome product to produce. Also, the extreme low cost of his home greatly appealed to the majority of the American population, which was now experiencing great poverty.
The Saloon or Sedan body style becomes the most popularly produced design for many years.

1931: The first modern independent suspension system in wheel design is created, minimizing road shock and creating a more sturdy, long-lasting vehicle. In the Dymaxion House, this development can be seen in the suspension system it uses as well as its impressive weather resistance, which Fuller may have achieved perhaps by referencing these very developments.

1936: the Rolls-Royce Phantom III is produced with an aluminum-alloy engine, cylinder banks, independent front suspension spring-based system, and a carryover semielliptical sprint rear unit. Both the materials (aluminum) and systems (suspension) used in this design are reflected in Fuller’s Dymaxion House.

1930-1940: Tempered glass is invented and now used standardly in car window.
Automobile companies are now used to produce wartime products like trucks, shells, guns, recoil mechanism, gun carriages, tractors, and aircraft engines.
This multi-use of a facility pushed Fuller’s idea of similarly taking advantage of aircraft and vehicle production lines in order to efficiently produce his own invention.

1950’s: The common car materials of this time were steel (used as a base material as well as for components like the doors, hood, and rigid frame), chrome (used for the bezel that encompassed the headlights and the car’s front and rear bumpers), wood (used mainly in the steering wheel but no longer in the car’s frame), fiberglass (used as a lightweight alternative to steel), and safety plate glass (an alternative to earlier window materials, now with a layer of polyvinyl butyral for added strength).
Fuller was obviously affected by the materials used in similar industries during his time, in example also using stainless steel for the construction of his central mast. 

1953: Fiberglass body construction is finally realized on a practical level, with prototypes dating back to 1938.