Ford's better idea in 1957 — A nuclear-powered car

By Casey Williams

(December 29, 2013) Automakers may talk about renewable energy from wind, water, and solar, but if they are honest, they will tell you that most of our energy will still come from coal and nuclear powerplants. If Americans want gas-free automobiles, they may have to get used to an old idea: Atomic-powered cars.

In 1957, Americans were enamored with atomic symbolism that the new age would provide answers to all of our problems. During that time, Ford showed its vision of a nuclear-powered car, called the Nucleon. Its key feature was a small reactor placed behind the rear wheels. In concept, it would have used a scaled-down version of a nuclear submarine’s unit, but thankfully, the car was never built.

As in a submarine or aircraft carrier, the reactor would have generated electricity, which would then drive the wheels with motors. In Ford’s vision, the reactor would last 5,000 miles at which point it would be exchanged at a roadside service station.

William Ford alongside a 3/8th scale Nucleon model

The concept is very similar to the Chevy Volt’s platform, which sometimes uses a gasoline engine to generate electricity that drives the wheels. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles work the same way, except with electricity generated from a hydrogen reaction. The idea is sound, but the source was absolutely nuts. Here in the 21st Century, it is not a great idea to move nuclear reactors around without an armada of firepower to defend them.

Nucleon’s styling was clearly from the ‘50s with its twin-boom “tailfins” in the rear, wrap-around windows, two-tone red and white paint, and enough chrome to façade the Chrysler Building. A far-forward placement of the passenger compartment was intended to shield people from radiation.

Ford had the right ideal 50 years ago, but got the reactor’s location all wrong. We’re going to be driving nuclear-powered automobiles, but the reactors will be secured safely within fortified concrete bunkers instead of rolling around our city streets and Interstates. Americans have been squeamish about nuclear energy, but it is something we may have to get used to if we want to stop burning fossils. A new nuclear age is upon us.