In the 1950s, the United States fell in love with the atom. The atomic bomb became the backbone of the US military, which drew up plans for everything from a nuclear hand grenade to a nuclear-powered jet bomber. The “Atoms For Peace” project proposed using atomic explosions to excavate canals and reservoirs, and producing commercial electricity with nuclear fission reactors. And the Ford Motor Company unveiled its design for an atomic-powered automobile called the “Nucleon”.
The first nuclear reactor, built in Chicago as part of the Manhattan Project, was the size of a tennis court. But by the 1950s it was assumed that as the technology continued to improve, nuclear power plants would get smaller, lighter, and less complex. In 1951, Motor Trendmagazine was already running articles on “The Atomic Car of the Future”, predicting that in just a few decades nuclear reactors would be the size and weight of a car engine.
In 1958, Jim Powers, a first-year designer at the Ford Company’s Advanced Studio, decided to run with that concept, and produced a number of sketches illustrating what a nuclear-powered automobile might look like. Dubbed the “Nucleon”, it looked like a futuristic spaceship on wheels. Alex Tremulis, the senior Ford designer who had previously helped produce the Tucker automobile, liked Powers’ sketches, and asked him to make a concept model. Powers first produced a three-eighths scale clay model, then replicated it in fiberglass.
The Nucleon design had a stylish aerodynamic body with an appropriate display of 1950s-style fins, and a one-piece wraparound windshield. The passenger compartment was located at the front, and featured a row of air intakes along the leading edge of the roof and two air ducts that ran back to the rear along both sides of the car. The fiberglass concept model was finished with a hotrod candy-apple red paint job with silver trim.
From the scale model, the Nucleon would be a little less than 17 feet long, about 6.5 feet wide, and a bit less than 4 feet tall. With it’s nuclear-powered electric engine, it would be silent, stylish, and emissions-free.
The flat compartment at the rear would contain the nuclear reactor, known as the “power capsule”, as well as the necessary shielding and cooling systems. This was done not only to place the reactor as far away from the passengers as possible, but also to place the weight of the Power Capsule and its shielding directly over the axle. Powers assumed that future technology would make nuclear reactors portable and modular, so that not only could the entire Power Capsule be lifted out and replaced, but it could be made available in a variety of different power outputs, allowing for gearheads to have their overpowered muscle car and for house moms to have their steady reliable family transportation.
The design group never spelled out exactly how everything was supposed to work. But the basic concept, it turned out, was remarkably similar to the top-secret designs that would be used in just a few years to power the nuclear Navy, especially submarines. A small fission reactor running on uranium or plutonium would be used to produce heat which would boil water into steam, and the steam would be used to drive a turbine generator to make electricity for the electric motor that turned the wheels. In some versions, a second steam turbine would generate the electricity for the car’s headlights and instruments. The steam would be recondensed back into water and reused again and again. It was expected that even a small reactor would be able to run the car for at least 5000 miles. When your plutonium or uranium fuel ran low, you would go to a service station and have the entire Power Capsule lifted out and replaced with a new one.
Of course, none of the technology for this actually existed (and still doesn’t), so the 1958 Ford Nucleon never got beyond the design model stage. But the Ford Company liked the futuristic design model so much that it became a centerpiece display at its “Stylerama” traveling show, which showcased fourteen mockups of “cars of the future”.
In 1981, the original fiberglass design model of the Nucleon was loaned to the Smithsonian where it was shown for a few years. In 1987, it was donated by the company to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where it is currently on display.