Arguably one of the most incredible things about the 1950s was the insistence that we could absolutely use this potentially deadly technology in the most wholesome ways to create a really cool car.
It’s an interesting challenge to put yourself in the shoes of all those impressionable folk as nuclear power was being unveiled. It seemed like anything was possible with this basically eternally-sustainable resource. Why not stick it in an engine? That’s definitely what Ford was thinking in 1958 when they proudly showed the Nucleon to the world.
Basically, this strange half-car half-truck was going to be powered by a small nuclear reactor tucked in the rear of the vehicle—the “bed” of this very odd truck. If you’re laughing at the thought of a small nuclear reactor, remember that this was still a new technology. Scientists and designers were under the impression that it would be one day possible to shrink a reactor to a portable size.
The heat generated from the uranium fission happening in the reactor would power a steam engine. That meant that you wouldn’t have to bother with gas station stops on your next road trip; the Nucleon was supposed to be able to travel 5,000 miles before it needed a refueling. I imagine it would be slightly harder to find someone ready to fill up your radioactive nuclear tank than a gas tank.
See, designers thought of that, too. So basically all you’d have to do is completely remove the whole tank and pop a new one in. Easy. We all just have a spare nuclear tank just laying around.
The only problem is that, uh nuclear power is kind of dangerous. That whole “exposure to radioactive material is kinda bad” thing made things pretty interesting. It’s why the Nucleon has its pseudo-truck style. Designers had to push the passenger compartment way up to the front of the car to keep some space between humans and cell degeneration.
But that brought up another problem. Namely, the sheer amount of lead you’d have to use in the car in order to keep things kosher.
That didn’t really deter Ford, though. This was the era of scientific progress! If we can power cars with a nuclear engine, then it’s almost guaranteed what someone will discover a more lightweight material than lead to protect passengers!
Well. No substance of that sort has been found. The Nucleon now only exists in its miniature concept mock-up form inside of the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. But the good news is that there’s already someone out there who’s got us covered with a sick car design in case we do start mining some new elements on a foreign planet. Or something.
One of the most interesting things about the Nucleon, though, is to see how long automakers have been considering a move away from internal combustion engines in favor of something far more efficient. We might not have opted for, um, radioactivity, but manufacturers have been forward-thinking and trying to keep a step ahead of the trend for decades.