In the 1950s, Ford Motor Company came up with a concept car that seems beyond comprehension today. It was a car that ran entirely on nuclear power.
Ford made a model of a concept car in 1958 called Nucleon, which would have been powered by a small nuclear reactor. The reduced-size reactor was going to be completely removable in the rear of the car so it could be replenished once the fuel had been used. The vehicle looked like a truck without a bed, and the passengers would sit far in front of the nuclear reactor to allow adequate shielding.
The nuclear reactor would heat water to make steam that would turn a turbine. The turbine, in turn, would produce electricity to power torque converters that would drive the wheels. Engineers estimated that the Nucleon could go 5,000 miles before it would need to be refueled.
But there were several problems with this revolutionary idea. The shielding from the nuclear reactor posed a problem because the weight and size of the material necessary to keep passengers and drivers safe from the radioactivity made the car impractical. In addition, a nuclear reactor small enough to be placed in the vehicle had never been produced. T
here was also the pesky problem with replacing the spent fuel. Specialized service stations would have had to be constructed and then attended by people capable of handling radioactive material. There was also the problem of the cars getting into an accident and causing a mini-meltdown on the road.
Because of these many daunting problems, the Ford Nucleon never got to a full-size concept car. Only a 3/8 model was ever built. It now resides in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. But Ford wasn’t the only car company to throw their hat in the nuclear arena. Two French companies also tried to develop nuclear-powered designs in 1958 with the Arbel Symetric and the Simca Fulgar. Neither panned out.
A year before the Nucleon, Studebaker-Packard introduced the sci-fi looking concept car Astral, but it too was far from practical, and their proposed shielding from radiation hadn’t even been invented. Ford even tried again in 1962 with another nuclear concept car they called the Seattle-ite XXL. While it demonstrated technological advances that we have today in modern cars, it ran into the same problem (along with many others) as the Nucleon. There just wasn’t a reactor small enough to power it.