There was a time in the 20th century when slapping nuclear devices into just about any machine seemed like a good plan, no matter how ill-advised the idea might turn out to be. And why not? During the 1950s, it seemed like the atom could do anything. Revelations about how nasty radiation was (and the lengths to which the government would go to find that out) would come later, but for a time that unbridled optimism led people to see a rosy future on the horizon.
This optimism infected the Ford Motor Company. No stranger to outlandish ideas, Ford tried to top itself in the era of the atom. Their engineers designed a car that could go 5,000 miles without refueling. The only hitch? It was powered by a miniature nuclear reactor. The 1958 Ford Nucleon was built to be the car of the future, one where people whizzed across the American landscape in vehicles powered by nuclear fuel.
Powering your drive with the atom
The Nucleon looked suitably futuristic, in the now retro way of the 1950s: all fins and rounded edges, looking a bit like a jet on four wheels. The rear section of the vehicle was where the nuclear reactor and its shielding would be housed, between twin booms. The miniature reactor, or a so-called “power capsule,” would need to be replaced at specialized service stations that would no doubt be staffed by someone more qualified than a bored high school kid, since they’d have to be handling radioactive material.
Drivers and passengers would be seated in a cab-over configuration similar to a van. Air intakes on the roof would draw in air to ventilate the cab (nothing on how the reactor itself would be cooled. Something more substantial than airflow would be needed.) The atomic engine would power the car by heating water which would boil into steam and spin a turbine, producing electricity. The electricity would drive the wheels using electronic torque converters.
An ambitious idea never makes it to production
The Nucleon concept was more ambitious than practical. A nuclear reactor compact enough to put into a car simply did not exist. Even if one did, the shielding needed to protect the drivers would make the car way to heavy to produce economically. Also the concept of nuclear powered cars hurtling down the interstate is pretty terrifying. An accident with gas powered vehicles is horrifying enough as it is, but a nuclear powered car would turn an accident site into a mini Chernobyl. The Nucleon was never more than a 3/8 scale model.
However, the project was not a complete bust. The electronic torque converters have since found use in hybrid cars, and could be used to help power electric cars that run on fuel sources far safer than a mobile fission reactor.
Bumbeck, Mike. “1958 Ford Nucleon.” Hemmings.com. February 2011. Hemmings. June 8, 2014. http://www.hemmings.com/hmn/stories/2011/02/01/hmn_feature23.html