Ford Nucleon: the 1957 nuclear-powered car for the masses

A car that could do 5000 miles before refuelling? It might sound like a dream, but it could have become a reality with the Ford Nucleon. Except that it was nuclear-powered...

The nuclear age was to be an era of innovation and human advancement. Harnessing the power of the atom would provide an abundance of energy for all and was to reshape our lives. That was of course until the dangers of nuclear energy became apparent and that its application in civilian life wasn’t really appropriate.

In that brief interlude, between nuclear eureka and realisation of its potentially devastating outcomes, car manufacturers toyed with the idea of a nuclear-powered car. The Ford Nucleon was one of the first.

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The development of nuclear reactors meant that it was possible to use radioactive substances to create vast quantities of energy, so the thought of miniaturising this technology for use in cars wasn’t as crazy as it may seem. Imagine a car with more performance than conventional models, but you need only refuel it every 5000-miles. Sounds pretty good, right? Ford thought so.

The Ford Nucleon was a concept designed to explore the viability of a nuclear powered car in 1957. The unusual form of this concept was dictated by its reactor — the same type found on nuclear submarines at the time — which dictated the long flat shape of its rear end. Art-deco details and aeronautic inspired fins made for a car that looked as futuristic as its power source. Occupants were to sit in a pick-up style cabin and would enjoy the near silent running of their new uranium-powered family car.

Its reactor would superheat steam that in turn rotated a pair of turbines to power the car using what is known as the indirect cycle. The largest turbine would be responsible for powering the wheels; a smaller unit would take care of all of the Nucleon’s electrical systems.

Ford envisioned a future in which vehicles such as the Nucleon would pull into a refuelling station and quickly have their reactors swapped out ready for the next 5000-miles ahead. At the time the dangers of nuclear waste wasn’t well documented and presumably wasn’t the concern of designers. As the reality of nuclear cars and their potential dangers (what would happen in a crash?) became apparent, Ford’s atomic ambitions faded away.

It is important to remember that the Nucleon wasn’t just a pipe dream as Ford’s atomic research car was sponsored by the US government with other manufacturers receiving similar grants. There was a firm belief at the time that nuclear fission would soon power everything from your fridge to entire nations. Ultimately the Ford Nucleon’s development only got as far as a series of technical drawings and a few scale models.

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