Plus ça Change, Plus C’est la Même Voiture à Moteur Nucléaire

William Clay Ford Sr. with the Ford Nucleon concept

News about Laser Power Systems’ proposed radioactive thorium based steam turbine powered car reminded me that this isn’t the first time that nuclear powerplants in cars have been discussed. In the late 1950s, Ford made a big publicity splash claiming that they were “researching” the notion of powering cars with small nuclear reactors. The US Navy’s then new and highly successful nuclear submarines were in the public’s mind and Ford said they hoped to be able to miniaturize the reactor and steam turbines used in those subs enough to be able to fit it in the trunk of a typical American car. Though LPS’ proposed nuke car would not have a reactor but would directly use the heat that thorium can generate to boil steam for a turbine, it’s not too far removed from the Nucleon concept. The Nucleon never made it past 3/8th scale models, and it’s not clear if Laser Power Systems will ever make a functioning powerplant, but it still got me thinking. For generations the car companies have been making outlandish, pie in the sky concept cars, with features that can seem like science fiction for years after those concept cars are retired from the show circuit. The thing is, though, that if you wait long enough, many of those features actually start showing up on production cars, or like the Nucleon, those concepts are reexamined in the light of more modern technology.

Rear view camera mounted in the tail of the Centurion show car.

Chuck Jordan’s radical Buick Centurion car was the hit of the 1956 Motorama and some of its styling ended up gracing production cars, most notably the horizontal wing tail fins that would show up on the 1959 Chevrolet. One of the Centurion’s most obvious features was a television camera built into the rear of the car, with a dash mounted CRT video display. With a completely see-through roof, I’m not sure why you needed a backup camera, but there it was. Of course today, you can get a backup camera on everything from a Kia to a Jaguar, LCD dashboard displays are commonplace and fold down video screens for the kiddies in back have become as important to minivan buyers as the number of cupholders.

TV screen in the Centurion’s dash.

The Ford Aurora show car, featured in the 1964 video below showing how “experimental” concept cars led to the design of the Mustang, was a station wagon, what people used to use to carry their families before there were minivans. As such the Aurora was designed to be family friendly. It also had a “plug in” television screen that supplemented its three different AM/FM radios, themselves predating the individual controls and infotainment options that car passengers now have. The Aurora predicts a couple of other features that are fairly normal in cars today. It has a small beverage compartment that keeps your drinks either cold or hot, a feature that Chrysler now offers on a number of its cars, particularly minivans. It also has an early version of a navigation system, incorporating a dash mounted display of a map with a crosshatch marker that constantly updates your location on the map.

So the next time you go to a car show and see some kind of outlandish feature in a concept car that seems straight out of science fiction, don’t roll your eyes, there’s a decent chance that you may end up driving a car with those very features.


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