The missing wheel

  • 02 November 2020
  • 1 min read
  • 4 images
The missing wheel image

In Europe and America in the 1930s, it became increasingly clear that there was a need to design cars for mass production. In Europe, the main response, although certainly not the only one, came in the shape of Ferdinand Porsche’s Volkswagen Beetle. Across the pond, it was Paul Lewis who, without any financial support from the state, tried to come up with an answer. Both men drew inspiration from a model presented at a 1933 Chicago show by John Tjaarda, father of the famous designer Tom Tjaarda, who, after the war, went on to work for Pininfarina, Bertone and Ghia in Turin.

IMG 20201027 0002 The Briggs Dream Car, designed by John Tjaarda and unveiled in Chicago in 1933. This car was the inspiration both for Paul Lewis’s design and — and as you can tell by looking at the front — for Ferdinand Porsche’s Beetle.

Called the Briggs Dream Car, this vehicle, with its fluid and aerodynamic lines, was undoubtedly Porsche’s source of inspiration for the mechanical layout of the famous Beetle and for the design of its front. Paul Lewis, on the other hand, was drawn to the concept of maximum efficiency, which led him to believe that a single rear wheel might be a simple and economical solution for the project he had in mind. Therefore, the starting point for Lewis, in his pursuit of a creation as original as it was extravagant, was the shape of the vehicle. His first designs were promising, incorporating original style ideas that lent a certain charm. Once built though, the model did not have the same effect: the decision to abandon the pure teardrop-shaped single-block construction, and introduce a front hood for the engine, detracted from the car’s esthetic appeal.

IMG 20201027 0003 The first sketches of the Airomobile show just how original it was: the single rear wheel, which helped to keep it simple and affordable, also suited its teardrop shape.

The engine, though, a horizontally opposed, air-cooled, four-cylinder unit designed and built by the Dowan Marks Engine Company, was interesting. The capacity, 2100cc, was small for the USA, but it was generous in terms of power. As well as its external ogive-shaped headlamps, the car had a curious shape, made all the more unusual not only by the single rear wheel, but also by the presence of two downward-tilted fins serving as stabilizers. The vehicle could take four people and had a roomy luggage compartment accessible via a hatch on the right side.

IMG 20201027 o0007 In the second phase of the project, the Airomobile was given an elongated nose to make it look more car-like and to overcome some of the reservations concerning its three-wheel configuration.

In 1937, to present his creation, Lewis embarked on a tour that took in as many as 36 different American states. Despite the convincing demonstrations of his creation, and the 60,000 or so km covered in this bid to gather orders and attract stakeholders willing to contribute to financing the production of the vehicle, he failed in his intent. But he wasn’t ready to give up, and indeed had another idea: to move the single wheel to the front and have two wheels at the back.

How did this turn out? Find out in the next installment!

IMG 20201027 0005 Anterior engine and front-wheel drive with a nice air-cooled 4-cylinder boxer engine.