The Ford Nucleon: Petrol Omission to Nuclear Fission

Written by Sam Marks

Recently, nuclear science has undergone a major development. On December 13, 2022, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the United States announced it had conducted the first nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion is a process that sees two atoms combine to release an immense amount of energy. Fusion is the reverse of the current nuclear fission, the splitting of an atom into two smaller nuclei. Unlike fission’s use of heavier elements such as uranium, plutonium, or thorium, nuclear fusion uses smaller, more abundant elements like hydrogen and helium. Perhaps fusion’s most important characteristic is that it does not create any long-lasting radioactive waste, making it far cleaner than fission.  

This announcement has fulfilled long-awaited hopes of nuclear scientists, providing a further stepping-stone for the energy source to become more efficient and sustainable. This announcement comes long after atomic power first gained major public focus throughout the 1950s. Around this decade, nuclear power was becoming part the culture across the world. As research generated around the power source, several concepts were theorized for the application of nuclear power. One of the more ambitious experiments was a model for a nuclear-powered car.  

In 1958, Ford designer Jim Powers created a model for the Ford Nucleon. Rather than containing a combustion engine, the Nucleon would house a small nuclear reactor in its rear. There was an assumption at the time that gasoline would become obsolete as nuclear fission could be made more compact and affordable. These compact reactors would utilize uranium fission and still emit a dangerous amount of radiation for occupants of the vehicle. Powers envisioned lead shielding around the front of the car to counter the radiation and to balance the weight of the incredibly heavy reactor. The reactors would allegedly have enough power to last 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers). Rather than refueling, the reactors were made to be removable from the Nucleon so the cars would replace it with another compact reactor.   

The Nucleon was not the only concept nuclear car that emerged during the late 1950-60s. Simca, a French automaker, designed the Fulgur based on what cars in the year 2000 were projected to look like. In addition to atomic power, the Fulgur would also be a self-driving car, relying on radar navigation and voice control. In 1962, Ford developed a second model for a nuclear-powered car. The Seattle-ite XXI was designed by industrial designer Alex Tremulis and was designed with six wheels. While the nuclear engine never became realized, several of Tremulis’ ideas did end up becoming reality including interchangeable fuel cell units, interchangeable bodies, interactive computer interface, and four-wheel driving. Perhaps the most outlandish of these designs, however, was the Studebaker-Packard Astral. Running on one gyroscopic wheel, the Astral would protect its occupants from radiation by emitting a forcefield around the car. It also would allegedly be able to float on water.   

Unsurprisingly, none of these designs ever came to fruition and nuclear-powered cars remained in the concept stage. This was in large measure due to the lack of technology capable of doing what the concepts aimed to achieve. These cars were designed with great enthusiasm for nuclear power, still at the time a new and exciting innovation. Many of the designers were forward-thinking about nuclear capabilities, not realizing that it might take quite some time (and still does) before the technology would be there. Additionally, some governments were hostile to the idea of using nuclear-powered cars. The threat of a fender-bender turning into an apocalyptic event was a very real fear for countries like France, who stopped car companies from using nuclear power.  

While the car concepts never actually made it on to the open road, these designs perfectly capture the enthusiasm nuclear power generated in the late 1950s and 1960s. The emergence of such a new technology with incredibly efficient and powerful energy capabilities created a lot of excitement surrounding the potential future it could bring about. Since these car concepts, nuclear power has gone through many changes that has seen the energy source develop immensely throughout the later twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Even now, as the reality of fusion is becoming more prominent, it may not be surprising to see concept cars like the Nucleon return.  


Guichard, Ami, ed. Automobile Year 1958 Edition. First Edition. EDITA S.A., 1958. 

Magazines, Hearst. Popular Mechanics. Hearst Magazines, 1968. 

MCG. “Nucleon—Ford’s 1958 Atomic Car.” Mac’s Motor City Garage (blog), February 24, 2016. 

Nuclear Powered Vehicles: Cheap, Sustainable, and Potentially Deadly, 2020. 

Our Nuclear Alternate Future?, 2021. 

Featured image credit: 1958 Ford Nucleon. Accessed 29 January 2023 via: Used under fair use policy.

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