The recent article on the Dale three-wheeler re-kindled an interest of mine in bizarre automotive swindles. The Tucker precedent is of course so notorious as to having warranted an entire movie. But there are a few other ones hidden within the past, and not just in the United States. So today, let’s go back to the ‘50s, hop over to France and marvel at the Arbel Symétric.
The 1950s were a time of incredible optimism, in many ways. Pollution hadn’t reared its ugly head yet, the “First World” was booming thanks to an unprecedented military-industrial build-up and new technologies such as the jet, the rocket, the atom and petrochemicals held so much potential that it seemed that civilian transport applications were just a few years away.
Of course, if we look at it without the rose-tinted glasses, most of humankind was under some sort of oppressive regime in the ‘50s, be it colonial, totalitarian or capitalistic. And the Cold War wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs for anybody. Nonetheless, new technology was a window for many to look towards a better future. Nuclear power, in those days, seemed to be particularly interesting. “Atoms for peace” were already being used to generate electricity and many applications were being thought of to harness the wonders of the atom for both military and civilian transport.
The military got there first, naturally. This Convair B-36 “Crusader” bomber was heavily modified to host a 3-megawatt nuclear reactor located in and around its bomb bay. The functioning air-cooled nuclear reactor did not power the aircraft, though – it was just there to test the feasibility of the design. An 11-ton protective lead and rubber shield was installed around the cockpit to protect the five crew members who flew in it 47 times between 1955 and 1957. There was no such protection to the sides of the aircraft though, which meant maintenance crews were potentially exposed to massive amounts of radiation.
But not many people knew about this stuff back in the day, so the USAF got away with it. When it dawned on them that having a mini-nuclear reactor flying about the Mid-West was asking for trouble, the programme was shut down. The Soviets similarly tested a Tupolev Tu-95M “flying atomic laboratory” in the ‘60s and quickly arrived at the same conclusion. Atomic planes were just too heavy and dangerous; only aircraft carriers and submarines would be nuclear-powered in the end.
So what about land transport? Given the size and weight of nuclear reactors, it seemed that only rail transport might be able to pull off using the atom for propulsion. As early as 1946, plans were being developed for nuclear-powered locomotives, but cost always seemed the big stumbling block.
What about cars? Petty concerns such as the need for (literally) tons of shielding to protect passengers and outsiders from deadly radiation did not deter all automobile designers. A car that could run for years between refills sounded like too great a concept not to be looked into. And a few designs did emerge, particularly at Ford, who went public with an interesting “Nucleon” scale model in 1957-58, as well as the Alex Tremulis-styled Seattle-ite XXI six-wheeler of 1962.
Studebaker-Packard produced the even wackier Astral concept, also designed to be “atomic,” as was the 1959 Simca Fulgur – about which more in an upcoming post. Unlike turbine and rocket-powered cars, though, the nuclear car would remain on the drawing boards. Or did it?…
Paris, 1950. Casimir Loubières, an energetic and resourceful car salesman and amateur engineer, figured that a completely new car could and should be proposed to the buying public. Something avant-garde with striking styling and novel technical features, but also relatively simple to build and fix.
Casimir’s brother, Maurice, was a very successful businessman based in Saigon. He owned the COSARA (Comptoirs Saïgonnais de Ravitaillements) concern, which deployed its trucks, boats, buses and aircraft all over Indochina, ferrying anything from tourists and soldiers to weapons and livestock. Thanks to his brother’s deep pockets, Casimir Loubières got a few very interesting prototype cars built in France.
The car was called Symétric for pretty a obvious reason: it was symmetrical. The body was made of plastic panels (on steel, alloy or timber frames, that is unclear) sitting on a relatively high “backbone” tube chassis, not unlike contemporary Tatras. The windscreens and windows were all-curved Plexiglas. The doors opened in a very peculiar, clamshell-like way: the glass would slide into the domed roof, while the plastic door panel slid under the floor. The four doors were made of identical panels, as were the boot and hood, and the front and rear windscreens.
The car’s suspension was entirely made from rubber blocks (no shock absorbers), which sounds like a pretty disastrous idea, given the state of the roads in France at the time. But there was more.
The Symétric was a hybrid, just like a Toyota Prius. Under the rear hood sat a 1.1 litre Simca 4-cyl. engine that worked as a generator, providing electricity to motors in all four wheels. Indeed, the electric motors were situated within the wheel hubs themselves. This eliminated two of the three usual pedals: pressing the single remaining pedal provided electricity to the wheels; releasing pressure applied a regenerative brake system at low speeds. At speeds higher than 15 kph, drum brakes were automatically engaged when releasing the pedal. (An emergency handbrake was also provided.)
This may sound pretty revolutionary, but essentially it had all been gone into over 50 years prior. The 1900-06 Lohner-Porsche used a very similar wheel-hub electric motor, either driving the front wheels or all four wheels, eventually with a gasoline engine acting as a generator. The all-electric Kriéger of 1897 pioneered the concept of the compact electric motor / regenerative brake driving each front wheel even before that (though they were mounted in-board), essentially becoming the first electric FWD car and the first car with four-wheel brakes. Kriégers also used a hybrid gasoline-electric system on their cars by the mid-1900s, after Lohner-Porsche had pioneered the concept.
The Symétric was presented at the 1951 and 1953 Paris Motor Shows. It seems the car’s bizarre appearance and novel technical solutions were underappreciated by the public and the press. But the French military did see something in it and got one of the prototypes for evaluation, a curious wooden-bodied roadster.
Perhaps rubbing shoulders with the Army boys got to Loubières’ head in some way. Anyways, a few years after everybody thought the Symétric was consigned to the history books, it came back with a completely updated styling and even crazier ideas. Fast-forward to 1958…
This time, Loubières teamed up with François Arbel – or at least used that name to register the revamped car. It’s a little unclear. The Symétric Mark II was recognizably related to the first iteration. Most of the “innovation” that had taken place in the interim was the car’s styling, which was eerily 1959-Ford-like at the front end. The Arbel was generously tarted up with chrome and garnished with a pointy rear.
The new Arbel Symétric was launched at the Pré Catelan, a fancy Parisian restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne, in March 1958. It was also shown at the 1958 Geneva and Paris Motor Shows. Loubières was taking a very different approach from his initial prototype of the early ‘50s. Now, it seemed that PR had taken over the Symétric project – in a really big way. A very colourful brochure was distributed, showing the Arbel as a taxi or as a private car. It was not possible for journalists to drive or even take a ride in the Arbel though. Perhaps some of them started smelling a rat among the foie gras canapés.
The car now had silly pseudo-American monikers for some of the components already seen on the previous prototype. The rubber suspension was called “Thermogum,” the motor became “Electric-Drive” and the body was made of “Polystic.” There were also some far-out new features: the generously proportioned bumpers were supposed to be phosphorescent (how that was achieved was not revealed); the centrally-mounted tachometer was a translucid plastic half-disc protruding from the top of the dash; the windshield washer fluid was supposed to automatically top itself up with rainwater and the ashtray automatically emptied itself (on the road). Finally, the car’s chassis doubled up as the fuel tank, that is the fuel was stored within the chassis’ central beam. Also, unlike the earlier prototypes, this one had separate brake and accelerator pedals.
The biggest innovation was Loubières’ new choice of propulsion systems. The car could now receive a choice of two traditional 50 hp and 75 hp piston engines, though it’s unclear whether these were electricity generators or not, which wheels were driven and who made the engines. A third option was a Diesel-fueled hybrid generator dubbed the “Genestafuel.” In theory, Diesel burners heated a metal turbine at the rear of the car, which was then cooled by airflow coming from the front, the temperature difference somehow generating enough electricity to power all four wheels.
But this was not mad enough for the Loubières brothers, so they also slated a fourth engine option: the “Genestatom,” an alleged 40kW hybrid nuclear dual turbine mounted at the rear of the car, which would use nuclear waste material stored in a special cartridge, providing electric power for five years. The Arbel brochure did specify that the nuclear option was “dependent on governmental approval…”
The Loubières brothers further claimed that they were putting the finishing touches on a brand-new factory in Nice and that they would debut the Arbel through a fleet of Parisian taxis “within six months,” confidently predicting that over 100 cars would have been made by the end of the year. A participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was even mooted for 1959.
None of this ever came to anything, of course. The Arbel was a pretty bizarre conjuring trick, although at least one was built and seen in public. A few gullible punters gave Loubières a downpayment (the price of an Arbel Symétric with the “normal” engine was around FF 900,000 – Citroën DS money) and never saw or heard of him again. The Arbel company folded in 1959, but the Loubières brothers probably did not go hungry. The prototypes have also vanished, as far as is known.
It took a lot of chutzpah to “go nuclear” like that, what with all the other strange features this car had already. History is replete with people who were right before everyone else. But there are also quite a few crooks who try to peddle that line too. Most of the sources I perused to write this agree that the Arbel Symétric was definitely in that second category.