The 1958 Ford Nucleon: An idea that’s still ahead of its time

July 12, 2021, 7:00AMANS Nuclear Cafe
The 1958 Ford Nucleon concept car. (Photo: The Drive )

A car capable of traveling 5,000 miles between fueling stops? Sounds impossible, right? It turns out that, yes, it was impossible. But that didn’t stop the Ford Motor Company in 1958 from envisioning a car—the Nucleon—powered by a small nuclear reactor. The Drive took a close look at the fantastical idea in a July 5 article, “Inside the Impossible Dream of the Nuclear-Powered 1958 Ford Nucleon.”

The dimensions: Even without considering the technical difficulties of using a nuclear reactor in a car, the Nucleon had “utterly comical dimensions,” according to the article. Ford’s press materials envisioned the Nucleon stretching about 16.7 feet long and about 6.5 feet wide, making it as long as the new Ford Maverick compact pickup truck, but slightly wider. Its roof measured about 3.5 feet high. The wheelbase, which was about 5.8 feet, would be almost a foot shorter than British Motor Corporation’s original Mini compact car.

The big obstacle: The Ford Nucleon concept all but vanished after 1958 because nuclear energy technology was—and still is—nowhere near ready to power a mass-produced passenger car. As was explained to The Drive by L. Dale Thomas, deputy director of the Propulsion Research Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, “The problem with an automotive-scale reactor isn't with accommodating the radioactive core, but with handling the energy it releases.”

Nuclear power on the scale of a personal vehicle simply wasn't possible back in the day, and nor would it be today, but there’s no harm in dreaming about it.