Atomic-powered Nuclear Cars

These are the proton-energy-powered cars Roger Ramjet would have driven. And they're about as realistic as he was, too

1958 Ford NucleonThe market is knee-deep in alternative-fuelled cars. We've got hybrids, ethanol-burning cars, hydrogen-burning cars, fuel cells, solar cars, we're talking about making so-called 'fossil' fuels from garbage - and coal. And let's not forget electric cars. Or steam: recently, a new speed record was set for a steam-powered car.

One category sadly lacking from the modern imagination is the nuclear-powered car. In theory, a neat concept. After all, just four grams of uranium-238 is equivalent to a full tank of petrol. On the downside is the prospect of taking Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and The Kursk out on the road, near you.

Ford Nucleon: What could go wrong?Ford was first out of the blocks with the atomic-powered car, in 1958 - in the heart of the atomic age, when 'nuclear' wasn't a dirty world. Fifty-two years ago the company unveiled the 'Nucleon' concept car to widespread public acclaim. And why not? The car professed zero emissions (aside from radiation, which could be contained). It featured a self-contained nuclear reactor (and who hasn't wanted one of those in the garage at home - admit it) that was also the drive system, all in a single unit designed to run for 8000km before being changed out and replaced - say once every six months of normal driving.

The Nucleon was very much seen as the shape of things to come, with the upcoming nuclear age thought to be the harbinger of the end to all mankind's problems. Oil, it was proposed, would have been made obsolete. Provided the cold war didn't end life as we knew to over the next few years. And we all know how well that turned out...

What do you mean I can't carry this on board?And a very 'George Jetson' proposition the Nucleon was, too, with its extreme cab-forward design and pillarless, wraparound windscreen. The forward cab design was in part to protect the passengers from proximity to the reactor. Its crashworthiness wasn't the kind of thing the auto industry considered, back in the 1950s. But what a ute it would have been, too - capable of Sydney to Perth and back on one 'tank'.

Sadly, however, the Nucleon never got closer to production than a three-eighths scale model (sans working reactor). That model still survives in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Fibreglass Freaks' Replica Batmobile costs $150k todayThe 1960s Batmobile was also powered, in part by an as yet unsubstantiated technology - atomic batteries. It also had a conventional gas turbine. Robin: "Atomic batteries to power; turbines to speed." Batman: "Roger. Ready to move out." This classic exchange of dialogue kicked off every episode of the slightly camp cult classic.

Unlike the Nucleon, you can at least buy a Batmobile today. A company called Fibreglass Freaks in the USA has secured a license from DC Comics to built a small number of very detailed replicas. They're $150,000 (US or Australian - same thing right now) but are unlikely to be roadworthy in Australia. Althought the replicas are extremely faithful and well equipped (full list of features including Detect 'o' Scope) one of the few features they lack are the fabled atomic batteries. Sadly.

Cadillac WTF: WTF?More recently (in fact last year) Cadillac unveiled a concept car allegedly powered by the radioactive isotope thorium. How this power is derived is, presently, anyone's guess. Called the Cadillac World Thorium Fuel or, unfortunately, 'WTF' (what were they thinking?) the Caddy WTF promised maintenance-free operation for 100 years. Not even the tyres needed replacing (in fact each wheel unit was actually six individual wheels closely aligned and independently driven, side-by-side - an absurdly redundant arrangement even by concept car standards. (Actually, according to Cadillac, the tyres would require adjustment every five years, but don't need to be replaced.)

WTF: where cars and Star Trek collideThorium? It's about as common as tin in the earth's crust, and doesn't do atomic fission (think 'atom bomb') like uranium or plutonium.

The WTF will never be built. Dealers would never sell a car that did not require maintenance.