Strangest of the strange: Self-balancing Gyro-X, the futuristic dream machine

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1967 Gyro-X rolls across the awards stand at the Pebble Beach concours | Larry Edsall photos

The Isotta Fraschinis were breathtaking. The Ferraris were spectacular. The preservation-class cars and a grouping of sports cars that had raced around Pebble Beach back in the day were wonderful time capsules. But as Ken Gross wrote in the event program, the vehicles gathered together near the 18th tee of the golf links truly were “the stuff of dreams.”

After World War II, the Detroit automakers had their ideas about America’s automotive future, and they paraded them out for all to see at events such as the General Motors’ Motorama shows. But the car companies weren’t the only ones with such ideas, and thus the special class at the 67th Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance showcasing “American Dream Cars of the 1960s.”

There were 10 such cars arrayed in a semicircle at the farthest end of the show field. But despite the remote location, throughout the day Sunday there were crowds of people who came to see and to become entranced by the futuristic designs — and technologies — of a revolutionary and extremely optimistic period in American culture.

Many of the designs looked like they might be better-suited to flight, even space flight, than for terrestrial travel. Some were designed by those connected to the Detroit styling studios. One was done for Studebaker by an Italian coachbuilder. Others were by hot-rodders, including Dean Jeffries and Gene Winfield, another by a Pontiac engineer, and yet another by a sports car racer. Some had four wheels, some three.

1967 Gyro-X rolls across the awards stand at the Pebble Beach concours | Larry Edsall photos

And then there was the most unusual of them all, the 1967 Gyro-X , a narrow, two-wheeler kept balanced by a high-speed gyroscope. The car also has small bicycle-style training wheels that could be employed for parking.

The Gyro-X is owned by Jeff Lane and his Lane Motor Museum, a delightfully eclectic car collection in Nashville, Tennessee. Lane provided concours visitors with a slickly printed fold-out brochure on the car, and offered a 10-page handout for media, including two pages of patent-application drawings.

Lane acquired the car six years ago and has put it through a restoration/rebuild that included a 2-year search to find a company that could produce the necessary gyroscope, then year-and-a-half wait for that device to be constructed so it could be fitted into the vehicle. Lane found the company in Italy; it builds gyroscopes that keep boats from rolling too far in rough seas.

The car’s roots trace to two people, designer Alex Tremulis and engineer Tom Summers. As early as 1943, Tremulis was designing gyroscopic guided missiles for the U.S. military, and in 1961 designed the gyro-balanced Ford Gyron concept car.

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In 1944, Summers launched a company to produce gyroscopes, bomb sites and other devices. At one point, the company employed 1,500 people, and in 1960 was contracted by the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service to develop a gyroscopically stabilized vehicle.

Though initially funded by the forest service, Lane’s media notes point out that a Summers-built vehicle was tested using “secret” gyroscope technology he had developed for the U.S. military, and a reporter for Science and Mechanics magazine wrote that when he visited Summers’ facility, much of the gyro system had been removed from Gyro-X “at the request of a U.S. government agency.”

Lane said that Summers became so convinced of the future of gyro-balanced vehicles that he left his own company in 1961 to found the Summers Gyrocar Company (later Gyro Transport Systems), which produced two gyro-balanced cargo carriers for the forest service and in 1966 filed patents for gyro-stabilized cargo carriers and another gyro vehicle.

He also recruited Tremulis to design the Gyro-X, which was built by famed racecar constructor Troutman-Barnes and displayed at the 1967 New York International Auto Show. The car ran as designed, but the technology was complicated and impractical for production and for mixing with normal four-wheeled traffic.

But Summers kept trying. In 1975 promoters from Las Vegas promised funding for a three-wheeled, non-gyro car.

According to Lane, Gyro-X reappeared in the mid-1990s as collateral in a business deal gone wrong and John Windsor, an entertainer, ended up with the vehicle. Windsor sold the car in 2009 to a collector in Houston. Lane bought the car from that collector in 2011 and set out to restore it to its original configuration.

The restoration/rebuild was completed just days before the car was displayed at Pebble Beach.

A four-cylinder Austin Mini-Cooper S engine and four-speed transmission provide power to the car and gyro flywheel, which can balance the vehicle as soon as it spins up to 2,400 rpm. When parked, the flywheel continues to spin, fast enough to keep the car balanced without its retracting stabilizer wheels for as much as half an hour. Operating only on the flywheel, the car can achieve speeds of 30 mph.

Summers believed that fully developed, the car could handle an 80-horsepower engine, achieve speeds of 125 mph and bank at 40 degrees without tipping. His idea was that such a car would enable roads to be made narrower or for current roads to handle twice as many vehicles without congestion.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.