Fast and Curious

Visions of mobility II

To cover great distances in the shortest possible time is a long-cherished dream of humankind. From the invention of the wheel 5,000 years ago, to ancient myths and legends, to classic sci-fi: in its series “Fast and curious: visions of mobility,” BMW Magazine digital showcases extraordinary, visionary and bizarre examples from the long history of mobility. The focus this time is on (among others) the DeLorean from Back to the Future and the winged feet of Hermes, messenger of the gods.

Marie Sophie Müller


The story of the DeLorean DMC-12 was almost over before it had begun. Following the car’s launch in 1981, production was mothballed in 1982 due to low demand and mismanagement by company boss John DeLorean. But in spite of everything, the sports car with the stainless-steel bodywork and gullwing doors became an automotive icon. That was entirely due to its second coming as a custom time-travel machine in the Back to the Future movie trilogy. Here, in October 1985, researcher, physicist and self-declared “student of all sciences” Dr. Emmett Brown successfully installed his flux capacitor – a time machine – into a DeLorean. A nuclear reactor generated the energy that enabled the car to travel to a predetermined time period once a speed of 88 mph was reached.

Time-traveling sports car from Back to the Future – 1985


From the day he was born, it was clear that the future messenger of the gods possessed the power of invention. Legend has it that immediately after his birth, Hermes abandoned the cave of his mother Maia (one of the Pleiades) to kill a tortoise and use its shell as a soundboard for his latest invention: the lyre. That same day, he stole 50 cattle from the god Apollo and covered his tracks in the snow by tying branches to the soles of his feet. Famed for his cunning, Hermes is the god of thieves, art dealers and orators, as well as representing gymnasts and magicians. But he is better known as the god of transportation, voyagers and traveling salesmen. His positive image is largely based on his role as Zeus’ messenger and as intermediary between gods and mortals. His ability to travel at lightning speed comes from special footwear called talaria – golden sandals forged by Hephaestus, each fitted with two small wings.

The winged sandals of Hermes – c. 7th–5th century BCE


This vehicle – half flying saucer, half expedition vessel – is used neither for space travel nor to explore the ocean’s depths. With its crew consisting of a pilot, doctors and assistants, the Proteus has been shrunk to the size of a microbe and injected into the bloodstream of the scientist Dr. Benes, who has suffered a brain clot. The emergency task force aboard the microscopic vessel has precisely 60 minutes to reach the brain and remove the thrombus with the aid of a laser gun. Once the Proteus and its passengers have left the body, they automatically return to their normal size. The idea behind the 1966 American science-fiction movie Fantastic Voyage, directed by Richard Fleischer, certainly sounded adventurous at the time. Yet today, medical technology uses motorized robots so small, they could indeed be sent on a journey into the brain’s network of blood vessels.

Microscopic operating submarine from Fantastic Voyage – 1966


The depths of the ocean were never intended for humans: there is no usable oxygen, the pressure is too great, and a frightening array of marine life abounds. But since nothing is more tempting to the human species than remote or forbidden places, the invention of the submarine was only a matter of time. The oldest extant drawing is by Guido da Vigevano, an Italian inventor born in the late 13th century. Its streamlined form, reminiscent of a whale, remains the model for submarines to this day. The earliest known functioning diving vessel, a leather-clad wooden rowing boat, was developed by Dutchman Cornelis Drebbel around 1620. It was not until the industrial manufacturing of steel in the 19th century that the submarine found the right materials for long-range underwater journeys and extended service life. Most modern subs are powered by diesel-electric drives. Since the construction of the U.S. Navy’s Nautilus in 1954, submarines have also been nuclear-powered, enabling virtually unlimited diving periods. The only thing these subs share with the wooden examples of the past is their cetacean form.

Diving vessel by Guido da Vigevano – early 14th century


Discussions on how many wheels a motorized vehicle should have are as old as the invention of the automobile itself. “Reduce to the max” was the principle behind the Dynasphere, which uses one wheel instead of four to reach speeds of up to 30 mph. The idea came to British inventor John Archibald Purves after discovering Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch of a monocycle. Purves immediately set about translating the drawing into a motorized vehicle. The unique feature of the Dynasphere is that the wheel constitutes the vehicle itself: the driver sits in a shell suspended inside the 10-foot tire. Early prototypes were steered simply by shifting body weight, although a steering wheel was later incorporated. A number of these thousand-pound monowheels were seen on British roads from 1932 onwards, but the minimalist vehicle never really caught on, mainly because steering maneuvers and precise braking called for a great deal of skill.

Motorized monocycle by John Archibald Purves – 1930

BMW 750L

In 1997, and not for the first time, quartermaster and chief inventor Q of the British Secret Service selected a BMW as his vehicle of choice for agent 007. Two years earlier, in GoldenEye, 007 had used a Z3. But the 750iL featured in Tomorrow Never Dies was to create something of a sensation in James Bond history. The standard-equipment package included machine guns, rocket launchers, GPS and tear-gas canisters. The bodywork was also impressive: reinforced to withstand a sledgehammer attack, with self-inflating tires and door handles protected by a charge of 20,000 volts. But a car operated by a mobile phone? That had never been done before. During one car chase, the secret agent hides on the rear seat and uses his phone to steer the apparently driverless car through a multistory parking garage in Hamburg. Today, the latest BMW 7 Series can easily be parked using the Display Key. Driverless, computer-controlled cars have also been around for some time – and while, as yet, confined to the test track, they will be hitting the roads before long.

Special vehicle for agent James Bond – 1997