Retrotechtacular: The Gyro-X

In the 1950s, American automobiles bloomed into curvaceous gas-guzzlers that congested the roads. The profiles coming out of Detroit began to deflate in the 1960s, but many bloat boats were still sailing the streets. For all their hulking mass, these cars really weren’t all that stable — they still had issues with sliding and skidding.

One man sought to fix all of this by re-imagining the automobile as a sleek torpedo that would scream down the road and fly around turns. This man, Alex Tremulis, envisioned the future of the automobile as a two-wheeled, streamlined machine, stabilized by a gyroscope. He called it the Gyro-X.

A Revolutionary Two-Wheeler

Alex Tremulis and the Gyro-X. Image via Hemmings

Alex Tremulis had designed many cars that were futuristic for their time, like the Cord 810/812 and the Tucker ’48. He went to work for Ford in 1952 as the Chief of Advanced Styling, and helped design the Ford Gyron concept car in 1961.

When you consider that gyros have long been used to stabilize everything from space ships to submarines, a gyroscopic car is really not that far-fetched. Try as he might, Tremulis couldn’t get Ford to seriously invest in the idea. A few years after the Gyron, Tremulis designed the Gyronaut X-1, a streamlined motorcycle that set a few land speed records at Bonneville.

Tremulis left Ford and teamed up with gyroscope expert Thomas Summers, who usually dealt with missiles and rockets. In 1963, Tremulis and Summers founded Gyro Transport Systems in Northridge, CA. The two secured $750,000 from investors — that’s roughly $6.3 million in today’s money — to create what was supposed to be the future of the automobile: sleek but safe, small but stylish.

Lean, Mean Driving Machine

Image via the Gyro-X Files.

The prototype was up and running by 1967, and appeared at the International Automobile show in New York. The magazine Science & Mechanics featured it in their September 1967 issue.

The Gyro-X proves that it’s possible to design an economy car without sacrificing a shred of speed or style. It could do 120 MPH with only an 80-horsepower Mini Cooper engine mounted in the back. It turned like a motorcycle, but with no leaning necessary — just turn the wheel and the gyro leans the car for you. When it was time to park, outrigger training wheels dropped down to keep it from falling over.

At just 42″ wide, two cars could fit side by side in the same lane, as dangerous as that sounds. Just before the company went under, Tremulis was working on a family version that was a whole foot wider and three feet longer — a real grocery-getter.

Gyro-assisted turning explained by Jared Owen Animations.

Of course, the real feature is the gyroscope that made this tiny two-wheeler possible in the first place. The 22″ diameter gyro sat in front, mere inches from the driver’s kneecaps.

When the car is driving in a straight line, the gyro makes micro adjustments to keep it upright. As the steering wheel is turned in either direction, the gyro moves in unison with the front wheel.

The gyroscope was hydraulically driven off the motor, and it took three full minutes to wind its way up to 6,000 RPM, so it’s not intended for quick getaways. But the gyro would keep spinning for about two hours after the car shut off. Perhaps that energy could have been used to charge a generator for an electric motor, or a battery for charging electronic devices.

Spinning Out of Control

Though the Gyro-X could do 120 MPH, it probably shouldn’t have. The two-wheeled wonder was consistently unstable at speeds over 70 MPH. Tremulis and Summers couldn’t solve the complicated engineering issues quickly enough to please the investors, who got antsy and pulled their money. By 1970, Gyro Transport Systems was out of business.

The Road to Restoration

The only Gyro-X ever produced became the custody of Thomas Summers. By 1975, he had turned it into a three-wheeler and put a Volkswagen engine in the back so he could license it in California.

The years had not been kind to the Gyro-X. Image via YouTube

It disappeared for a while and resurfaced in 1994, when a Las Vegas musician named John Windsor obtained it as payment for a debt. The car was nearly unrecognizable, and the gyro itself was long gone.

Windsor put up a video in 2009 giving a tour of the car and explaining how he came to own it. He didn’t know what he had, and so he used the internet to spread the word. It worked. The video got a bite, and Windsor sold it to a private collector, who may have bitten off more than they could chew.

In 2011, Jeff Lane, founder and director of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee bought it from the collector and started pushing the Gyro-X down the road to restoration. Lane and his crew painstakingly restored it from photos and a few known measurements, an effort that took several years and around half a million dollars. The hardest part was, of course, replacing the gyro. You can’t just find those things, not at that scale. Lane hired an Italian firm specializing in yacht-stabilizing technology to make a new gyro, and that required them to fly someone out to do digital scans of the car.

Here is a brief documentary about the restoration effort, which was filmed somewhere in the middle of the process. Below are images of the fully-restored Gyro-X, all courtesy of the Lane Motor Museum. After that, we’ve embedded some vintage footage of it whizzing around Southern California.

Thanks to [Jared Owen] and his fantastic animation channel for inspiring this post.

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

42 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: The Gyro-X

    1. This the forerunner of the Swiss-made ecomobile. An older brother that actually did make production. It was even imported for sale in the United States. There are a number of videos on YouTube. The one by a British produced program shows it righting itself after laying over and fully stopped on it’s side.
      No gyros, BMW two cyl., tandem two seater with snap out outrigger wheels when almost or completely stopped.

      1. Nice! Basically a motorcycle. However I would absolutely want to be thrown clear of a crash in that little thing instead of being trapped in a tiny fiberglass envelope. I gotta wonder what kind of advantages it would have over a motorbike, save the obvious fact that you wouldn’t get wet in the rain.

        1. “Thrown clear” is nice if you can manage it, but in practice it often translates to “Projected into obstacle at highway speed”. Trapped in fibreglass envelope or pulped by tree, still absolutely clear?

          1. Exactly. Motorcycles have basically no aerodynamics, and so even smaller, economic motorcycles capable of highway speeds rarely get better fuel-economy as a small car, and most motorcycles (Except the very large ones like a Honda Goldwing) aren’t comfortable at all at those speeds. Most long-distance riders only go at most 200 km before needing a break (I usually refuel and then stand up, while checking facebook for 5-10 minutes before continuing) and have trouble going more than 800 km a day, unless they are on a very comfortable bike and have a lot of experience doing that.
            In comparison, most people can easily drive 1000 km a day in a car without any kind of training, only needing to stop to pee and for refueling.

          2. Motorcycles get relatively lower fuel mpg because they are air-cooled. The extra fuel helps keep cyl temps down. The old vw bug got poor mileage for it’s horsepower and eng capacity. One other thing, when you go over 70% power the carb starts dumping even more fuel, an even lower air/fuel ratio just for self-preservation. I for one was always lead footing it in my day. Part of the fun of having a motorcycle was blasting around.

          3. >”The extra fuel helps keep cyl temps down.”

            What extra fuel? If you add fuel, you have to burn it, otherwise the engine will run very badly. If you burn the fuel, you make heat.

          4. This is all engine engineering 101. Look up stoichiometric, air/fuel ratios and their effect on EGT. Air-cooled engs offer lighter weight through simplicity but they have drawbacks; one being they use a much richer mixture to reduce cyl temps(preventing warped, burnt valves, burned pistons) to increase longevity. If you spilled some gasoline/methanol on your hands on a cold winter day you’ll see first hand how much heat it takes to turn liquid fuel into a vapor. There’s a reason why a VW bug with a 1000cc-1200cc gets mpg in the 20’s about the same as a 90’s 5.7L Firebird.

          5. Although the part with the richer mixture burning cooler is correct, the prerequisite of motorcycles being all air cooled is already wrong. There are many liquid cooled Motorcycles, even my smal 250cc has LC.

          6. And the reason being what I said in previous comments. Air-cooled engs are polluters until there are dramatic advances in materials technology and even then they’d be better applied to liquid cooling , in most cases.

    1. LIT hasn’t done anything with this idea in nearly 5 years. no updates of any production progress, nor any freeway speed prototypes. Like all the leaning 3 wheelers we were supposed to get from companies here in CA, they’ve all gone dark. since they’re not Tesla, there’s none of that state funded “green vehicle” cash. Zero doesn’t even get much of it and they’ve made and sold a lot of electric motorcycles.

    1. As long as it’s two wheels in the front on articulated struts, like some modern three-wheel bikes. The ones with two wheels in the back and one in the front tip over and are death traps. And they’re no fun at all. No lean. Some of my least favorite machines in the world.

  1. The wonderful thing about sixties design is how the money men were willing to take their chance on some truly bonkers ideas. The only car I know that beats this for pure impracticability is the gorgeously impractical forerunner of the Smart, the Quasar Unipower. Imagine what you’d get if you crossed the Mini with a conservatory, and that’s the Unipower. Great all round vision, turned on a dime, easy to park, but lacking in just a few of those all important safety features. If you can track down the French comedy Elle boit pas, elle fume pas, elle drague pas, mais… elle causeit makes a star appearance driven by the equally stylish Mireille Darc, otherwise you’ll just have to settle for this old British Pathe newsreel report:

    1. “The wonderful thing about sixties design is how the money men were willing to take their chance on some truly bonkers ideas”

      But had anything really changed? Today, bonkers vehicles have just been replaced by the likes of Theranos and WeWork.

  2. A gyroscope has the unfortunate effect of re-directing any force by 90 degrees rotation – so if the gyro-car hits a pothole or attempts to climb up or down a ramp, the gyroscope will cause it to bank to the side.

    That effect is probably what cause the instability above 70 mph. When the car goes up and down natural gradients along the road at enough speed, the pitching rate is enough to cause a banking motion that the control mechanism can’t compensate, and the whole thing starts to wobble dangerously.

    1. Works fine on a motorbike with those enormous custom fat wheels, which sometimes weigh hundreds of pounds. One uses gyro-steering on a motorbike exactly the same as this gyro—by trying to counter-steer the front wheel to force the bike to lean over more responsively than merely shifting one’s weight would. Push right, go right. The axis of rotation is aligned so that pitching up or down an incline doesn’t actually cause precession; to rotate the vehicle in that axis is parallel with the gyro’s axis, so it doesn’t cause any unwanted forces. Speed wobbles are a very complicated and tricky problem cause by all sorts of things, but mostly by steering geometry, aerodynamics, and strange weight distributions. I’d bet it would help a lot to move the engine forward a bit if possible.

      1. The motorcycle wheels are spinning on a different plane, and they don’t have nearly as much momentum as the gyroscope has.

        >One uses gyro-steering on a motorbike exactly the same as this gyro

        No.

          1. No.

            When you push the right handle forward, the wheel turns left, which causes the wheel to pull left. Since most of the mass of the bike is high above, pulling the wheel to the left banks the bike to the right. The rider then turns the wheel into the curve to stop it from leaning any further, and makes the turn. When the turn is complete, the rider over-steers the bike into the turn, which makes the wheel pull to the right faster than the rest of the bike can follow. This lifts the bike upright and straight again.

            This is the basic principle of counter-steering. It has nothing to do with the gyroscopic effect. It’s pure geometry. You can even cancel out the gyroscopic effect with a counter-rotating mass inside the wheel, which has been done, and it barely affects the handling. It’s just too weak of an effect with the relatively slow rotation and low angular momentum of the typical motorcycle wheel.

          2. Point being that the gyroscopic effect of the wheel only transmits whatever force your hands apply to the wheel, and you are barely applying any force at all. With 250+ pounds of bike and rider, that force is far too feeble to turn it anywhere in a hurry.

            The wheel against the road is doing 99.9% of the work of leaning the bike. You only have to steer a little, and since you’re going 10, 20, 60 mph forwards, it easily produces a sideways force at the contact patch between the wheel and the road pulling the wheel out from underneath the bike. Since the bike is like an inverted pendulum, it starts to tip over.

            If the gyroscopic effect of the wheels was strong enough to tip the bike, then you couldn’t steer it because you’d have to fight against the gyroscope with your hands. Any time the bike would lean for any reason, it would swing the handlebars around with the full force of the turn, and you can feel how heavy that would be by trying to shake and upright bike from side to side.

            It’s just a common misconception that gyroscopic precession is the reason why bikes stay up, or how they turn.

    1. Huge difference between two and three wheels. Two wheeled vehicles have been proven longer than cars have. This is essentially a motorcycle with an automated control system to keep it balanced. BMW and Honda have also made self-balancing bikes lately, although I think they use dynamic weight shifting with a PID controller rather than a gyroscope.

    2. Sorry I can’t cite a source, but reportedly JC confessed that they doctored the car to turn over for that segment. I mean, think about it; could a car _that_ unstable have been sold even back then?

  3. I was all excited when Lit Motors came out with their C-1 self balancing motorcycle – but that project is seeming dead. They told me they had over 30 sensors to monitor the twin gyroscopes used to balance their machine. Now what are the number of permutations for checking all the possible sensor values – probably in the millions. Would be some monster software. The Gyro-X is a simpler affair that uses a single gyro which is coupled to the steering so that when the car turns, the gyro gimbal is rotated to allow it to handle left and right turns without toppling over. A single gyro is much simpler in cost and operation than dual gyros. But is it stable at speed – it always seems to be driven rather carefully. I wonder, is the marine gyro built for this car a “top heavy” model that uses natural precession and a servo controlled gimbal?

    1. thing is, smaller gyros can be spun up faster. IIRC the Lit could go from “completely off” to “drive off” in 3-4 minutes. much better than the single rotor. Plus the energies involved in an accident are less. mechanically it sounds worse but when everything is electrical and electronically controlled, the system actually becomes more simple. For example, a single rotor gas powered model helicopter from the 80’s vs electric racing quads of today. 4 motors vs one. 4 spinning rotors vs 2. absolutely required to have a minimum of 2 working and precise gyros. 4 speed controllers. Yet you can get ones that outperform the previous gas powered single rotors for hundreds of dollars less, and they “bounce” a lot better. But either way I was really hoping LIT would get some of the funding that Tesla still gets, and Aptera and others burned thru. for some reason, electric motorcycles that don’t require a 3 or 5 year bank loan just don’t appeal to Sacramento’s “vision” of reducing congestion, pollution and parking problems.

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