1926 Burney Streamliner

Early automobile developers utilized the only tech available to them—buggies and bicycles. Just swapping horses for horsepower was such a breakthrough, it took a while before they thought to look at those new-fangled airships for inspiration. But, as speeds increased, flying machines appeared to offer a solution. After all, a car traveling at 60 miles per hour expends most of its energy just pushing through the air. That’s why today’s wind tunnel-tested autos have evolved to resemble indistinguishable jellybeans.

Burney Streamliner engine open

What happens when an automobile designer applies aerodynamic principles? English airship designer Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney was determined to find out, saying “I want to show that a properly streamlined car would score over its more conventional competitors.” Of course, Burney wasn't alone in his search.

Austro-Hungarian Paul Jaray conducted similar experiments that resulted in his striking, rear-engined Tatra T-77. Instructed by Adolf Hitler to copy the Tatra's layout, Ferdinand Porsche created a tiny economy streamliner that became the legendary Volkswagen "Beetle." Visionary dreamer Buckminster Fuller conceived and built three Dymaxion cars using similar aircraft-inspired thinking as did airplane designer Bill Stout when he introduced his hand-built Scarab in 1932. While these cars appeared during the 1930s, Burney introduced his aerodynamic sedan in 1926.

Burney Streamliner cutaway view

Like most early streamlining proponents, Burney placed his car’s engine in the rear to maintain the smallest possible frontal aspect. Hanging a heavy, cast iron engine aft of its rear wheels brought squirrely handling to the nearly twenty foot long streamliner. But if an occasional spinout rattled a driver’s nerves, the solution was close at hand  - a built-in cocktail cabinet behind a rear door. The other rear door provided handy stowage for a spare tire.

Burney Streamliner side shot

Though Sir Burney eventually produced twelve cars that were received favorably enough to count notables like the Prince of Wales as owners, he wasn't interested in manufacturing. The twin-cam, straight-eight-powered Streamliners were built to promote his patents for licensing. British car body builder Crossley took the bait and introduced a smaller, more practical version based on Burney’s patents.

Today, a few Crossley streamliners survive to confound car show attendees, but not a single Burney is known to exist. So if, while prowling through an abandoned barn some day, you happen upon a dusty, teardrop-shaped car with a cocktail cabinet tucked into a rear door, you will have discovered the great grandfather of today’s ubiquitous streamlined car.

Written by Jim Cherry