Petersen Archive: Strange Tales of the Tropfenwagen
Is it a boat? Is it a plane? No, it’s the 1921 Rumpler Tropfenwagen. With its singular headlight, winged fins, and bizarre body, this car looked as if it belonged in another dimension, not on the sunny streets of Santa Monica, California, where Bob D’Olivo took these photographs of it in 1955. Many “strange tales” have surrounded this car. Its streamlined appearance led some to propose that it was meant to be “dropped from dirigibles,” as Editor Walt Woron noted in the September 1955 issue of Motor Trend Magazine. Others, owing to its maritime affinity, thought that it was a sea going vessel. Its futuristic appearance even earned it a role in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. The Tropfenwagen, however, was neither, a plane, a boat, nor a figment of fantasy. It was, as Motor Trend Editor Woron commented in 1955, “without a doubt, one of the most unusual and fascinating cars I’ve ever driven.”
Even apart from its appearance, the Tropfenwagen was not an ordinary car. The contemporaneous Motor Magazine nicely introduced it as “an unusual German car.” In comparison to the sedans produced nearly thirty years after it, in the background of these photographs, the Tropfenwagen still stood out. This may have been because the revolutionary car had its origins in the air, not on the road. Edmund Rumpler, a German aircraft manufacturer, first produced the Tropfenwagen in 1921. The car was, in many ways, a product of Rumpler’s aeronautic expertise. This was especially true of its strangely streamlined body. This was a major feature of the car. In 1979, Volkswagen tested the car and found that it had a drag coefficient of 0.28. This is comparable to modern-day Formula One cars which have coefficients that range from 0.19 to 1.0. To achieve such streamlining, Rumpler gave the car a new body style. From above, the car had a teardrop shape. In fact, its name, tropfen, meant “drop” as in water droplet. It featured a curved front windshield, thirteen years before Chrysler introduced it in their Airflow production cars. The rear window was a V-shaped porthole. The car also had innovative weight distribution. It had a rear-mounted engine, which the driver’s weight counterbalanced. The passenger’s seats were located between, rather than over the rear axle. Though quirky, the Tropfenwagen’s design was effective.
The car in these photographs was one of the two surviving Tropfenwagens. All ninety-eight others were destroyed during the filming of Metropolis. This car, however, was not entirely original. It did not have its original W six-cylinder engine. Instead, an air-cooled four-cylinder Continental engine powered the ponderous Tropfenwagen. This engine produced fifty horsepower, only slightly more than the original’s thirty-six. Steering the car was difficult for, as Woron observed, it had “steering rates close to zero.” Nonetheless, during the road test pictured in these photographs, Woron pushed the puttering Tropfenwagen up to 40 to 45 miles per hour. He noted that Ralph Bullion, who restored the car, brought it up to a frightening 60 miles per hour. To stop the car, Woron and Bullion had to use the foot brake and the hand brake simultaneously. For of all its faults, however, the Tropfenwagen was revolutionary. Perhaps the tales were true.