Molt Taylor's Aerocar still serves as an inspiration for the new
generation of roadable designers and dreamers.
The Aerocar flight instructions went something like this: "It's easy. It
practically flies itself. I'll tell you what to do as we go along."
In the summer of 1959, Moulton Taylor, with a little time on his hands and
the zeal of a missionary, was seeking another convert. He'd given his student, a
recent high school graduate named Ed Sweeney, the use of his Longview,
Washington sod runway to fly radio controlled model aircraft.
But this was no model. Nor was the four-wheel vehicle Sweeney steered
down the runway strictly an airplane. Had Taylor stripped the craft of its wings
and tail section, Sweeney could have signalled a couple of turns and driven into
town, as Taylor sometimes did, on a head-turning jaunt to the grocery
With Taylor at his side, Sweeney left the ground at about 55 mph. "Okay,
we're high enough," said Taylor. "Let's make a turn." Sweeney dialed the
steering wheel and the Aerocar quickly responded. The landing was equally
smooth. "Just drive it down the runway," said Taylor, "and when you're ready to
stop, simply step on the brake." Sweeney enjoyed his brief drive in the sky, but
his encounter with the Aerocar was not love at first flight. "It didn't mean all
that much to me at the time," The media has always loved flying cars,
particularly Molt Taylor's Aerocar. Taylor, the dean of roadable airplanes,
devoted most of his adult years to making the Aerocar a reality. The Aerocar IV,
is based on a Geo Metro.
Aviation historians consign the flying automobile to the oddity hangar, a
niche reserved for the Spruce Goose, the autogiro, and other noble though quirky
experiments. But if a flying car has yet to attain success, the idea of one is
still very much alive.
The thinking of the time was that there was a need for such a dual-purpose
vehicles. "Not only are roadways more congested with each passing year, but the
airlines' hub-and-spoke system has, over many mid-length routes, actually
increased travel times. But that's only part of what inspired flying car
designers. As Chuck Berry sang in his 1956 recording "You Can't Catch Me," the
ability to transform a car into a plane is liberating-freedom at the push of a
I bought a brand new Aeromobile.
Custom made, 'twas a flight de
With a powerful motor and some highway wings,
Turn offthe button
and you will hear her sing.
Now you can't catch me. Baby, you can't catch
'Cause if you get too close, you know I'm gone
......Like a cooool
But the flying car remains a romantic vision, a kind of aeronautical
mirage. The challenges of building one are perhaps exceeded only by the
challenges of selling it. Because a vehicle worthy of both land and air has
compromise written all over it, the technical challenges are numerous. The
common elements are few- fuel tank, steering wheel, passenger and baggage
compartments, wheels, and engine. For flight you need wings, ailerons, a
horizontal stabilizer, a vertical tail, rudder, elevators, and a propeller, none
of which has any business on a car. For the road, you need a drive train and
bumpers, not to mention rear-view mirror and, nowadays, catalytic converters-all
dead weight in the air. The history of flying cars can be written in a single
sentence: As airplanes, they've all been too heavy.
Still the quest goes on with imaginative and divergent approaches, which
range from simple kit-built vehicles to a James Bond-like concept -with sleek
lines and telescoping wings. (Even 007 himself hasn't seen a real flying car.
The one in The Man With the Golden Gun was a static model "flown" by Hollywood
One of the most credible still belongs to Molt Tavlor. Taylor got some
publicity through his own efforts, like storing the Aerocar in his garage. When
actor Bob Cummings acquired an Aerocar and featured it on his TV show, Taylor
hoped sales would really take off.
Taylor was revered as a kind of patron saint of the flying car. "Oh, I had a
ball," he says with a high-pitched chuckle. Visitors to his home in Longview
would hear his string of stories-like the time he got a speeding ticket in
Florida while driving an Aerocar to an auto show. And once, while delivering an
Aerocar to pilot and actor Bob Cummings, Taylor made a spur-of-the-moment stop
at an Earl Scheib paint shop. After verifying that, yes, the $39.95 two-color
rate was good for any car, Taylor had them match the yellow and green colors of
NutraBio, the vitamin company that sponsored"The Bob Cummings Show," on which
the Aerocar would thereafter regularly appear in the early 1960s. Taylor himself
was on TV countless times. His favorite appearance? The time he drove the
Aerocar onto the stage of "I've Got a Secret" and, with the help of an assistant
and while answering the questions of the blindfolded panel, went about the
car-to-plane conversion. Three minutes later there was an airplane sitting
Taylor was a gifted aeronautical engineer, "crazy about airplanes" from
adolescence. In 1942, as a Naval reservist, he became the first person to
successfully "fly" a surface-to-surface missile to its target, and the following
year, as a lieutenant commander, he headed the project that produced the first
generation of cruise missiles. His resume also includes homebuilt aircraft Re;
the Coot, an amphibious "floatwing" plane, and the Imp and Mini-Imp, two types
of one-place sportplane with an inverted V-tail. An early version of an Imp
helped launch his flying car quest. In 1946, while shopping for a plant in New
Castle, Delaware, to build an amphibious sportplane he was then calling the
Duckling, Taylor bumped into Robert E. Fulton Jr., soon to be heralded in Life
magazine for his flying car, the Airphibian.
Taylor was impressed with Fulton's incarnation of a winged automobile as
was the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which later awarded it a type certificate, the
first of only two flying cars ever certified for production (the other was
I saw it fly and watched him leave the wings and tail behind
and drive off in the car," says Taylor. "I thought that a good idea. But I can
do better." Taylor reasoned that if the whole idea of a flying car was that it
would give you the freedom to go where you pleased when you pleased, then
leaving behind the flight components was a less than optimal engineering
solution. His design put the wings, tail, and rear-mounted propeller into a
trailer towed behind the car.
To keep the weight down, Taylor fashioned the car's outer panels out of
fiberglass, years before the Corvette startled the automotive world with its
composite skin. And, because the rear wheels were used for landing, the Aerocar
employed what was then an automotive oddity: front wheel drive.The toughest
engineering challenge proved to be dampening the power pulses, or torsional
resonance, in the 10-foot-long drive shaft connecting the Aerocar's Lycoming
engine to its pusher propeller. After months of investigating vibration dampers,
Taylor read about a littleknown French dry fluid coupling called a Flexidyne. In
this clutch, tiny steel shot was packed into a nearly solid mass that absorbed
the engine's power pulses.
Taylor's Aerocar Incorporated turned out a prototype and four more examples
of the design known as Aerocar 1. In 1961, Portland, Oregon radio station KISN
bought one for traffic reporting. That was also the year Taylor first glimpsed a
bit of financial blue sky. He'd struck a deal with Ling-Temco-Vought, a
Dallas-based company. They'd build 1,000 Aerocars at a projected cost of about
$8,500 apiece, provided he could round up 500 firm orders. In two weeks he
collected 278 deposits of $1,000 each and forwarded the money. But without
another 222 orders, the deal fizzled.
Nine years later, Taylor's hopes rose again when Ford Motor Company took
an interest in the Aerocar 111. (the Aerocar 11 was a four-passenger flight-only
fuselage.) The Model III had fully retractable wheels, which cut drag and
boosted cruise speed 10 percent to nearly 120 mph. Lee Iacocca sent Donald
Petersen, a vice president of product planning and research (and later the
company's chairman), and Dick Place, a Ford executive with a pilots license, to
meet with Taylor in Longview.
Place's logbook dates his Aerocar flight to August 1970. He recalls being
sufficiently impressed with both the flight and highway performance to suggest
that Ford "at least take the next step or two investigating the possibilities."
But in the face of the oil crisis and increased importation of Japanese cars,
the company's interest cooled. And Place speculates that the career-minded
Petersen probably didn't want to be "weighed down with advocacy of what most
people would think of as a harebrained device."
Taylor made headlines with his Aerocars, but no money. In his basement was a
huge library of videotapes, most of them made from Super-8 footage. "Look at it
go, boy," he would say. "Now watch how smooth it lands. "'Here's Taylor, wearing
a fedora, standing on the old sod runway. He hears himself pounce on an
interviewer's question: "If it weren't for us nuts, you'd still be reading from
candlelight and wearing button shoes.... The flying automobile is the future. It
The marriage of automobile and airplane began early in the history of both
vehicles. In 1917, just 14 years after the Wrights first flew and nine years
after Henry Ford introduced the Model T, visitors to the Pan-American Aeronautic
Exposition in New York City gaped at a hybrid called the Autoplane. Built by the
Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, the Autoplane was a three-seat car design
(in front sat a pilot/chauffeur, hence the nickname Flying Limousine) topped
with triplane wings spanning 40 feet. It flew, but never well enough to muster
Top Speed ........Over 110
Cruising Speed ....Over 100 MPH
Rate of Climb (I st Min @ full
load) ...Over 550 FPM
Service Ceiling @ full load ...Over 12,000 Ft,
.....Over 300 Miles
Landing Speed .... 50 MPH
Landing Run (with normal braking) ...300 Ft.
Take-off Run .....
Distance to Clear 50 ft. Obstacle .....1225 Ft.
Road Speed (Engine red line)...67 MPH
Road Range .....Over 400
Fuel Consumption (Cruising)......8 GPH
Road Fuel ConsumptTon
Time to Change from Plane to Car ......Five Min.
In 1937 airplane designer Waldo Waterman rekindled interest in a flying car
with his Arrowbile, a refinement of an earlier attempt he'd called the
Arrowplane. Its three-wheel design sufficed for short drives to the airport; it
fared worse on the open road. Airborne, it was said to be nearly stall-proof and
impossible to spin.
The 1940s was the golden age of the flying automobile. The post-World War
II boom in private aviation gave birth not only to Molt Taylor's Aerocar but to
Robert Fulton's Airphibian in 1946 and the ConVairCar the following year.
Fulton's craft flew well enough to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics
Administration, and, with its propeller detached and flight unit removed, drove
well enough to negotiate city traffic. The ConVairCar concept added a new twist:
It topped a two-door sedan with a flight unit containing its own powerplant,
which car owners would rent at the airport. Its creators talked of cars priced
at $1,500 based on production runs of 160,000, but talk ended after the
ConVair-Car crashed on its third flight, out of fuel because its pilot had
reportedly eyed the auto fuel gauge instead of the aero gauge.
In the 1950s and'60s, Leland Bryan produced a series of highway-certified
folding-wing Roadables that used their pusher propellers for both air and road
power. Bryan died in the crash of his Roadable III in 1974. And in 1973, Henry
Smolinski, mimicking the ConVaii-Car rental unit concept, fastened the wings,
tail, and aft engine of a Cessna Skymaster to a Ford Pinto. The wing struts
collapsed on its first test flight, killing Smolinski and the pilot.
me, its simply a question of time," says Branko, Sarh, a senior engineer at
McDonnell Douglas Aerospace in Long Beach, California. As a teenager in Germany,
Sarh was sketching flying car designs long before he ever heard of Molt Taylor.
He studied aircraft and automotive design in college, and at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology in the early 1980s he began concentrating on composites
and automation, two key elements of his futuristic Advanced Flying
"If someone today says flying cars, everyone looks backward, into history,"
Sarh says. "Oh, they were produced already: Curtiss and Taylor and ConVair. All
these were excellent pioneering efforts. It was perfect to prove that a car can
fly, but that's all they proved." Sarh feels the time is ripe-thanks in part to
recent advances in lightweight composites and computer modelling techniques-for a
major leap, well beyond some warmed-over newsreel version, to an entirely new
flying car concept. His design, unlike most, puts the car before the airplane.
His reasoning: "People will mainly see this vehicle on the ground. This must be
a perfect car, first of all. The styling must be superb."
A similar lack of funding has stalled Ken Wernicke's Aircar, which last year
made the covers of both Popular Mechanics and a special issue of Discover.
Known as "Mr. Tiltrotor" at Bell Helicopter Textron, where he worked for
35 years, Wernicke was lead engineer on the XV-15 and director of the V-22
Osprey Tiltrotor. He took early retirement in 1990.and formed Sky Technology,
based in Hurst, Texas. He put its mission right on the company's letterhead:
Specializing in Revolutionary Aircraft. Case in point: the Aircar.
The concept of vehicles that could transform themselves from automobiles to
airplanes dates back to the earliest days that the two both existed. The
ubiquitous Glenn Curtiss produced a design for a three-seat flying car in time
for the Pan-American Aeronautic Exposition in New York in February 1917. It
flew, but poorly, and was scrapped. Subsequent literature ranges from stories of
backyard tinkerers to the fantasies that Ian Fleming imagined to get James Bond
out of tight situations. There was, of course, Waldo Waterman's
Studebaker-engined Arrowbile in 1937 and the Pitcairn PA-36 Whirlwing of 1939, a
mongrel autogiro that was actually designed by Juan de la Cierva.
Despite the alluring appeal of these vehicles, they are an instance where
theory and practicality never crossed paths. In the optimistic days after World
War II, however, anything seemed possible. Technology promised backyard
heliports and suggested that ownership of private airplanes would be as common
in the late 1940s its automobile ownership had been in the 1930s. It was only
reasonable, therefore, to predict a solid market for flying cars. Dozens were
proposed, and some were actually built and flight tested.
The Boggs Airmaster, designed by HD Boggs and marketed by Buzz
Hershfield, included a 16 foot car with a 35 foot wingspan powered by a 145 hp
engine, but it was never built, The Spratt Controllable Wing car, which appeared
in late 1945, featured a pusher prop and a flexible wing mounted on a swivel
behind the two-passenger cab. George Spratt later teamed up with William B Stout
(who had merged his Stout Aircraft Company into Consolidated Vultee), in a vain
effort to market the vehicle under the tradename Skycar.
The unique Hervey Travelplane, which also appeared in 1947, had a
single dural tail boom which passed through the pusher propeller shaft to
support the tail surfaces. The propeller was, in turn, driven by a 200 hp Ranger
engine that promised four hours of air time at 125 mph. Designed by George
Hervey of Roscoe, California, the Travelplane had a 16 foot automobile and a 36
foot wingspan. Conversion from airplane to automobile took six minutes when
Hervey demonstrated it.. although customers might spend a bit more time -an hour
or so- until they learned the ropes. The wings could then be stored in a
'convenient' trailer unit. There was no provision, however, for airlifting the
The Whitaker-Zuck Planemobile was 19 feet long, with 32.5 feet of
folding wings. Built in 1947, it solved the problem of what to do with the wings
by simply folding them across its back, to be carried like a hermit crab carries
his shell. The Taylor Aerocar, built by Molton Tavlor of Longview. Washington in
1949, was a V-talled bird whose wings folded neatly into a self contained
trailer for easy towing.
Robert E Fulton's FA-3 Airphibian
was not amphibious but rather
'airphibious,' a two-place airplane whose forward fuselage could simply 'drive
away' from the rest of the airplane upon landing. It first flew on 7 November
1946, but never progressed beyond the prototype stage.
Of all the projects that developed in those idealistic days after the war,
there were none that came so close to getting into the commercial mainstream
than the creations of Theodore P 'Ted' Hall, an engineer at Consolidated Vultee
Aircraft in San Diego, who quit his job at the end of the war to pursue his
dream. Joined by Tommy Thompson, a friend and former Consolidated colleague,
Hall began work on his dream in 1945. Forming the light-gauge aluminum sheets
with a rubber hammer around a tube steel framework, Hall, Thompson and their
small crew set about to hand make the first prototype. They picked a 90 hp
Franklin to power the airplane part, and lifted a four-cylinder 26.5 hp engine
from an old Crosley auto for the car half. In fact their compact little vehicle,
whose interior was about the same size as a Volkswagen 'Beetle.' looked a bit
like a Crosley, except for its being, mounted on a three-wheel chassis.
Having completed the Hall Flying Car, the southern California
entrepreneurs successfully test flew it, and wound up being the subject of a
feature in a 1946 issue of Popular Science magazine. In the meantime, Hall and
Thompson had been beating the bushes for someone who would underwrite the
production of their brainchild. A proposed deal with Portable Products
Corporation in Garland, Texas had gone by the wayside, when Hall struck a deal
with his former employer.
Suffering a severe sag in airplane orders because of the end of the war.
Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (now known as Convair) was keen for new business,
and the conventional wisdom was that the United States was on the threshold of
an unprecedented boom in general aviation. Every major airplane manufacturer was
anxious to cash in on the 'airplane in every garage' future, and Convair was no
different. so they bought out Ted Hall and moved the project into their main
plant at Lindbergh Field near San Diego. Convair predicted a huge market for
Hall's vehicle among travelling salesmen. They even went so far as to buy the
Stinson Aircraft Company-a well-known general aviation manufacturer-as a conduit
for producing and marketing it. They also had acquired Stout Aircraft, which
was, as noted above. also involved in a similar project.
Who wouldn't stop
and look over these 1950s ads for the Aerocar !
A second version of the Flying Car was developed, which differed from the
original by its having a conventional fourwheel layout on the car, and a single,
rather than double, rudder arrangement. This craft, now designated as the
Convair Model 118 ConvAirCar. was ready to fly in July 1946. Hall and a Convair
test pilot took it up to 2006 feet, made a couple of turns over ihe field and
touched down. Convair management was delighted- They predicted minimum sales of
160,000 units with a retail price tag of $1500- The wings would be extra.. but
you could pick those up at any airport on a one-way rental basis.
Ultimately, however, only two Model 118s were built, with the second being
completed in 1947. This ConvAir-Car incorporated the fibreglass body envisioned
for the production models and had a 190 hp Pratt & Whitney radial engine
that could propel the vehicle at 125 mph in the air.
Early in November 1947 misfortune struck, The second ConvAirCar took off on a
routine flight during which the pilot misjudged his fuel. They ran out of gas
and were forced to make an emergency landing on a dirt road. The pilot walked
away, but the wings sheared off and the fibreglass body was beyond repair.
In a decision based on the publicity surrounding the crash and the huge
number of cheap former-military airplanes flooding the market, Convair abandoned
the programme and sold the hardware back to Ted Hall. He is reported to have
retired to New York, although the prototype ConvAirCars are reported to be in a
warehouse in El Cajon. California.
The end of the ConvAirCar was really the end of practical hope for flying
cars in the United States. If a company like Convair, with all its resources
couldn't do it, then it probably wasn't going to be economically viable. In
retrospect. there is a certain allure held bv flying cars on a warm summer
evening in Southern California, but when one pictures 160,000-or even 160-flying
cars airborne during a January storm over Chicago, New York or London, the idea
is a lot less practical. In the very areas where the people live who would make
use of flying cars, the airspace is much loo crowded for such flimsy craft flown
by pilots with marginal experience.