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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 store.
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 button:
I bought a brand
Custom made, 'twas a flight de ville.
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 me.
'Cause if you get too close, you know I'm gone
......Like a cooool breeze.
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 special effects.).
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-colour
rate was good for any car, Taylor had them match the
yellow and green colours 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 favourite 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 there.
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.
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 Taylor's
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
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 little-known
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
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."
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 serious interest.
Top Speed ........Over
Cruising Speed ....Over 100 MPH
Rate of Climb (I st Min @ full load) ...Over 550 FPM
@ full load ...Over 12,000 Ft,
Cruise Range .....Over 300 Miles
Landing Speed .... 50 MPH
(with normal braking) ...300 Ft.
Take-off Run ..... 650 Ft.
Distance to Clear 50 ft. Obstacle .....1225 Ft.
Designed Road Speed (Engine red line)...67 MPH
Road Range .....Over 400 Miles
Fuel Consumption (Cruising)......8 GPH
Road Fuel Consumption ......18 MPG
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
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.
"To 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 Automobile.
"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.
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
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 trade name Skycar.
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
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
Robert E Fulton's FA-3
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 aluminium 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
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
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 four-wheel
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 the
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.
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.