You’re late. You’re stuck in traffic. It’s bumper to bumper, and there’s no escape. How many times have you been in a seemingly never-ending jam and fantasized that your car could just take off and fly away? It’s a dream many gridlocked drivers in a hurry have envisaged at some point. But for some, it was more than a dream. It was an ambition.
From as early as the 1930s, when cars and planes were both still in their early stages, some enterprising inventors tried their hand at designing and building roadable aircraft – or flying cars – with varying levels of success. Here’s a look at 10 of our favorites.
10. The Taylor Aerocar
The Taylor Aerocar (or Aerocar International’s Aerocar) was a good idea that never really got off the ground, so to speak. The origins of this nifty-looking automobile can be traced back to 1946, when aeronautical engineer Moulton Taylor met inventor Robert Edison Fulton, Jr., in Delaware.
Fulton had created the Airphibian (which we’ll come across a bit later), and after the two gentlemen had spoken, Taylor was inspired to design and produce his own, better flying car. He’d been an engineer working on missiles in WWII, so he had plenty of mechanical knowledge.
With the Airphibian design as his starting point, Moulton’s changes included swapping the detachable wings for foldable versions and switching to a body made mostly of fiberglass – so the vehicle was lighter. The first Aerocar, the N4994P, came out in 1949 and could reach air speeds of 160 mph.
Over the years, six versions of the car were built. Designed in 1960, the N102D (pictured here) still flies to this day. But although plans were made to put this hybrid automobile into production, in the end there weren’t enough potential buyers to make more than the original six models.
9. The AVE Mizar
This groovy-looking ‘70s car looks even groovier with wings! Essentially, it’s a Ford Pinto attached to a Cessna Skymaster. The contraption was called the AVE Mizar (with AVE standing for Advanced Vehicle Engineers). The founder of AVE, Henry Smolinski, created the Mizar between 1971 and 1973. His invention had detachable wings that could be kept in the trunk – which must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
Sadly for Smolinski, detachable wings have their drawbacks. On August 26, 1973, test pilot Charles “Red” Janisse was at the controls when he experienced problems with the support to the right wing and had to land in a field.
Then on September 11 of the same year, the right wing again ran into trouble, this time with the Mizar being piloted by Smolinki. The issue sent the car, Smolinski and his associate Harold Blake crashing to the ground. Both pilot and passenger died in the accident, which was blamed on poor design, loose parts and bad welds – three traits you definitely don’t want in an aircraft.
8. The Piasecki AirGeep (PA-59K)
In 1957, the US Army wanted a new air vehicle that was capable of delivering atomic weapons, so a competition was held for its design. The Army competition yielded three winners, but out of these, only one, the PA-59K (also known as the AirGeep), was fully developed and tested.
In keeping with the Army’s requirements, the AirGeep was capable of vertical take-off and landing. With its two enclosed horizontal rotors, it could fly close to the ground, maneuver through trees, and reach airspeeds of up to 75 mph.
However, even though the AirGeep possessed all these attributes, in the end, the Army decided that mechanically it wasn’t up to the challenge of operating in field situations. Instead, they decided to pursue the development of regular helicopters. The version seen here is the Piasecki AirGeep II, which was first flown in February 1962.
7. The Convair 118
Like the Taylor Aerocar, the Convair 118 was conceived as a flying car for ordinary consumers. And as you can see from this photograph, it really does look like a family car with wings. Inventor and Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (later Convair) engineer Theodore P. “Ted” Hall along with Tommy Thompson debuted the first prototype, the Convair 116, in 1946. The 116 featured a detachable tail and wings plus a wooden propeller but was later developed and improved upon, resulting in the 118. The later model boasted both a more powerful engine for flight and a superior car body, and the idea was to make 160,000 of these flying automobiles.
One of the downfalls of the Convair 118 project ended up being human error. On November 15, 1947, test pilot Reuben Snodgrass neglected to put enough petrol in the tank of the prototype prior to take-off. Mistakenly, he confused the separate aircraft and car fuel gauges. Snodgrass was forced to make an emergency landing that ended up damaging the wing and completely wrecking the body of the car.
Although another prototype was made, interest in the project declined. After Convair backed out, Hall tried to revive the 118 but failed to get his creation into production.
6. Jess Dixon’s Flying Automobile
This fantastic-looking photograph dates back to around 1940. We love the way pilot and inventor Jess Dixon is dressed like he’s on his way to the office, complete with suit and fedora hat.
Sadly, there aren’t many details about this fabulous machine. There is a note accompanying the photograph that says it was built by Jess Dixon of Andalusia, Alabama and which claims the vehicle could drive on roads and fly at speeds of up to 100 mph. It also alleges that, once in the air, the car could move forwards, backwards, upwards and even hover. It may never have truly existed, but we’d certainly like to think it did.
5. The Curtiss-Wright VZ-7
Much like the AirGeep, the Curtiss-Wright VZ-7 was made with a military objective in mind. Aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright built two prototypes that were readied for the US Army in 1958. Each of the vehicles had four propellers, and they were reportedly both easy to fly and capable of hovering.
Judging from the photos, the Curtiss-Wright “flying jeep” looked like something out of an early, low-budget science-fiction flick. The design was extremely basic. It included a seat for the pilot, flight controls, fuel and lubricant tanks attached to the body of the aircraft, and four uncovered propellers that were fixed to a central airframe.
As well as being basic looking, the VZ-7 was far from lightning-fast: its top speed was a mere 32 mph. And with its limited capabilities in terms of both speed and altitude, in the end, the US Army judged the aircraft to be inadequate for their purposes. Thus, the two early prototypes were the only models ever made.
4. The Waterman Arrowbile
A single-engine, tailless, two-seat design, the Waterman Arrowbile was realized by Waldo Waterman. One variation Waterman created was known as the Aerobile (although he referred to it as the W-5), and it has the dubious distinction of appearing on Time magazine’s list of the “50 Worst Cars of All Time.”
It all started when Waterman built an aircraft he whimsically named the Waterman Whatsit. This early design led to the development of the Arrowplane (W-4), a flying aircraft with tricycle wheels that Waterman entered in the Vidal Safety Airplane Competition in 1935. Encouraged by the Arrowplane’s success, Waterman went on to create the more roadable version, the Arrowbile.
In all, six versions of the Arrowbile were built, with the first one flown in 1937 and the last completed and tested in 1957. The third of them is pictured above, and you can see the single headlight, radiator grille and car-like doors highlighting its resemblance to standard automobiles.
However, despite safe flight tests, buyers weren’t forthcoming, and Waterman’s flying car was never produced on a large scale.
3. The Gwinn Aircar
This cute little snub-nosed plane looks like something straight out of a children’s book. In 1935, WWI pilot Joseph M. Gwinn, Jr., who had spent time as Chief Engineer at Consolidated Aircraft, founded the Gwinn Aircar Company in Buffalo, New York. By 1937, Gwinn had finished work on the Gwinn Aircar, and the vehicle’s first flight was carried out early that year.
The Gwinn Aircar was meant to be a straightforward aircraft with a tricycle undercarriage that would be safe and easy to fly. It could fly at up to 118 mph and is said to have fared well on land as well as in the air. Even so, only two prototypes were ever made.
Unfortunately, in August 1938, during the car’s sales tour, multitasking pilot and Gwinn Aircraft Vice-President and Sales Manager Frank Hawks crashed into power lines just after takeoff, killing himself and his passenger. The remaining prototype was donated to Consolidated Aircraft, which later became Convair, the producer of the Convair 118.
2. The Autogiro Company of America AC-35
Here’s another roadable plane that never made it past the prototype stage: the Autogiro AC-35. Completed in 1936, the Autogiro was developed as the aerial equivalent of the Ford Model T. With rotors that could be folded back, and using its rear-wheel drive, the AC-35 could move along the ground at 25 mph, while it had an air cruising speed of 75 mph.
The biggest obstacle for this flying car’s popularity seems to have been its price – a hefty $12,500, which today would be the equivalent of well over $200,000. Although it operated well, with the arrival of practical helicopters, the Autogiro was another invention destined to become a museum piece. Today, it sits in the Smithsonian Institute, never to be flown again.
1. The Fulton Airphibian
This incredible aircraft is the Fulton Airphibian. Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. created it in 1946, and like the AVE Mizar, it had detachable wings and could be transformed into a rather funny looking car. In this case, the wings were made out of fabric.
Using the bodies of aluminum cars together with airplane wheels, Fulton built four models, and in 1950, one of them was certified as an aircraft. However, for financial reasons, Fulton had to sell the company before the Airphibian could be developed any further. One of the prototypes now sits in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian.
Despite the dreams of their designers and manufacturers, none of these flying cars ever made it into mass production. Even so, the dream is still alive. Today, companies are still working to develop vehicles that can travel on land and through the air – and be marketed to mainstream consumers.
Perhaps one day the ambitious dreams of inventors like Waldo Waterman and Henry Smolinski will finally be realized, and traffic jams really will be a thing of the past. Blade Runner? The Fifth Element? We can only hope.