Fact or Fiction? 17 Flying Cars: A Mostly Factual History of Airborne Autos
Car owners have been fantasizing about a vehicle that could take them out of their driveways and into the wild blue yonder for decades. With the debut of the Terrafugia Transition, a prototype with a stratospheric price to match, The Daily Beast rounds up 17 cars, some of them fictional, that almost made it, and some that still might.
Who doesn’t want to take a summer road trip from Florida to the Bahamas, or leapfrog rush hour traffic at the press of a button? The New York Auto Show was abuzz this week with talk of the
Terrafugia Transition, a two seater with a sticker price of more than a quarter of a million dollars that’s said to be just as at home among the clouds as on the interstate.
The idea of the flying car is almost as old as the idea of mass-produced automobiles and civilian aeronautics. At the turn of the 20th century, Americans may have been able to get a Model T in any color they wanted so long as it was black, but they also wanted a motorcar with wings, and the fantasy of a popular vehicle that can take to the skies has lingered in the popular imagination ever since. There have been plenty of attempts since the first flying plane was unveiled nearly 100 years ago, but the same design and business challenges remain. A flying car has never been successfully made for the mass market, and yet, as The Daily Beast’s list shows, the dream of leaving one’s garage and heading into the blue is as strong as ever.
The Curtiss Autoplane – 1917
Nearly 100 years ago, aeronautics pioneer Glenn Curtiss showed up at the New York Pan-American Aeronautical Exposition with his Model 11 Autoplane, widely considered to be the first serious attempt at a car equally comfortable on the wing and the runway. What it lacked in aesthetic appeal it made up for in ingenuity, and the boxy aluminum vehicle made headlines. Powered by a four-bladed propeller that sat behind the cab, the Autoplane was 27 feet long and had a wingspan that stretched more than 40 feet. Curtiss made a short flight in his winged car, but the first patent for a flying automobile went to competing inventor Felix Longobardi in 1918.
The Dymaxion Car – 1933
The designer, architect, and futurist who invented the geodesic dome, Buckminster Fuller, designed the Dymaxion car in 1933. The cigar-shaped vehicle could hit speeds of 90 miles an hour, averaged 30 miles to the gallon, and could make effortless u-turns on its three wheels. Fuller had hopes that his car would take to the skies in the style of a modern jump jet, but his plans were hampered by the lack of the necessary jet engines and other materials. The idea was ahead of its time, and the Dymaxion was laid to rest after a prototype crashed outside the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
Airphibian – 1946
In 1950, the Airphibian became the first flying automobile to be approved for civilian use by the government. The detachable wings could be taken on and off by a solo driver in five minutes, allowing the casual commuter and weekend pilot to go it alone. And yet the vehicle, designed by Robert Edison Fulton, was really little more than a small propeller plane with detachable wings, and failed to find a market. Like many other aero-car designs, the Airphibian was weighed down by its mix of automobile and airplane parts. The Airphibian got a little extra attention when Charles Lindbergh took it for a ride in 1950.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images Convaircar – 1947
This one is pretty much a car with an airplane plopped on top of it. While many early attempts at flying cars were criticized for the motley ways they mixed elements of automobile design with spare plane parts, Henry Dreyfuss seems to have decided to rig up a vehicle that was unambiguously half of each. While the possibility of, say, parallel parking the car seems to have been outright ignored, the contraption had a certain utilitarian charm. Dreyfuss was something of a well-known inventor, but that did little to help him salvage the Convaircar’s reputation after one went down in a test flight.
Taylor Aerocar – 1959
The Aerocar was one of a few other flying cars approved by the government. Inspired by a chance meeting between inventor Moulton Taylor and Airphibian designer Robert Fulton, the Aerocar sported detachable wings and tail. Five Aerocars were produced, and while four of them wound up in museums, one was in semi-active use through at least 2002, when
Ed Sweeney of Florida would snap on the wings for flights with his wife between Daytona Beach and Orlando, Florida. “They would report me as traffic to other aircraft,” Sweeney said of air traffic controllers. “You have an automobile in your 9 o’clock position.” <em>The Absent-Minded Professor</em> – 1961
After Buckminster Fuller, the animator, producer, and imagineer who gave us Mickey Mouse was undoubtedly the single best known American futurist of the past century, corrupting the minds of the youth with dreams of flying cars for decades. Through his films and his theme parks, Walt Disney envisioned the world of tomorrow as he would have liked it to be. In his studio’s 1961 original black and white version of
The Absent-Minded Professor, audiences were treated to Professor Brainard’s experiments with “flying rubber,” or flubber, with which the hare-brained chemist powers his Model T. Hanna-Barbera / Courtesy Everett Collection The Jetsons – 1962
For many Baby Boomers, the idea of a
flying car was defined by the television show The Jetsons. Living 100 years in the future, the cartoon family enjoyed a life of ease facilitated by holograms, robot servants, and, of course, flying cars. As is the case with many of the utopian prophecies, such as the 9-hour work week, that were the Jetsons stock-in-trade, the failure of cars to take to the air continues to perturb many Boomers. <em>Chitty Chitty Bang Bang</em> – 1968
Movie audiences were delighted to meet a flying car with a personality in this 1968 musical, scripted by novelist Roald Dahl and based on a book by Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. If that isn’t zeitgeist enough for you, Dick Van Dyke plays the eccentric inventor at the wheel of the fantastic vehicle, in which he travels with his two children–in the form of a story within a story–on a series of adventures in the fairy tale land of Vulgaria.
AVE Mizar – 1971
Advanced Vehicle Engineers rolled out its flying car prototype, the AVE Mizar, between 1971 and 1973. Perhaps taking a hint from the Convaircar, the Mizar wedded the flying power of a Cessna Skymaster with the body of a Ford Pinto. Designed by Henry Smolinksi, the idea was to work with cars that were already being commercially produced and attach wings and a tail. The Mizar came to a quick end, however, when Smolinski and other Mizar designers were killed in a crash in September 1973.
Paramount / Courtesy Everett Collection <em>Grease</em> – 1978
Why 70s fan favorite
Grease ends with Danny and Sandy taking off in a flying car, the world of moviegoers may never know. That the red and chrome convertible carries them away from the divided world of high school is, one supposes, somehow romantic. Yet, there is a way in which it makes perfect sense to tie together summer days and hovering muscle cars. Turbo-charged automobiles have always been closely tied to the impulse to escape in America, and what’s a better means of escape than a car that can fly? <em>Back to the Future</em> – 1989
Nothing bridges the generational divide like shared disappointment over cars that refuse to fly. As the
Jetsons were to one generation, so was Back to the Future to their children. Doc Brown’s struggle to get his DeLorean time machine aloft constitutes a major plot point in the Back to the Future trilogy, as the Doc and Marty McFly hop through time and space. Aerocar 2000
Designed by Ed Sweeney, the man who still navigates the skies in his Taylor-designed Aerocar, the Aerocar 2000 is similar to the Mizar in that it features wings and tail attached to a redesigned Lotus Elite. The one-passenger roadable aircraft has a maximum flight range of 300 miles.
Kevin Smith’s “The Flying Car”
This six-minute short by
Clerks director Kevin Smith gave flying cars a slacker twist. While stuck in traffic, actors Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson split hairs on the merits of a flying car, arguing over which of them would be willing to sacrifice one of their feet for “the fire from Olympus that is the flying car.” Without a flying car, the characters theorize, mankind will “continue on its downward spiral into entropy and mass extinction.” Moller Skycar M400 - 2003
Finally, a flying car the whole family can enjoy. This four-seater is designed to fly 750 miles and reach speeds of up to 375 miles per hour as well as take off and land vertically. The Skycar has been under development for years, and is estimated to cost around half a million dollars. Prototypes of the Skycar have struggled to actually get into the sky, however, despite the more than $200 million and 50 years designer Paul Moller has poured into his invention.
The X-Hawk – 2009
This is a flying car with a purpose. Rafi Yoeli of Israel designed the X-Hawk primarily for use in urban areas to rescue people trapped in burning high rises or for troop extraction in combat zones. While the car has only reached heights of about three feet so far in tests, the X-Hawk is designed to reach altitudes of 12,000 feet and maneuver with the speed and agility of a helicopter. Stripped of any exposed propellers, the X-Hawk also looks more like the flying car your parents told you we should have by now.
Textron’s Flying Car - 2010
Some may say that the attempt to design a flying car is a foolish waste of valuable resources on a project that lacks any sort of practical application. Sounds like a job for the guys at the Pentagon! In 2010, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which takes on some of the military’s most high-profile hush-hush projects, put out a submission call for a Humvee that could get a bird’s eye view when necessary. One company, Textron, produced plans for a rugged land vehicle with unfolding wings and helicopter prop that could loft the craft into the air at a moment’s notice.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images Terrafugia Transition – 2012
The latest edition to the world of flying cars, this two-seat, four-wheel vehicle was classified a Light Sport Aircraft by the FAA, an important step toward getting the thing in the driveways of millionaires everywhere. The car is scheduled to be available as early as the end of 2012, and 100 orders for the vehicle have already been accepted. The Transition was designed by a team of MIT graduates, and features folding wings, an engine that runs on unleaded gasoline, and features common to most cars today, like a GPS system.