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John W. Pitts’ Sky Cars – Eccentric Flight in a Roundabout Way

Pitts Skycar

To quote Henry David Thoreau, inventor John W. Pitts certainly listened to “the beat of a different drummer,” which became apparent when studying his off-beat inventions. While living in Hueneme, CA, in 1897 he invented and patented a motor located inside of a floating buoy that was powered by wave or tide energy. Later in Bisbee, AZ, in 1911, he designed and patented an odd six-stroke horizontal engine apparently without any form of an exhaust to the atmosphere.

  • The lead image press image of the “Sky Car” – Cycle and Automotive Trade Journal, April 27, 1927.

John W. Pitts Six-Stroke Engine

  • Pitts patented this unusual horizontally opposed six-stroke engine in 1911.

In 1924, while living in Detroit, MI, he patented a design for converting a rotary motion into reciprocating motion, while also providing for rotating motion that would allow his invention to both spin and cycle up and down. This arrangement drove an umbrella-like device with internal vanes that acted as a propeller of sorts that Pitts hoped would make his “Sky Car” fly via a vertical take off.

The “Sky Car” in the newsreel film above was powered a four-cylinder engine. It did get off the ground by roughly eight inches or so and the “flight” ended. It was obviously staged for the camera and unwisely located right next to a tree. No documentation has been found that positively links it to Pitts other than the name on the side of the mechanical creature.

Another newsreel film exists showing a demonstration in Detroit, of an “Umbrella Helicopter” at .33 seconds into the video, this contraption has been attributed to Pitts. The mechanical oddball is based on a stronger double frame with three wheels and spring suspension. This “Sky Car” used the same chain drive mechanism as the other machine, but utilized a much more powerful WWI surplus Curtiss OX-5 V-8. In this attempt, it did not get off of the ground.

If you can tell us more about these oddities or Pitts, please do.

  • Patent drawing filed on Feb. 25, 1924 for Pitts’ Mechanical Movement attached to an engine.

John W. Pitts rotary motion and reciprocatory motion machine


15 responses to “John W. Pitts’ Sky Cars – Eccentric Flight in a Roundabout Way

  1. Thanks David, for a good chuckle on a dreary winter’s day in the Badger. We laugh, ( and that contraption was the target of ridicule for many ads) but these guys were totally serious about what they were doing. Granted, this particular invention ( where I’m sure this saying came from) ” never really got off the ground”, ( looks like the front axle is bending in the short time it operated) it was trial and error, and clearly, this wasn’t the way to go, but you had to start somewhere. Thx.

  2. Like in that movie “Gizmo”,theres a whole bunch of film shorts of various hare brained contraptions that have provided mirth for millions of people throughout the world.
    Youd think that maybe a working model would have saved the “inventors” a ton of grief and money,but noooooooo……

  3. As I remember, a few seconds of this video was used in the opening to the movie “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965)

  4. I guess the heart of the questions is: does it go up more than down? The video looks like it does, but just barely, and it has nothing to stop the chassis part from spinning. It’s not a perpetual motion machine, as the engine is adding energy into the equation. I wonder if this was recreated with modern lighter materials, and a more powerful motor, if it would get airborne. It clearly needs two of the umbrella pieces, each turning a different direction, to stop the spinning.

  5. David,

    Thanks for highlighting this wonderful “Sky Car.” I was vaguely familiar with it but had not paid very close attention to it until this post. It really brought a smile to my face!


  6. Thank Goodness that thing didn’t get off the ground because the video wouldn’t be as light hearted. Pitts was trying to launch an uncontrollable bedstead with the grace of a bronco bull.

    For what understanding he lacks in aerodynamics however, he more than makes up for in engineering. No mechanical task seemed beyond his realm of experience. He just used that genius to build machines that didn’t work.

  7. ‘No, it won’t fly Mr. Pitts, but look on the bright side, you’ve got the makings of one heck of a washing machine!’

    • You are right. It was made by frigidaire, and called the jet action washer and
      Worked very well. In my opinion mr.
      Pitts was one of the greatest mechanical
      Designers ever to walk this earth. The
      Motions were complex and inherently
      Fragile, but it took a terrific pounding
      And did not break.

  8. Shirley Bail (Yes, it’s a man’s name too!) (Circa: 1958) was the Foreman of the Dept. of Physics Machine Shop, at USC, when I was a young Technician. Mr. Bail told of a home made “Aircraft”, Farmer-made, near his small home town in Oklahoma, when all streets & highways were dirt : The Farm Mechanic brought his craft to town to have his FIRST FLIGHT — in front of all of the town-folk: It was a different design than the one in the CLIP above: The RESULTS were the same: It never got very far off of the ground, nor did it move very far. It DID create a huge Dirt & dust cloud —and somehow succeeded in removing dry HORSE MANURE from Main Street, in the area of the hoped for “flight”!
    The Town’s City Council proposed hiring the man & his machine for Manure Removal , but the IRATE aeronaut, refused — and “BOTH of the ideas never got off of the ground”!!! Mr. Bail claimed that: That phrase came from this event, — But it was a slowwww day in the shop, and “perpetual motion” was the NEXT topic! Edwin W.

  9. What ever happened to mr Pitts after the Sky Car?
    Was he a famous inventor in general?
    Any other pattents?
    If he was that big name back then he would surely be remembered somewhere, somehow!

  10. Ok so –
    John W Pitts was my great grandfather. I remember him living with his son (my grandpa) Charles Leonard Pitts (my dad is jr. CLP and now resides in Moorpark, CA.
    I have tried to find more genealogy, information, etc. but will have to ask my dad.
    I believe he lived with my grandad in Cerritos, CA until he died. I don’t know much about this man’s kids, but know Dad has a cousins John who died in Vietnam. I can look into it more. Grandpa pitts grew up in sandersville (?) GA . Spent time in Bakersfield I believe. I was born in 1974 remember where he was living in that home in Cerritos . My dad also because an inventor and has some patents, etc. genetically I believe John W has to have had a lot of Norwegian in him as my brothers and I compare our lineages .
    I was told thing by my grandpa pitts that his father or grandfather was a stage coach driver for Wells Fargo in Oregon but who knows .

  11. I’ve always wondered what happened to that machine. Thanks for the info Arianne, I have always had trouble finding info on Pitts. Out of all the old footage of failed flying machines, this one is definitely my favorite!

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