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What Were They Thinking? Flying Cars of the 1940s

By Hampton Wayt:

What were they thinking! Was there really a need? Did they truly believe the idea could be safely achieved? Those are just a few of the many questions I have often asked myself over the years upon viewing the all-too-common flying car designs that were promoted during the mid to late 1940s.

The idea so often associated with the desire for owning these curious airplane-automobile hybrids of yesteryear often sang a similar tune. Don’t care for traffic jams? Ever wonder if there is a better way to get to work? Well, there is, in the vast “skyways” above you – if only your car had wings. And now it finally can!

Moulton Taylor’s “Aerocar”

  • Moulton Taylor’s “Aerocar” with wings in tow pays a toll in New Jersey.

Yes, outer space may have been the “final frontier” of the late 1950s, but apparently the commuter of the late 1940s would have been happy to simply conquer the drive to his job. And flying cars that were touted as the invention that would give him the added dimension and convenience he needed to do just that. Prepare to say “goodbye” to America’s congested streets once and for all.

Although the idea was far from new, numerous inventors and manufacturers in the post Second World War years, rushed to design, build, and test their own version of these “roadable flying sedans” as Norman Bel Geddes dubbed his variation of the concept. But were traffic jambs of the era really so detestable that Americans saw no other alterative than to look to the skies? Or was there something else at play that made the idea sound quite reasonable to the people of that time?

Well, as I often find when seeking to understand the mindset of past generations, some things never change. And I say that because one of the primary unspoken motivations for flying cars was simply a desire on the part of these designers and manufacturers to make money – in fact, a lot of it. At least that is what they thought.

1940s Flying Car Design Proposal I

  • 1940s Flying Car design proposal with detachable wings by an unidentified artist.

The flying car was projected to fill the void in a large, untapped market created by the literally hundreds of thousands of servicemen trained as pilots during the war who were now returning home. One press release from 1944, before the war had even ended, estimated that the number of decommissioned postwar pilots would near 425,000 individuals. Surely these now-seasoned aviators would miss flying and want an airplane of their own upon returning to civilian life. Right?

Airplane manufacturers certainly took that idea to heart when converting to peacetime production. Prior to the war, despite being built in series, there was no aviation equivalent of the Model “T” where the methods of mass production churned out dozens of cookie cutter personal airplanes in a single day. At war’s end, though, some plane companies, such as Aeronca and Vultee, modernized their plants to mimic the processes of car manufacturing. Soon, it was believed, thousands of private planes would flood the skies.

Vultee Aircraft

  • In the postwar reconversion, Vultee Aircraft and other airplane manufacturers created assembly lines mimicking those used by the auto industry.

The aviation industry, however, did not turn to the automobile just for inspiration in increasing their production. They also went about the process of mimicking their styling. For the first time small airplanes were expected to be marketed to general consumers just as cars had been for decades. In an effort to catch up, the dashboards and interiors of airplanes began to more closely resemble those found in the family sedan – albeit a tad more Spartan. More attention was also paid to the overall contours of small aircraft that were thoroughly functional but were often admittedly somewhat ungainly looking. The personal plane, it seemed was positioned on the verge of a golden age of popularity and stylish appearance.

William Stout with %22Skycar%22 Model

  • William Bushnell Stout, best known for his Stout Scarab, shown here with model of his 1941 “Skycar” and his chief engineer, M. A. Mills.

But the reality then, as now, is that airplanes could only be seen as a second luxury to an automobile-especially as servicemen returned home to start families. And here is where the flying cars were perceived to have a real advantage. By combining the convenience and recreational value of both modes of transportation at a small additional cost (theoretically less than buying one of each), the flying automobile might just win out much or most of the aviation market while simultaneously cutting into the profits of automakers. And yet, as good as the venture sounded on paper, the flying car failed to get off the ground.

In its quest to conquer the roads and the skies, the flying car was found to be not particularly good at either. Plus, as a flying machine, it required certification from the Civil Aviation Administration (CAA), which only a couple of flying cars ever managed to accomplish. And, of course, as an automobile, only one – Henry Dreyfuss’ Convair – made an attempt to rival the luxury or passenger convenience of even the cheapest Ford or Chevrolet.

Norman Bel Geddes’ Flying Car

  • Norman Bel Geddes’ flying car featured collapsible folding wings that you took with you. Most had wings that detached and were left at the airport or home.

And so, these and other impracticalities meant that the flying car ended up being just another pipe dream in a land filled to the brim with technological optimism and enthusiasm. Those who could afford a private plane for convenience or recreation purchased one. Those who drove cars remained stuck in traffic – not that that was likely ever as big a problem as flying car advocates may have suggested.

But as anyone who speaks of technological progress knows, just because it did not happen back then does not mean it cannot happen now. And in this age where the driverless car is already nipping at drivers’ heels, perhaps the automated flying car will soar close behind. Only time will tell.

View Hampton’s earlier articles here on The Old Motor. All images are from the Hampton Wayt Collection.

  • 1946 Aeronca airplane featured a more stylish dashboard and name script, anticipating sales to the general public—especially returning WW2 servicemen.

1946 Aeronca Airplane

12 responses to “What Were They Thinking? Flying Cars of the 1940s

  1. It seems all of these car/plane and car/boat hybrids have the same problem as the Amphicar. Handles like a boat on land and a car at sea!

  2. Speaking of pipe dreams and self-driving cars, JD Power released findings in February that show that technological reliability in modern cars is pretty abysmal. Owners of the top rated car, Lexus, reported 95 of 100 new cars had problems in their connectivity/entertainment systems. Porsche was next at 97 problems per 100 cars. Again, these are the best ones!

    Now, if top automakers can’t get your cell phone to connect to their on board entertainment systems reliably, how can we expect them to automate control of a high speed piece of heavy equipment (the car) on public streets and highways? And how will we see one of these robo cars coming, require they all be paintedl plaid? Yipes! Here is the article: http colon //www dot jdpower dot com/press-releases/2016-us-vehicle-dependability-study-vds

  3. Totally impractical idea. There is a high percentage of people who are incapable of driving a car safely. I can’t imagine the carnage if these fools were flying airplanes.

  4. I remember the opening credits for “The New Bob Cummings Show” starring Robert Cummings, in which he was flying his flying car.

  5. I seem to remember that Popular Science had a fascination with the concept of a flying car. They had articles about those vehicles in the late ’40s and ’50s.

  6. Got any idea what model Aeronca that is in the last picture? The Chief had a wheel like the pictured plane, (Champs had a stick front and back) but I don’t see any hint of the high mounted wing all Airknockers had, even up the present day. I think Aeronca had a prototype or two of a low wing plane, maybe this is it. Lots of airplanes were built and sold right after the war, but there weren’t any you could drive on the highways, unless of course you had to use the roads as an emergency runway.

  7. I was born on 2-1-39, so news of the Aero Car came to me, in Atwater Public School, (Los Angeles, Zone #39), in “The Weekly Reader” a publication news letter for children! Not very long before that, My Mom, “Mary the Riveter” at Lockheed , — was finishing Bombers and went on to the Four engined Constellation. Just after that, everybody was jabbering about Post-War “FUTURE” This included a pictured article of the “AERO-CAR”, — in our Weekly Reader: This Little Fellow, (now this Senior Citizen) didn’t think much of its “touted claims” and it seemed to me like a question that NOBODY asked !!! Looks like I was right — and I agree with the guy who made a (well-deserved) stab at cell-phones, texting, and the like — that ARE BAD ENOUGH on the ROAD — let ALONE, — FLYING!!! The sky does NOT need that!!! ( the ROAD, N
    EITHER!) Edwin W.

  8. The FAA considered the idea of 10,000 flying commuters heading to work all at once and the potential carnage and said “Forget about it!”

  9. I’m not getting in one of those until the serve (better) snacks and I get more leg room! And, will someone please please stop that kid from kicking the back of my seat!!! Would you still have to use your blinker??? Or, was auto cancellation a consideration, hmmmm?

  10. Just found your article and LOVED IT! I hold a Private Pilot’s Certificate and dream as these 1940’s designers did of being able to spread my wings and fly into the horizon then land and drive on my merry way…

    Maybe someday!

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