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