1956 Aerocar, wings extended. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Bill Vance
The intriguing concept of a car that can fly majestically above traffic congestion has existed almost as long as the automobile. Several aviation enthusiasts have tried, including pioneer Glenn Curtiss’s 1917 Autoplane, Frenchman Rene Tampier’s 1921 Tampier Biplane, James Ray’s 1935 Pitcairn Autogiro, and Waldo Waterman’s 1937 Studebaker powered Waterman Arrowbile.
William Stout, designer of the Ford Trimotor airplane and 1930s Stout Scarab, precursor to the modern minivan, built several Skycars in the 1930s and ’40s. In 1946 Robert Fulton Jr., flew his car/plane Airphibian, and received U.S. Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) certification. Convair engineer Ted Hall was another dedicated 1930s-’40s car/plane builder.
The car/plane idea continues to be pursued by more recent inventors who have, for example, grafted wings onto small cars like the Ford Pinto or lightweight Lotus Elise. Most were capable of flight but all represented compromises. Few received CAA or Federal Aviation Administration certification, and none was produced commercially.
The man who came closest to commercially producing a practical flying car was Moulton “Molt” Taylor, an aeronautical engineer, pilot and guided missile researcher in Seaview, Washington. In 1946 Taylor met Airphibian inventor Robert Fulton Jr. and became convinced that the flying car was a viable proposition.
Taylor began designing his own flying car, and incorporated Aerocar International in 1947. By 1949 he had built Aerocar I. Whereas Fulton’s Airphibian had a fixed wing and tail unit that didn’t travel with the vehicle on the ground, all of Taylor’s components could travel together at all times.
1956 Aerocar, wings folded. Click image to enlarge
His two-passenger, unit construction Aerocar had detachable wings that folded back against the also detachable tail. This wing-tail unit had small rear wheels that made it into a trailer 4,724 mm (15.5 ft) long and 2,438 mm (8 ft) high to be towed behind the car. Claimed conversion time for one person was five minutes.
The Aerocar’s 135 horsepower, horizontally opposed (flat), four cylinder Lycoming aircraft engine was at the rear of the cabin. Wingspan was 10.36 m (34 ft) and overall length 6.55 m (21.5 ft). Empty weight was 590 kg (1,300 lb) and gross weight 953 kg (2,100 lb).
Taylor favoured the “pusher” design with a single propeller at the rear behind the Y-shaped tail. Power reached the propeller though a driveshaft that was connected by lifting the licence plate to expose the engine’s power takeoff. Top airspeed was 180 km/h (112 mph).
The Aerocar car’s four 12-inch wheels also acted as the landing gear. It had cycle fenders and was driven through the front wheels by the same engine, reduced to 40 horsepower for ground use. The initial coil springs were later switched to torsion bars. Brakes were powerful B.F.Goodrich aircraft types on the rear wheels. Wheelbase was 2,031 mm (80 in.) and overall length 3,150 mm (124 in.). Top ground speed was 96 km/h (60 mph).
Taylor received CAA Aerocar certification in 1956 and tried unsuccessfully to get into production through more than one company. The Ford Motor Co. looked at it in the early 1970s but concluded the development cost and uncertain future were too risky.
There were about five Aerocars in all built between 1949 and about 1967: four Aerocar Is, one Aerocar II and one Aerocar III that was a rebuilt Aerocar 1. All were similar except Aerocar III, which was the Aerocar I that Taylor bought back in damaged condition from a customer and rebuilt with a more modern, aerodynamic cabin.
Amazingly, all of the Aerocars still exist, most in aircraft museums around the U.S. The 1956 Aerocar II pictured appeared at the annual 2008 Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. It was previously owned by television personality Bob Cummings and appeared on his show. It’s now owned by a Mr. Ed Sweeney of Colorado and is the only one currently airworthy. Sweeney is in the process of developing a modern version of the Aerocar.
Moulton Taylor died in 1995 at age 83. His lack of success in guiding his Aerocar into production was no reflection on his technical abilities. He still believed in the concept, and felt that it didn’t need to be compromised either as an air or land vehicle.
Taylor just thought his idea was ahead of its time, although he worked in a simpler era. Today, designing and building a car/plane meeting all safety/emissions/economy regulations for both a car and plane with many government agencies would be formidable. Using an existing car such as the Lotus would facilitate this somewhat, but the flying car’s future still appears elusive.