According to its maker, which claimed a 160-mph top speed and 30 mpg, 1946 Beechcraft Plainsman concept car performance was outstanding. But no one had a chance to find out. Just one 1946 Beechcraft Plainsman concept car was built, and it was never put to a full test.
Though the Plainsman wore a conventional grille, it carried a rear-mounted engine: an air-cooled, horizontally opposed gasoline four adapted from one of Beech's contemporary aircraft units.
But the compact powerplant could have been up front just as well. Not only was there plenty of room for it, but Beech planned on using an innovative four-wheel electric drive system that completely eliminated the differential, propshaft, clutch, and transmission (and with the last, the interior floor hump, thus adding to passenger room).
Exact details of this patented system were never disclosed -- likely because it was patented -- but it's known to have worked from a generator driven by the engine and housed in the same soundproof compartment.
Wheel control was evidently independent, because Beech claimed two advantages for its electric drive: automatic apportioning of torque to those wheels with greater grip on slippery roads -- call it embryonic traction
control -- and a "reverse current" feature that provided "dynamic braking" when the driver stepped on the pedal-a sort of early anti-lock system. Naturally, there were also regular hydraulic drum brakes, activated by a slightly harder push on the same pedal.
Only a bit less novel was the Beechcraft Plainsman's air-spring suspension. Unlike later Detroit "air ride" setups that relied on flexible bladders, this one employed aircraft-type air shocks that automatically adjusted damping to suit load and weight distribution.
A manual override switch was planned to permit selecting a softer setting for a smoother ride on very rough roads. Though not known for sure, the damping rate was probably varied by the drive system's electric generator.
Coming from an aircraft maker, the Beechcraft Plainsman was predictably designed for low weight and good aerodynamics in the interests of both performance and economy. Aluminum was chosen for exterior panels and inner structure, and the shape was tested in the wind tunnel with impressive results.
According to Beech, the Plainsman would top 160 mph despite its relatively small engine yet return more than 25 miles per gallon at a steady 60 mph and about 30 mpg at town speeds. Company engineers credited this efficiency more to the electric drive than to the styling, which hardly looked "wind-cheating" anyway.
Acceleration, on the other hand, was claimed to be "considerably greater than that of the best conventional automobiles."
So why didn't the Beechcraft Plainsman make it to production? Find out in our final section.