How Flying Cars Will Work

By: Kevin Bonsor  | 

History of Flying Cars

Just a decade and a half after the Wright Brothers took off in their airplane over Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, other people began chasing the dream of a flying car. There are nearly 80 patents on file at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for various kinds of flying cars. Some of these have actually flown. Most have not. And all have come up short of reaching the goal of the mass-produced flying car. Here's a look back at a few of the flying cars that distinguished themselves from the pack:

  • Curtiss Autoplane - In 1917 Glenn Curtiss designed his aluminum Autoplane that sported three wings that spanned 40 feet (12.2 meters). The car's motor drove a four-bladed propeller at the rear of the car. The Autoplane never truly flew, but it did manage a few short hops.
  • Arrowbile - Developed by Waldo Waterman in 1937, the Arrowbile was a hybrid Studebaker aircraft. Like the Autoplane, it too had a propeller attached to the rear of the vehicle. The three-wheeled car was powered by a typical 100-horsepower Studebaker engine. The wings detached for storage. A lack of funding killed the project.
  • Airphibian - Robert Fulton, who was a distant relative of the steam engine inventor, developed the Airphibian in 1946. Instead of adapting a car for flying, Fulton adapted a plane for the road. The wings and tail section of the plane could be removed to accommodate road travel, and the propeller could be stored inside the plane's fuselage. It took only five minutes to convert the plane into a car. The Airphibian was the first flying car to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the predecessor of the the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It had a 150-horsepower, six-cylinder engine and could fly 120 miles per hour and drive at 50 miles per hour. Despite his success, Fulton couldn't find a reliable financial backer for the Airphibian.
  • ConvAirCar - In the 1940s, Consolidated Vultee Aircraft (eventually renamed Convair) developed a two-door sedan equipped with a detachable airplane unit. The ConvAirCar debuted in 1946 and offered one hour of flight and a gas mileage of 45 miles (72 kilometers) per gallon. Plans to market the car ended when it crashed on its third flight.
  • Avrocar - The first flying car designed for military use was the Avrocar, developed by John Frost, a product designer for Avro Canada, in the 1950s.  The flying-saucer-like vehicle was supposed to be a supersonic fighter-bomber aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). In 1957, the United States Air Force agreed to fund further development, but the Avrocar never functioned as intended.
  • Aerocar - Inspired by the Airphibian and Robert Fulton, whom he had met years before, Moulton "Molt" Taylor created perhaps the most well-known and most successful flying car to date. The Aerocar was designed to drive, fly and then drive again without interruption. Taylor covered his car with a fiberglass shell. A 10-foot-long (3-meter) drive shaft connected the engine to a pusher propeller. It cruised at 120 mph (193 kph) in the air and was the second and last roadable aircraft to receive FAA approval. In 1970, Ford Motor Co. even considered marketing the vehicle, but the decade's oil crisis dashed those plans.

These pioneers never managed to develop a viable flying car, and some even died testing their inventions. However, they proved that a car could be built to fly, and inspired a new group of roadable aircraft enthusiasts. With advances in lightweight material, computer modeling and computer-controlled aircraft, the dream is closer than ever to becoming reality. In the next section, we will look at more recent attempts to develop flying cars.