How Prop-driven Cars Work

What became of the prop-driven car?

In 1912, The New York Times described a hypothetical future in which all disillusioned traditional automobile owners could remedy their woes by throwing "the offending details on the scrap heap" and modifying their cars with propellers, causing airplane makers to weep for the future. Well, that hasn't quite been the case, though there have been some new, successful propeller-driven builds and a few survivors from the olden days. Two of Marcel Leyat's Helicas are still in existence, as well as a handful of other rare, privately owned specimens. The Lane Motor Museum has hosted a couple other models of prop car, and similar technology has even been used to give bicycles a boost.

The latest prop-driven cars have generally been one-of-a-kind experiments. A Florida man by the name of Franklin Ratliff achieved moderate Internet fame after he spent $17,000 to build a tube-frame prop car capable of 50 to 60 miles per hour (80.5 to 96.6 kilometers per hour). He enlisted the help of motorsports experts for the design, and spent nearly 10 years completing the project.

At times, people have considered modern attempts to revive the prop-driven car for the masses. As recently as six decades ago, California was considering population reduction in the form of mass-produced, easily available propeller cars. Obviously, the idea never gained much traction, and it's just as well; in light of the state's current environmental crisis, no good could have come from a notoriously inefficient propeller mated to the planned Chevy 6-cylinder powerplant -- but at least there are plenty of hybrids roaming the streets.

The next page will breeze you toward more information about propeller cars and other unusual vehicles.

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More Great Links


  • Barry, Keith. "Proving It: Wind-Powered Car Goes Faster Than The Wind." Wired. July 29, 2010. (Feb. 23, 2011)
  • Dark Roasted Blend. "Cars with Propellers: an Illustrated Overview." Dec. 31, 2008. (Feb. 16, 2011)
  • Diseno-art. "Helicron No.1." (Feb. 23, 2011)
  • Lane Motor Museum. "A Closer Look: The 1919 Leyat Helica Replica." Dec. 2, 2009. (Feb. 23, 2011)
  • Modern Mechanix. "Prop-Driven Car Makes 85 M.P.H." Feb. 12, 2008. Originally printed November 1934. (Feb. 16, 2011)
  • New York Times, The. "Successful Test of Air-Propelled Car -- British Auto Expert Admits Real Advantages for Machine Minus Clutch and Gearbox." Aug. 25, 1912. (Feb. 20, 2011)
  • Riley, Greg. "Riding the Wind -- The Helicron." Old Cars Weekly. (Feb. 23, 2011)
  • Roadable Times. "The Helica." (Feb. 23, 2011)
  • Spinelli, Mike. "Prop-Driven Car Draws Flames." Jalopnik. Jan. 5, 2006. (Feb. 20, 2011)!146820/prop+driven-car-draws-flames
  • Strohl, Daniel. "SIA Flashback -- Cars That Woosh." Hemmings Blog. Dec. 21, 2008. (Feb. 20, 2011)