Henry Ford founded his eponymous company in 1903, the same year that Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.
In that era of ingenious invention and boundless possibility, ambitious entrepreneurs soon dreamt of combining the fledgling motorcar with the aeroplane. It’s a dream that has continued to fascinate inventors to this day.
Long history, few successes
The very first serious attempt to combine cars and planes came in 1917, when the Curtiss Autoplane was unveiled. It was called a “roadable aircraft” instead of a flying car, and the naming convention is significant.
Anything that’s going to fly really has to be an airplane first and foremost. Henry Ford himself toyed with the idea of “The Model T of the skies” in 1926 with an attempt at an affordable single-seat airplane called the “Flivver.” As late as 1940 the auto industry magnate still predicted that a roadable aircraft was an inevitability. “Mark my word: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming,” Ford said. “You may smile, but it will come.”
In the 105 years since the Curtiss Autoplane, more than 30 attempts have been made to deliver a viable flying car. The notion resurges every 10-20 years with a new batch of, you can only call them funky, efforts with names like the Fulton Airphibian and the Bryan Autoplane.
There were also more organized efforts by aerospace corporations such as Convair with their Model 116 and Model 118. For the most part, none of these efforts ever (ahem) got off the ground. Of all the postwar attempts, the Taylor Aerocar was perhaps the most successful, with 6 examples made, and some of those are still airworthy today.
A few more attempts were made in the 1970s including the AVE Mizar, which attached the rear half of a Cessna to, of all things, a Ford Pinto. We’re not kidding, click on the link and see it for yourself.
What’s old is new again
Right on cue, there’s new interest in flying cars happening today with producers such as AirCar, Samson Switchblade, and even industry giants such as Toyota, Hyundai and GM getting in on the research into fixed wing flying cars and perhaps more sensibly, drones big enough to carry a person.
But at the same time, the challenges of “democratizing the skies” as startup Kittyhawk boldly proposes to do, always seem to prove insurmountable. Even with bottomless-pocket backing from Google co-founder Larry Page, Kittyhawk has announced they will shutter their operations.
Perhaps the inventors of the Hoverbike by Xturismo have their feet, um, more firmly planted on the ground. While the Hoverbike rides on air, it does so within a few feet of the Earth. Think of those flying bikes the storm troopers rode in “Return of the Jedi,” plus an insane amount of propeller noise, and you’ve got the idea. At the moment, the hoverbike has a range of about 40 miles, so research is ongoing.
The Hoverbike was far from the only flying vehicle on display at this year’s Detroit Auto Show, as several other contenders also showed up to display and talk about their implementations of this lofty idea. However, the options on display in Detroit were more of a commuter aircraft with vertical take-off and landing ability, rather than anything that could double as a car. You could theoretically land one in a good-sized back yard, but it’s still far from a grocery-getter.
Why doesn’t this work?
There are really compelling reasons why combining aircraft and cars is difficult, and why it’s probably a bad idea in any case. Simply consider the skill level of the average American driver, and the maintenance status of the average American car, and then ask yourself if you’re really OK with them flying over your house. At least if a wheel falls off of a road car, it doesn’t plummet to Earth and explode. Further, the air traffic control considerations of widespread aero-commuting would make every rush hour resemble a scene from “Airplane.”
Human imagination may be unbounded, and we may forever long to slip the surly bonds of Earth. But for the moment anyway, a feasible flying car is still limited to “The Jetsons.”