Although the idea of marrying the two modes of transport was first mooted at the dawn of car and plane manufacturing, more than 100 years of development and experimentation have not brought success. We show you what kind of flying car you could buy today if you wanted to, and find out whether we could use one at home.
People have always wanted to travel faster and farther, and when automobility and modern aviation exploded at roughly the same time, in the last decades of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th century, the idea of marrying the two modes of transport was soon mooted. (In fact, the British William Samuel Henson and John Stringfellow had already filed a patent for a flying steam carriage in 1842, but it never flew because of insufficient propulsion.)
One of the pioneers of science fiction, Jules Verne’s 1904 novel Lord of the World centres on a quadrupedal vehicle, the Phantom, which can travel at incredible speeds on land, in the air, on water and underwater.
Verne’s machine is still a wild fantasy today, but the automobile and the aeroplane were to be merged in a real attempt just a few years later, when American Glenn Curtiss began work on his Autoplane in 1912. Curtiss built a three-deck, pushrod design on the tail of an aluminium-bodied, three-seater car, powered by the same 100 horsepower engine on the road and in the air. Although the Autoplane was exhibited at the Pan American Air Transport Exposition in 1917, its development was scuppered for lack of financial backers. It was not even capable of true flight, but rather a hopping machine.
Unveiled in 1921, the Tampier Avion-Automobile was more of an aeroplane than a car, but its developer René Tampier added a second 10 horsepower engine, and the power source, coupled with a conventional car gearbox, steerable landing gear and folding rear wheel – with the wings folded in – made road travel possible. It made several trips on public roads, but the nature of the structure and the twin engines made the French plane slow and cumbersome for both car and plane.
An important development for aviation, but also for flying cars, was the appearance in 1923 of the autogiro (girocopter, gyroplane), a free-rotating, top-rotor, mostly propeller-driven aircraft. Invented by the Spanish Count Juan de la Cierva in 1936, the two-seater AC-35, with three wheels – the rear was powered, the front two steered – could travel at 40 km/h on the road and 120 km/h in the air. Although the tests were a success, the project never progressed beyond the prototype stage.
In 1935, Waldo Waterman also introduced his own “flying car”, the W5, a three-wheeled, top-winged, push-pull machine. The two-seater W5 was powered first by a 100, then 120 hp six-cylinder Studebaker engine. The type was first flown in 1937 and five were built, but due to lack of interest, this project never progressed further.
The creator of the modern car, Henry Ford, himself experimented with a single-seat plane, and although that project failed in 1926, the car magnate was a great believer in flying cars: ‘Mark my words: the combination of the aeroplane and the motor car will come. You may smile now, but it will come,” he declared in 1940.
And indeed, after the Second World War, the field really took off, with several flying cars making their debut within a few years.
In 1946, Robert Edison Fulton Jr., came up with the Airphibian, an aluminium-bodied flying car powered by a 165 horsepower engine, the big trick was modularity, without the wings and the rear fuselage, the plane became a nasty little car without the wings and the rear fuselage, and because of its small wheels, not very nimble, but able to drive on public roads. The plane worked, but only four were built due to lack of funding.
In 1947, the ConvAirCar 118 was introduced: a four-seater, plastic box car powered by a 25 hp engine, with a 190 hp engine, wings and rear control surfaces. The company had great faith in the machine, and was thinking of producing 160,000 units, but the prototype was forced to crash land on its demonstration flight, was damaged, and although it was later rebuilt, the project was never re-launched.
In 1949, the Taylor Aerocar, also an American, flew for the first time, perhaps the most practical flying car ever built. Unlike Fulton’s Airphibian, the Aerocar did not leave its wings behind, they could be folded behind the car for road travel, so that it took only 5 minutes to change between modes. The wheels and the propeller used for flight were powered by the same 143 hp engine. It was capable of 95 km/h on hard surfaces and nearly 190 km/h in the air. Six examples were built up to the mid-1960s.
In the early 1970s, the Los Angeles-based company AVE tried its hand at a flying car, in this case literally, by combining a Ford Pinto small car with a Cessna Skymaster. Called the Mizar, it used Ford’s 100 horsepower engine for take-off and 210 horsepower for the propeller, but test flights repeatedly ran into problems with the wing attachment, ending in a test crash that killed two of the founding leaders, Henry Smolinski and Harold Blake.
With the loss of momentum in the nuclear and space age, the field of flying cars also came to a standstill, in the 1980s and ’90s only concepts and plans were born, no vehicle ever reached flight tests, but from the turn of the millennium onwards, several people started to move in the field again, and some of these attempts seem to have reached their peak today, so we have actually reached the present.
Let’s start with perhaps the most uncertain: in the USA, Terrafugia has been working on the Transition, a carbon-frame, two-seater, retractable-wing, push-pull flying car, since 2006. The 440 kg kerb weight vehicle is powered by a 100 hp four-cylinder Rotax 912 engine, with a maximum cruising speed of 110 km/h on the road and 170 km/h in the air, and a maximum range of around 780 km. The Transition first took to the skies in 2012, but the project did not progress well in the 2010s, with several promises of series production the following year, but to date nothing has been built, and a year ago it was announced that it would be closing down its US operations and continuing work in China.
Let’s jump over to Europe, and more specifically to Slovakia. Surprisingly, it is a flying car superpower, with two serious projects currently running independently of each other.
Well, not completely independently, because the founder is the same person, Stefan Klein. The design engineer has been working on the flying car since the 1980s, first as part of Aeromobil and then leaving the original company to form AirCar.
Klein is gone, but Aeromobil is alive and well without him. The company promises a 2023 launch date for the vehicle, which will have a 300 hp engine driving both four wheels and a pushrod, with a maximum road speed of 160 km/h and an air speed of 260 km/h. With two people on board, the manufacturer promises a range of 520 km, with take-off and landing requiring 400 and 300 metres respectively. Switching between car and flight mode is said to take just 3 minutes.
As far as the Klein Vision AirCar is concerned, the aircraft completed its first successful test flights last summer and recently it was announced that it had obtained a Slovakian permit to fly in accordance with EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) standards.
The sports-car-looking hybrid vehicle is powered by a 139 hp, 1.6-litre BMW engine and requires a 300-metre runway to take off, with a range of 1,000 kilometres at a cruising speed of 170 kilometres. The AirCar’s road speed is unknown, but like the previous model, it can switch between modes in around 3 minutes. A second prototype is currently under construction, but series production is already being considered, with plans for a two-seater, a four-seater, a more powerful twin-engine and even a hydroplane, i.e. a version that can take off and land from/on water.
The two Slovak flying cars are followed by a Dutch PAL-V Liberty. Unlike the previous ones, this is not a fixed-wing aircraft, but a gyrocopter. The PAL-V consumes conventional fuel, its 100 hp engine in car mode accelerating it up to 160 km/h, while in air its 200 hp engine driving a propeller in “eco” mode allows speeds of 140 to 180 km/h, with a range of 400 km under load.
The first edition of the two-seater PAL-V will be produced in a series of 90 units, with the extras-packed version available for €499,000 and the more basic Sport edition for €299,000.
The Dutch firm said that it has already taken more than 50 orders from a dozen countries for the two versions currently available, so it is already booked up for about a year and a half ahead of the planned start of production in 2023. If all goes well, the very first customers could receive their own gyrocopters as early as the second half of next year.
Asked whether the PAL-V Liberty is intended to be a layered product from the outset or whether they are thinking big, the company’s marketing manager, Joris Wolters, said:
“Like all new technology, it will definitely be a layered thing initially, but as we go into production and more versions come out, maybe the market will open up more for us. We believe that private aviation is poised for significant growth, although it will not overtake the car industry. The first area of growth will be flying cars. In 10 years’ time, urban air mobility could take off, with traffic between suburbs and cities, and in 20 years’ time there could be a mass market for this. As for our potential customers, we have a mixed audience, with orders from everything from individuals to small businesses to government and passenger transport service providers.”
As the historical overview has shown, flying cars have failed to spread in just over a century. No wonder, because although it may seem like a good idea at first glance, there are far more problems with it than there are benefits. But technology is advancing rapidly, and flying car manufacturers can probably find solutions to most of the problems that still exist.