Drive to the Sky: The Flying Car

August 24, 2011

Like personal rocket packs, flying cars have been called an “idea whose time has never really come.” In truth, cars that can also fly have been around since 1950—the heyday of American automotive ingenuity—and even before. Find out more about the history of flying cars and where you can see up close one of the best preserved examples of this one-of-a-kind vehicle.

Back in July, the U.S. National Highway Safety Administration cleared for takeoff the Terrafugia Transition, a genuine flying car with cost hovering roughly around the price tag of new Lamborghini ($230,000). Since news of the flight, the Massachusetts-based company behind the invention says that people are already lining up to buy and that—with one of their “roadable aircraft” and just 20 licensed hours of FAA-approved “sport pilot” training—gridlock weary Americans with money to spare can expect to be flying out of the showroom as early as 2012.

This year’s flight of the Transition made headlines, but it wasn’t a historic first, says Dick Knapinski of the Experimental Aircraft Association, a 55-year-old aviation group based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

“The idea of flying cars is something that people have been dreaming up since there have been airplanes and cars," he says.

In fact, the history of flying cars goes back to 1917 and the Curtiss Autoplane. Glenn Curtiss, regarded as the father of the flying car, unveiled his invention a little over a decade after the Wright Brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk. The Autoplane sported three wings that spanned 40 feet and a motor driven, four-bladed propeller at the rear of the car. The Autoplane never truly flew, but it did manage a few short hops.

In 1937 came the Arrowbile with its 100-horsepower Studebaker engine. The ConvAirCar followed in 1940s, promised 45 miles per gallon and an hour of flight but was taken out of production after crashing on its third test flight. In all, six different models of flying car would appear by 1950 but none ever actually made it to the marketplace.     

“A big reason was in the engineering,” says Knapinski. “Basically when you combined the two technologies you got a very bad airplane and a very bad car.”

In 1949, a company from Longview, Washington, unveiled its Taylor Aerocar to such fanfare that many believed Americans would be converting their driveways into runways by the turn of the century.

According to Knapinski, the company built six prototypes—one of which is currently on display in the EAA's AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh. Aerocars were the first certified airplane in history that could also drive on our highways. The Aerocar is a two-place aircraft with side-by-side seating, four wheels, high, unobtrusive wings, and a single Lycoming 0-320 engine mounted over the rear wheels. The propeller is mounted at the end of a long tail cone, and the latter is angled up considerably, to provide adequate propeller clearance. Its cruise speed was 100 mph. It initially sold for $25,000. And—yes—it really flies.

“The last time we flew the Aerocar on display in the museum was about twenty years ago but, yes, it does fly,” says Knapinski.

The EAA AirVenture is the one place in the country where you can see this unique historic vehicle up close. Along with the prototype of the Aerocar he created, Moulton B. Taylor also gave the EAA museum everything on this unique design. While only the aircraft and some minor flying car memorabilia are there for public viewing, the design information is stored in the EAA archives, is not cataloged, and is only available for public viewing by appointment.

For more information on the EAA AirVenture Museum, check out