Flying Cars: We'll Never Live to See Them

Sometime during the last month of 2009, when just about all of us began contemplating anything but work or auto industry cover stories and guides, we here at autoevolution thought of bringing you a little something about the Amphicar, or "the fastest car on water, the fastest boat on land," as one of its owners liked to call it. As you may have figured it out, the Amphicar was a car designed to operate on water without drowning its occupants (hence the "amphi" particle in the name). Apparently, people didn't like it that much and the car/boat sank into oblivion. With the Amphicar out of the way and enough regained strength before the spring depression kicks in, it's time to cover the car's take on another of the five elements: air. Largely thought of as flying cars, these types of vehicles are defined as automobiles that can legally travel on roads and can take off, fly, and land as an aircraft, also legally. Sure, there are some who consider flying cars to be the opposite, namely aircrafts which can travel on roads (roadable aircrafts), but this is only a matter of semantics and it is not our concern here. What is our concern is to bring to your attention the vehicles which in the future (distant future, probably we won't even be around to enjoy them) may become as common as the tricycle on Indian rural roads. If you have seen "The Fifth Element" you know where we're coming from... VUIA 1 - IT'S A PLANE! IT'S NOT A PLANE!
Believe it or not, the man which first patented a flying car is not Henry Ford, or Glenn Curtiss, nor any of the Wright brothers, but the Romanian born Traian Vuia, the man who would go down in history as the one who designed, built and flew the first self-propelling heavier-than-air aircraft in Europe.

The reason behind Vuia being credited with the first documented flying car is very simple, but not historically accurate. The inventor called his contraption "the airplane-car," because it comprised wings mounted on a four-wheeled vehicle (simply put, four wheels meant "car" OR "carriage", wings meant "airplane"). The aircraft layout we know today (two front wheels and one tail one) will become common some two years after the 1906 moment, when Vuia was parading his airplane-car.

Be it as it may, Vuia's machine did make a lasting impression, especially because he had adopted a monoplane configuration, somehow against the trend of the time, which called for a double-wing setup. Vuia motivated his design by saying: "I have never seen a bird with more than two wings".

Called Vuia 1, the airplane-car was completed in 1905 and was equipped with a 20 hp engine (with a 45 kgf propulsion force). The wingspan of the machine was 8.70 m, enough to help Vuia take to the air for the first time on March 18, 1906. His machine flew 12 meters, at a height of only one meter.


The first actual flying car to take off came off the hands of American aviation engineer Waldo Waterman. Waterman took inspiration from a vehicle designed by one of his associates, Glenn Curtiss. The latter, after experimenting with the US Navy's flying boats, designed the so called Autoplane in 1917, a machine which did not fly per se, but rather hopped.

It took Waterman some 20 years to capitalize on Curtiss' hopping idea and come up with what he later called the Aerobile, a high-winged monoplane with detachable wings. The maiden flight of the contraption took place in 1934, when the Arrowplane prototype, as it was called at the time, took to the air.

It took Waterman several other years to tweak the machine into becoming the Arrowbile. In 1957, when the final version was completed, the Arrowbile was a two-place, high-wing, cabin monoplane with a transmission drive system that operated the propeller in the air and the rear wheels on the ground.

The machine was powered by a Studebaker engine and used many parts you would usually find on automobiles, from as many carmakers as possible: radiator, interior knobs and parts, hood grill, starter, generator, battery, and engine from Studebaker, radiator grill and gear reduction assembly from Ford, steering wheel from Austin and headlight, internal differential gears, and wheel brakes from Willys.

Waterman's contraption caught the eye of the Studebaker Company, which decided to buy the inventor's company and order five Arrowbiles to be built so that it may enter the 1937 National Air Races. Three of them took flight from Santa Monica to Cleveland, Ohio, with one crash landing somewhere in Arizona and the other two managing to do fairly good in the competition.

The Arrowbile did not make the cut into a serious production version. After 1940, it has been renamed the Aerobile and received FAA registration (at the time CAA) in the experimental category in 1957. The lack of interest in the the car-plane slowly led to its premature demise. The Aerobile has been put by Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic Dan Neil on the list of Time Magazine's worst cars of all time; the Aerobile ranks 11 in the top.


The second World War, or its end to be more precise, brought along a period of rapid growth and development, in all areas of the industry and human life. The idea of a roadable aircraft, fueled by the former pilots of the war and the rapid growth of the automotive industry, started being contemplated by more and more people and, at one point, ate up some of the time and money of American manufacturer Ford. And we do mean more and more people, as there are currently several hundred different designs, most dating from the pre-60s era.

Of course, there are some designs which set themselves apart from the masses. Names like Aerocar were the stars of the age. So much so that, as said, Ford began paying a lot more attention to this possible segment of the market.

In the 1950s, Ford's feasibility study for a flying car concluded that a) Ford can do it; b) Ford affords to do it; c)Ford has possible markets were to sell it (mostly first responder agencies, the military and, why not, the luxury market).

Ford's involvement with the flying car was not just a passing mood. They even contacted the FAA to discuss the possibility and of mass traffic rules and regulations through the air. And here's where problems started to appear.

Apparently, Ford's feasibility study didn't take into account the huge logistic effort which was needed to support flying cars: the rules, the legislation, the traffic support (lights, lanes), and so much more headaches that Ford finally decided to give up.


With the big automotive players out of the way after Ford's attempt, small manufacturers, dreamers and inventors had all they needed to start dreaming again and build the cars of their Utopian land (air).

In 1946, Robert Edison Fulton opens the doors to the avalanche of roadable aircrafts with his Fulton FA-2 Airphibian, a mixture between a car and fabric wings. The Airphibian was powered by a six cylinder 165 hp engine and made its debut in 1946. As the excitement about the Airphibian grew, Fulton decided to build four prototypes, all approved by the FAA as experimental.

As was the case with its predecessors, the Airphibian slowly disappeared from sight. With no money to back his project, Fulton sold the idea to a company, which put the plans into a drawer and forgot about them. Until that time, however, Fulton managed to fly more than 100,000 miles in it, making it one of the most successful air-cars in history.


Another flying car considered a reference point by those with a passion for the field is the 1949 Aerocar, or the Taylor Aerocar, after the name of its creator, Moulton Taylor. Despite the fact that only six models have ever been produced, the fact that one of them has been restored and flies even today is a remarkable feat.

The Aerocar traces its roots in Fulton's Airphibian, but with a twist. Taylor replaced the detachable wings used by Fulton with folding wings, like on the Aerobile. The first of the six Aerocars, the Model I, or N4994P, has a wingspan of 30 ft. (10.36m) and is powered by a Lycoming 0-290 engine, developing 135 hp and allowing for a cruise speed of 100 mph.

The Aerocar unfortunately ended sadly as well, as, after securing civil certification for the machine in 1956 and striking a deal with Ling-Temco-Vought for the series production of the Aerocar, Taylor managed to raise only about half of the 500 orders needed for the production to kick-off. Hence, Ling-Temco-Vought scrapped it.

The experiments with merging cars and planes together and making the result able to operate on both roads and in the air continue to this day, but with a major difference. Whereas up until now the technical limitations were instant killers of such projects, many of roadable aircraft manufacturers of today are hard at work in making them become more of a reality than a Jetsons episode. Out of the multitude of such manufacturers, three stand out: Terrafugia, Moller and Volante. Unfortunately, we can only give you that much details about them, as they are mostly work in progress and have no history behind them whatsoever.


Terrafugia manufactures the Transition Roadable Aircraft, a folding wings, light sport machine capable of both land and air travel. It is powered by a Rotax 912S engine, capable of giving the machine a range of 400 nautical miles (460 miles) at a top cruising speed of 100 kts (115 mph). For land use, the two-seater Transition uses a front wheel drive setup. The Transition will begin delivery in 2011, for an estimated price of $194,000.


Where as Terrafugia focused all of its power on the development of a single roadable aircraft, the bit more eccentric Moller is working on not one, but two projects, one of which we sure can't be called a flying car, but a ruined sports car.

First of all, the M400 Skycar. It is a powered-lift VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, propelled by a Wankel-type rotary engine (actually, eight such engines). They give the Skycar a top speed of 330 mph (531 km/h) and a 10.8 km maximum altitude.

Moller is now trying to get the FAA certification of the M400 Skycar under the "powered lift normal" category. The estimated price of the vehicle could be as low as $100,000.

Moller has even dreamed up a more conventional version of the Skycar, called Autovolantor. Using the same basic technology as for the
Skycar, the Autovolantor is based (hold on people, this is going to hurt) on a Ferrari 599 GTB. OK, only on the body of the 599 GTB, because the rest will be everything but a Ferrari...

The Autovolantor is powered by eight fans mounted where the engine used to be. On the ground it is powered electrically, just like a hybrid car, with ground speeds projected to be up to 100 mph, and air speed about 150 mph; the maximum range in the air is projected to be about 100 miles. No price has been set for the Autovolantor, as the thing is not even in production, but Moller speculates it may cost approximately $3 million to develop.


Volante promises to come as a compromise between the machines described above and a regular aircraft. Unlike the two we mentioned before, Volante counts on simplicity and a few well placed thoughts to win over its customer pool (probably retired Army people).

Built by Col. KP Rice (USMC, retired), the Volante can fly for 650 miles at top speeds that can reach 150 mph. It is a two-place composite machine powered by two engines, one for the road and one for the air. If you're still not sold, here's the well placed thoughts we mentioned earlier.

"A flying car you can keep in your garage and use the car a lot more than the 100 hours per year the average pilot flies his aircraft. Also with the Volante's separate flying and driving engines you do not accumulate expensive aircraft engine hours in driving around town as you will with a single engine for both air and ground use, and when used as a car alone you do not need to expose the aircraft parts, which are very expensive to repair, to traffic damage."


If you wondered, while sweeping through this piece, if the flying car will go anywhere in the near of distant future, it probably will, despite all the failures we described above. Sure, we will most likely not be around to enjoy the benefits of flying and driving at the same time, and perhaps our children too, but the fact that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) got involved in this field is a guarantee of the flying car becoming a reality in the future.

DARPA announced at the end of 2009 that it will host a Proposers' Day Workshop to "support a planned Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for the Transformer (TX) program." The workshop was scheduled for January 14, 2010.

The Transformer (TX) program plans to develop a 1 to 4 person transportation vehicle that can drive and fly, preferably a VTOL. What DARPA says it intends to do with the vehicle is to create a combination between a HMMWV and a helicopter. As you can see, the primary use will be military, but in half of a millennium or so, civilians might get it too...

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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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