After Many Failures to Launch, Here Come the Flying Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 30, 2016

Do you remember the gyrocopter in Mad Max 2? Despite looking like a randomly assembled junkyard of parts, it’s an actual thing, a single-seat auto-rotating ultralight, experimental design aircraft.

When the word "gyrocopter" comes up, images of Mad Max 2 are brought to mind.

These buggies, and ones like them, are easy to build and to license—just three pieces of paper need to be filled out by U.S. flyers, according to enthusiast/builder Dezso Molnar. “We live in the best country in the world for experimental flying,” he says.  

Dezso Molnar with his homemade--but legal!--flying motorcycle. He's moved on to new designs.(Courtesy of Dezso Molnar)

Molnar, whose day job is as a staff inventor at WET Design in LA, is the inventor of the Molnar GT, an ultralight that does the Mad Mad gyrocopter one better—it morphs into a motorcycle. “What really matters is the ability to fly into a congested area and then drive out of it,” he says. Here's a look on video:

Flying cars are the holy grail, pursued—unsuccessfully—by a huge number of inventors in the 1950s. Some great prototypes were built—by Robert Fulton, "Molt" Taylor and others, totaling maybe 100—but none reached commercial liftoff.

Moulton Taylor's AeroCar was one of the more ambitious flying car prototypes in the 50s. You could park the plane, then drive into town.

More recently, a company called Terrafugia has been trying to get off the ground. It’s come out with a new model called the TF-X, but is still earthbound.

Terrafugia's TF-X--still not off the ground. (Terrafugia photo)

Maybe the problem is that flying cars are too complicated. They’re basically airplanes with wings that either detach or fold, and that’s why the price tags are $200,000 or more. Helicopters—my brother-in-law has a small one—cost between $500 and $3,000 per hour to operate. That’s why there’s only 60,000 of them in the air.

Gyrocopters are much lighter and much simpler and cost only $40 per hour to fly. They’re motorcycles (in the Molnar GT’s case powered by a one-cylinder, four-stroke motor) connected to a propeller. What looks like a helicopter’s rotor is something much simpler— it actually “auto rotates” in the airstream, and is not even powered by the motor. But it’s great for pin-sharp turns and dives at speeds over 100 mph.

The GT—built in seven months in a bicycle factory, and licensed, registered, smog certified, and insured since 2005—is entering the public domain as open-source plans, via this expired patent. You can build one!

The Streetwing will have both long-range and racing versions. It's a work in progress. (Courtesy of Dezso Molnar)

Molnar, meanwhile, is working on the second iteration of his design, and moving on to zero emission battery-powered flying cars. He tells me:

The new vehicle is the Streetwing.  I am currently developing a long-range version, and an open-cockpit racing version.  Both will have an electric final drive, and the goal is to have a vehicle that can fly or drive without needing fuel; one light enough that the surface area of the wings will provide adequate power to recharge the batteries.

For this, we are using electric motorcycle power plants, and we’re open-source engineering the design efforts. The objective is to reduce pollution by providing a flying car alternative to tired muscle cars that are making a tragic re-emergence.

And then there’s the racing series. “I’m creating a challenge for designers that will culminate in a contest a year from now,” Molnar said during a forum at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It’s called Flying Car Racing, and the teams will have to operate their flying cars legally on the ground and in the air—between El Mirage Dry Lake in California and Boulder City, Nevada. See you in the air?

The ill-fated Flying Pinto. It looked cool, you gotta admit.

This seems to be the month for chameleon vehicles. While at the LA Show, I visited the Galpin Ford exhibit and heard about the mega-dealership’s involvement with the Flying Pinto. Yes, there were actually plans to transform ordinary Fords into flying cars, with mega-dealer Galpin Motors optimistically signing on as a distributor. Here’s a promotional film (skip to the middle; it takes forever to get to the point):

The AVE Mizar Flying Pinto was supposed to solve the last-mile problem—getting to and from the airport. But a spectacular crash in 1973, killing two pilots, ended the venture before it launched.

The Icon A5 in action. It didn't crash land in the water--it's supposed to get wet. (Icon photo)

Finally, there’s the Icon A5. Not a flying car, but a two-seater flying boat. Now we’re back in the stratosphere, since it has a projected price tag of $222,000. Of course, float planes go way back, but this one can double as your lakeside cabin cruiser. It can also land on a runway, with retractable wheels. Reports Car and Driver, “If you’ve ever wondered what it’d be like to take off from your bathtub in a Mazda MX-5 Miata with wings, this is as close as you’ll probably get.”

Even if you’re scratching your head about how you’d actually afford or use this thing, you have to give Icon credit. Many builders of such contraptions have seen their projects stillborn—like the Flying Pinto. The A5--which sports a very car-like dash layout--actually flies, and you should soon be able to buy one.


Get the Car Talk Newsletter