Flying Cars: They're Closer Than You Think

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jul 27, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated with flying cars. At the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance in Connecticut, I recently came across one of the few prototype Transitions from Terrafugia—the latest company to defy convention and build a plane that can drive itself home from the airport. The challenge is to build a vehicle that's both a good car and a good plane. Many versions through the years have been neither one.

The carbon fiber-bodied, prop-driven Transition is being built by serious people. It has a range of almost 500 miles, runs on unleaded gas and has a flight speed of 107 mph. Under the hood, so to speak, is a Rotax 912S piston engine. As a car, it can reach 65 mph and, with wings folded, fit into a standard garage.

The Terrafugia Transition just cleared a major federal hurdle. (Terrafugia photo)
The Terrafugia Transition just cleared a major federal hurdle. (Terrafugia photo)

On June 30, Terrafugia took a giant step forward when it was granted a special exemption (the first granted under federal motor vehicle safety standards) by NHTSA for a “roadable aircraft” that will allow it to travel on the public roads. The Transition has both crumple zones and airbags, and it needs them to be highway-certified. To save weight, it has the polycarbonate windows that may eventually end up in production cars for the same reason.

The Transition isn’t going to take to the sky with customers flying cars this year. Both supply problems and design delays have pushed back the launch date to sometime in 2012. The plane is likely to cost $250,000, which hasn’t stopped 100 people from putting down deposits. Did you think that flying cars would be cheap?

But wait, there’s more. Lots more. A fellow named Burt Rutan has his own flying car called the Model 367 “Bipod.” The 100-mph car/plane , which can cruise 760 miles in the air, is seven feet long and has a 31-foot wingspan. I love the propulsion system, which resembles the Chevrolet Volt in using a gas engine as a generator to supply electric motors.

Rutan’s Model 367 is not headed for production, as Terrafugia is. The company describes the Bipod as “a rapid, low-cost electric test bed” that is part of “an internal research and development program.” It’s reportedly performed well in test flights.

The flight of the PAL-V did not go well. (PAL-V image)
The flight of the PAL-V did not go well. (PAL-V image)

The flight of the PAL-V didn’t go as well. Although it’s incredibly cute, this three-wheeled Dutch flying car (the acronym stands for Personal Air and Land Vehicle), looks like a flying pod straight out of Buck Rogers (with a roof-mounted gyro rotor that makes it look like the commuter helicopter that Sikorsky once dreamed of building). But, unfortunately, the recent in-air tests in Holland left visiting journalists underwhelmed.

There’s also a long history here. Do you think that the flying car is a recent invention? A device built as a flying car in 1935 was recently offered at auction. Observers said it looks like a submarine with seven-foot-wide wings. There’s no indication the vehicle, designed by Henri Mignet, a French furniture manufacturer, ever got off the ground. They wanted $35,000 to $55,000 for it.

And in approximately 2000, I went to visit the late Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. I was then writing Breaking Gridlock, a book on public transit and such, and flying cars fit in somehow. Fulton was then 92, but full of life. In the 1940s, just after World War II, he designed and built a really cool flying car. Of all the entries on the page, this one was the coolest--and probably really had a fighting chance back then.

“I got started on it right after the war,” he remembers with undiminished enthusiasm. “I figured that an airplane can’t drive down the road because of the wings, so why not leave the wings behind?” A working Airphibian was first shown to the press at the Danbury, Connecticut airport in 1946. Not surprisingly, the public was crazy about it. A “gag” photo of the period shows a cop giving Fulton a ticket for “flying too low,” attended by a large, grinning crowd.

But that proved the high point. As has happened with many would-be auto manufacturing, the rigors of crash testing (eight complete planes!) put him in debt. Investors eventually shut the operation down with just a few built. “I was disgusted and discouraged,” Fulton told me. “I was sure there was a market. Lots of people wanted to buy an Airphibian.” The car-plane would have cost about $7,500, not cheap then, but not bad either when you consider that it was both a car and a plane. There were many other dreamers. Moulton Taylor was inspired by Fulton to build his own Aerocar, five of which were produced (and one of which was purchased and used by actor Bob Cummings). A company called Consolidated Vultee built a working model of a flying car in 1947. But before the public got a chance to buy a ConvAIRCAR, the one prototype crash-landed in the California desert. More recently we’ve had the four-seater M400 Skycar, a decidedly modern flying car, powered by eight rotary engines, that can take off and land vertically like British Harrier jets.

 Burt Rutan's flying car is so far just a test bed. (Scaled Composites, LLC photo)
 Burt Rutan's flying car is so far just a test bed. (Scaled Composites, LLC photo)

This stuff is all great fun. I’m with Chuck Berry, who sang about an “Aeromobile” in his 1956 song “You Can’t Catch Me”; it had “a powerful motor and some highway wings.” And why not?

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