There is perhaps no other imagined technology more dear to the hearts of boomers than the flying car. Throughout our generation’s early years, the promise of taking a car from the road and into the skies was always thought of as not a matter of “if,” but rather, “when.”
The history of the flying car dates back to the early beginnings of the auto industry. The first serious attempt was made by Glenn Curtiss in 1917. He created the Curtiss Autoplane with a four-blade propeller on the back and a Studebaker engine up front. It never actually flew, but did manage a hop-and-a-skip. For this reason, Curtiss is often referred to as the “father of the flying car.”
As early as 1918 — just over a decade after the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk — automakers were experimenting with cars that had wings and propellers, though very few ever got off the ground, and none made it to the production level.
The link to airplanes and flight continued in July, 1924 when famous World War I flying Ace and land-speed racer Eddie Rickenbacher wrote what is thought to be the first story about flying cars for Popular Science magazine. In his essay he posited that flying cars were definitely something that would happen, he thought, within twenty years. His imagined flying car would have fold-back wings for when the car was driving on the road. He envisioned a smaller, lighter car body, as well as a smaller engine made from lighter-weight materials not yet available in 1924. He was on to something, because throughout the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, inventors of all stripes experimented with flying car prototypes, with some losing their lives in the process. These flights of fancy continued until they were interrupted by World War II.
After WWII the wave of optimism that ran through the country and gave birth to the Baby Boomers also revived interest in the flying car. In 1946 the Airphibian was realized by inventor Robert E. Fulton, Jr. (whose ancestor had invented the steamboat). His flying machine came in two pieces: the aluminum airplane cab that served as the car body, and a fuselage which could easily be attached to the “car,” which had fixed wings made of fabric. It was the first vehicle to be certified by the Civil Aereonautics Administration (the predecessor to the Federal Aviation Administration.). The “car” had wheels, so it is unclear to Mister Boomer why he choice to name it as a vehicle intended for water.
The boomer years were underway when Moulton Taylor built his Aerocar in 1947. Inspired by the Airphibian, it was essentially a car that could be backed into an airplane component that locked onto the car, so airplane and car were completely separate units. This flying car held such promise that Ford Motor Company considered marketing the vehicle as late as 1970, but suspended discussion when the world oil crisis developed.
In 1956 Ford was envisioning its own flying car. Called the Volante Tri-Athodyne, it was an all-in-one concept vehicle propelled by three large duct fans. The U.S. Army got into the spirit in 1958 when they commissioned three companies — including Chrysler Motors — to develop a “flying Jeep.” Some prototypes were built that actually flew, but the Army brass ultimately decided the idea was not practical for modern battlefields and switched their focus to the development of helicopters.
So it seemed boomers’ dreams of flying cars was fueled by the previous generation. The Space Race threw extra fuel on the fire for boomers, as the technological abilities of humankind were stretched to new heights. In the 1960s flying cars went from the drawing board to the silver screen and television. The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) saw Fred MacMurray’s character turn a Model T into a flying car by gassing it up with “flubber,” a substance of the character’s invention, and bombarding it with radiation.
Supercar appeared on TV in 1962. It was a British show that made its way to American TV. It consisted of marionette figures and a flying car that figured prominently in each episode. As a “car,” it hovered over the ground on a cushion of air, predating the land speeder of Star Wars fame (1977). It could also travel into space or under water.
The Jetsons also aired in 1962. A TV cartoon series about the modern family of the future, among the amazing technologies employed by the family was a flying car that folded up into a briefcase so George Jetson could carry it to his desk at work — no parking lot needed.
In 1969, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang pictured a car in the 1910s built by an eccentric inventor. Among its amazing functions was flight when flexible wings unfolded from under the car’s chassis.
It was clear by the end of the 1960s that we had the technology. Yet there were no flying cars to be seen in boomers’ immediate future. Adding to the engineering and technical hurdles were the practicalities of take-off and landing, safety of both passengers and people on the ground, noise and pollution issues and airspace conflicts. It is likely that these are the real reasons there were no flying cars when boomers drove muscle cars back in the ’70s. We can probably thank our lucky stars for that, considering the street racing and customization that went on with vehicles at the time.
Now we are poised to see several flying cars actually making it into the hands of aging boomers within the next year or two. The Terrafugia Transition, a folding wings flying car, will debut at $279,000, while the Pal-V One, a mash-up of a helicopter and motorcycle, is being offered at $285,000. Both are scheduled for release in 2015, with more coming in the near future. Now that the engineering and technology parts of the equation have been solved, many questions still remain.
Perhaps it is good thing that the cost of purchasing these vehicles will keep these flying cars from the garages of most boomers. Yet it is fun to think that back in the 1960s, the U.S highway system could have been constructed with take-off and landing spots, just like the exits that exist on freeways now. “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” could very well have been “See the U.S.A. in your Autoplane.”
Did you have dreams of flying cars in your boomer years? Do you still want one today?