A Look Back and Forward at the Flying Car

With talks of cars being airborne in the next five years it's time to take a look back (and forward) at how we managed to be on the verge of stealing science fiction's thunder (again).

What do the Jetsons and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang have in common? They both involve flying cars – a concept that’s nothing new in Hollywood. But these contraptions are not just a fantasy; in fact, for over a hundred years, we have been trying to get cars off of the ground.

Scroll down for the video.

There was even a patent for such a vehicle as early as 1841, but many of these underdeveloped cars didn’t fly. It wasn’t until 1934 when a flying car called the Arrowbile actually cruised in the sky. But it didn’t go nearly as far as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang could, and its high cost and bulkiness were not practical for the average consumer. So even though it flew, the overall concept still crashed and burned.

A picture of the Maverick flying car in development by w:I-TEC. Image Source: Tory Townsend – http://itecusa.org/images/IMG_4806.JPG

Inventors continued to obsess over designing a car that could transport passengers on both land and in the air, and throughout the 1900s, some of these cars worked (to some degree) and had the potential to make a Jetson-like car into a reality. But getting an automobile into the air is only half of the battle, and many of the early, successful flying vehicles never made it to the masses due to politics, safety issues, and finances.

A lot of flying cars have been tested since. And today there are still a lot of companies experimenting with how to get one on the market. One such company that attempted this feat happens to be Uber with hopes of rolling out their flying taxi service soon. And according to Tesla designer, Elon Musk, the Tesla Model F is preparing for its debut in 2019. And that’s not all, Dubai is currently creating taxis for lift off too. Does this mean that we will see a highway in the sky in our future? Or are everyday flying cars just a Sci-Fi lovers dream?

Ford Anglia 105E Deluxe sedan – Harry Potter Flying Car. This is one of the original cars used in the making of the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, on display at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. Image Source: sv1ambo on Flickr

Can you believe that an idea for a car in the sky received a patent in 1841? John Stringfellow and William Samuel had a vision for a very basic flying car that would have a wingspan of 150 feet, and wheels and a motors. They went so far as to patent their idea but were never able to fully execute an actual product. Bummer, if they had continued to brainstorm, maybe we all could take a shortcut home through the clouds.

Similarly, Glenn Curtiss promoted his Auto Plane of 1917 at the Pan Am Aeronautical Exposition. Standing at only 10 ft, it looked like a small hummer limousine with all the flying characteristics of an old Wright plane. The futuristic car had a propellor (that could be used on land and in the air), an aluminum body, and plastic windows.

The vehicle also utilized a Curtiss motor that had eight cylinders, 100 horsepower, and could reach speeds of up to 65 miles an hour in the sky. This was faster than a hang-glider, and for back then, spectacular.

This Auto Plane featured three detachable wings, which not only gave the vehicle a wacky look, but did not always function properly. This issue could have been why the Curtiss Autoplane never became the first roadable aircraft, although Curtiss did design a working prototype.

Aerocar 600, fantasy flying car, 2007 Fremont Fair, Seattle, Washington. Source: Joe Mabel on Wiki Commons

However, it could shelter you from a snowstorm (while stranded on the ground) because it included a heater to keep you warm.

This is too bad for Curtiss, who had many previous accolades to his name. According to an “Aerial Age” weekly ad from March 10th, 1915, he was the first licensed pilot in America, he designed and built the only flying lifeboat, he was the first commercial manufacturer of aeronautical motors in the United States, and he even furnished instructions for ground schools and flying fields.

But Curtiss was not so successful with his real-life Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car with wings, even though newspapers at that time said the vehicle was the most interesting at the Pan Am Aeronautical Exposition. Even a renaissance man like Curtiss couldn’t find a way to get his somewhat working car out of the prototype stage because the project was abandoned as soon as the U.S. entered World War I. Don’t worry, Curtiss made up for it because it’s estimated that around 95% of Canadian and American flyers trained on other Curtiss machines during the war..

Since then, there were many other attempts to get a car off the ground, but none of them were successful until 1934 when the Arowbile took flight. You can now see this vehicle at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Designer Waldo Waterman created six of these puppies before one finally got in the air.

This Terrafugia Transition Production Prototype drivable airplane debuted 2012 New York International Auto Show. This flying car was said to be capable of getting 35 mpg when on the road and up to 400 to 450 miles when in the air. . Image Source: Steve Cypher via Wiki Commons

How did it work? The vehicle was a monoplane that had a transmission similar to a car that would not only control wheels for ground transportation but also control the propeller during in-air flights. Interestingly, to keep the cost down, this vehicle’s creators utilized both Ford and Studebaker parts. Safety was never the primary concern.

Although the flight was successful, this vehicle never made it to the market and because of the unrealistic cost for consumers and safety concerns. Today, it’s still futuristic-looking with its snazzy blue and white paint job, arched square windows, and covered wheels. The Jetsons would be proud, but bitter that they couldn’t drive it.

This GS-2 Glasair is a pretty yellow color.
This GS-2 Glasair is a pretty yellow color. Photo Source: FlugKerl2 via Wiki Commons

Most of us have heard of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. But did you know there was a flying tank race between the two countries as well? Designers envisioned flying tanks that would be prosperous and potent weapons of war, and beginning in 1932, the United States and Russia began investing immense amounts of money to make the flying tank a reality.

One such U.S. flying tank project was conjured up by John Walter Christie, a successful tank builder for the U.S. Army. He attempted to make an armed tank that would also function as a bombing plane capable of speeding up to 70 miles per hour! Christie said, “The flying tank is a machine to end war. Knowledge of its existence and possession will be a greater guarantee of peace than all the treaties that any human ingenuity can concoct. A flock of flying tanks set loose on an enemy, and any war is brought to an abrupt finish” (Popular Mechanics). Yikes. This was a hypothesized flying weapon that was capable of giving children nightmares.