Story and Pictures by Wild Bill Hill
The future is strange to us, or at least that is the general consensus. When we think of the future, certain scientific anomalies dominate our consciousness: the personal robot, the teleportation device, the complete meal in a cup, the flying car, etc. We imagine that these are machines that would be built far off in the distant future, with teams of corporate or government backed engineers working tirelessly to produce such fantastic creations. After all, in what era could one have the knowhow or the money to make something like a flying car? The answer to that question is 1949.
Moulton Taylor was an engineer from the University of Washington and spent World War II in the United States Navy working on the U.S. missile program. Oh, and he built a flying car. In 1946, flight worthy automobiles had already been built, but after Taylor met and spoke with Robert Fulton, the designer of the 1946 Airphibian, Taylor decided he could build a better one.
The first Taylor Aerocar was built in 1949, and is a machine that was not only visionary compared to other flying cars, but futuristic for any craft at all. The Aerocar has wishbone suspension on all four of its axles, front-wheel drive, and a large amount of fiberglass within the construction to keep down the weight. The Aerocar isn’t a particularly large vehicle, with a 34-foot wingspan and a wing area of 190-feet squared (a modern personal plane today features similar dimensions), and tops out at 160 miles per hour in the air.
The Taylor Aerocar was truly groundbreaking when it was first completed, and was the best attempt yet at providing the public with flying autos. The car received certification from the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1956 and was the closest road able aircraft to enter production in history. As it stands, six Aerocars were built, with one still operational today.
Ed Sweeney owns the Aerocar N102D, one of three first generation Aerocars in existence, and the only one that is still functioning (I had the rare and distinct privilege of riding in it). Sweeney is a Colorado native who knew Taylor in high school and later purchased the 102D in 1988 for what he now estimates is one sixth of the car’s worth. Sweeney has fully restored the car to flight and road worthiness. Sweeney started up his Aerocar 2000 business, building his own Aerocar in the spirit of Taylor’s. His son Sean regularly pilots N102D, while his other son Eric runs a repair shop at the North Auburn Airport in California called Auburn Airplane Works, where the Aerocar has been both housed and maintained. The shop’s specialty is repairing and restoring quirky or unusual aircraft and welcomes the challenge of making any airplane flight worthy again.
When building his craft, Taylor had the difficult task of creating a vehicle capable of both road and air use. The wingspan of the Aerocar is, after all, a third of a football field long, which isn’t exactly tailor made for traveling on a city street. In the end however, the Aerocar is designed so one person can make the switch from one mode of transportation to the other in roughly five minutes. The wings are unhinged and rotated, resting behind the car in a trailer-like formation and like something out of Inspector Gadget. The license plate flips up, allowing the user to engage/disengage the rotor from the flight module. In addition, Taylor’s invention further distinguishes itself as the first truly mobile flying car. Earlier attempts featured detachable fixed wings that must be left at the airport, while the Aerocar simply folds them up and continues on its way (although it is possible to detach the wings and tail as well as fold them).
Looking at the Aerocar as just an automobile, the car appears to be an exceptionally well-built car from the 1950s. The car weighs about 1,500 pounds courtesy of the lightweight fiberglass construction, necessary because of the two different drive mechanisms onboard. The car maxes out at 67mph, as the accelerator is deliberately restricted to give only a third of available power (about 135 horsepower) while the car is on the ground.
The interior is a unique hybrid of automotive and aeronautical controls, featuring a steering wheel, gearshift, speedometer, oil, pressure, and fuel gauges for driving. The car also features an altimeter, compass, temperature gauges, and a confusing but efficient system of five pedals at the feet of the operator. The pedals are for the left and right rudders, acceleration, brakes, and clutch.
Incidentally enough, the hybrid controls aren’t the only things that are similar between the ground and air modules: the Aerocar can travel exactly 400 miles on one tank of gas, either driving or flying.
The spirit of innovation and adventure created the Aerocar. Moult Taylor saw a possibility and went out to design and build it. Now, almost 60 years later, the progress towards a production model, road able aircraft is in a similar place that it was when Taylor worked towards it. Yet, perhaps with a bit more innovation, we can soon see four wheels and an undercarriage flying over our heads.