The Smithsonian owns this pristine Airphibian, Robert Edison Fuller Jr.'s dream of a flying car. (Photo: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)
We all dream of flying cars (and personal helicopters). I do anyway. And so apparently does Elon Musk, who told a British newspaper recently, “Maybe we’ll make a flying car, just for fun. I’ve thought about it quite a lot. We could definitely make a flying car — but that’s not the hard part.” The challenge, he said, is making a flying car “that’s super safe and quiet. Because if it’s a howler, you’re going to make people very unhappy.”
In 2000, for my book "Breaking Gridlock," I met with the late Robert Edison Fulton Jr., who built something called the “Airphibian” in the late 1940s. As a pilot, he was occasionally stranded at airports for want of a car, and thought maybe he could build something that would fly in, then head into town on four wheels. “I got started on it right after the war,” he remembers. “I figured that an airplane can’t drive down the road because of the wings, so why not leave the wings behind?”
The whole rear of the Airphibian undocked, leaving behind a cute, egg-shaped little car.
The Terrafugia Transition flying car, a work in progress, makes a banking turn during testing in upstate New York. (Photo: Terrafugia)
The plane worked, and after crashing a bunch of them, Fulton got a license from the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1950. But, like the famous Preston Tucker, by that point he’d run out of money. “I was disgusted and discouraged,” Fulton told me. “I was sure there was a market. Lots of people wanted to buy an Airphibian.” The only place to see an Airphibian now is the Smithsonian. The asking price for the car-plane would have been around $7,500, which was steep back then but not unreasonable.
Tons of others have tried to build flying cars. In the 1950s, Moulton Taylor built five Aerocars (one for actor Bob Cummings of Hogan’s Heroes fame) and it was immortalized in a Chuck Berry song. Consolidated Vultee thought it would mass-produce its 1947 ConvAIRCAR because it had a market “far greater than a conventional light plane.” Alas, the one built crashed in the California desert.
The Moller M400 Skycar can take off and land vertically. (Photo: Moller)
Dr. Paul Moller has devoted 50 years of his life to getting his M400 Skycar (capable of vertical takeoffs and landings) off the ground. Dutch engineers are trying to fly with a cool-looking road-going gyrocopter called the PAL-V. But hope springs eternal, and probably closest to the market is the Terrafugia Transition, a Massachusetts-based flying car with motorized wings that fold up at the touch of a button. When I first wrote about the Transition, in 2009, it was going to be offered to the public in 2011 for $149,000. It’s over $250,000 now.
Moulton Taylor's Aerocar worked on the same basic principles as the Airphibian. (Photo: Daniel M. Hendricks/Flickr)
I saw Terrafugia’s work in progress at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance earlier this month. A spokeswoman told me, “We’re anticipating a delivery in the first half of 2016.” Why the delay, I asked. “It’s not really a delay,” she said. “A lot of work has to be done, and it has to proceed in cooperation with the amount of funding that’s available.”
Terrafugia has raised $10 million, and also tried crowdfunding through WeFunder, but the spokeswoman declined to tell me how much was raised. “We don’t discuss details of funding,” she said. I hope this happens, because Tom and Ray appreciate this home state effort, and have been promised early test rides.
Maybe Elon Musk will build a flying car, but he certainly has a lot else on his plate, including launching the Model S in China, getting the global Supercharger network finished, bringing out the delayed Model X, and then — finally — getting to his $35,000, 200-mile mass-market car (no longer called the Model E, because Ford objected).
An Amphicar takes to the water in northern Michigan. (Photo: Chris Metcalf/Flickr)
But then again, maybe Musk will build a floating car instead. As those with long memories may recall, that what was arguably the very first car in the U.S., Oliver Evans’ “Oruktor Amphibolos,” demonstrated its prowess as an harbor dredger on both land and water in, yes, 1805. And the Germans got there first with the Amphicar, 3,700 of which were built from 1961 to 1968 by IWK. I still see them around, and the value has zoomed, even though critics back then called them “not a very good car, and not a very good boat either.” Come to think of it, people say that about flying cars.
Musk may be serious about this swimming car thing. Last year, he bought the water-loving Lotus Esprit driven by Roger Moore in "The Spy Who Loved Me." And he told the Independent,
“We will be making a submarine car. It can transition from being a submarine to a car that drives up on the beach. Maybe we’ll make two or three, but it wouldn’t be more than that. It’s not like we’d sell it, because I think the market for submarine cars is quite small.”
Watch here as the Terrafugia Transition makes the switch from car to plane:
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