Car Culture: Flying cars are no longer flights of fancy

Phil Berg
Car Culture

Prolific science fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted in 1964 that we would create autonomous cars by the end of last year in a New York Times article imagining the then far-off World’s Fair of 2014. Asimov, a visionary, was almost right 50 years ago, since Google and Mercedes have debuted driverless cars, while nearly autonomous advanced assist systems appear on Lexus, BMW, Audi and Cadillac luxury cars.

But Asimov predicted another feat from the car industry due last year: Autonomous cars will fly.

His reasoning likely can be traced to the frenzy of inventors creating their own flying cars long before Asimov’s 1964 story. Locally, a Buick technician named Leland Dewey Bryan announced his three flying cars beginning in 1953 when he flew one at the Pontiac airport. He lived in Highland, across the street from a frozen lake he sometimes used as a runway for testing. The cars were actually “roadable airplanes” in concept, according to Bryan, who worked nearby at the Milford proving grounds.

Bryan’s creations were based on a small Continental-engined Ercoupe airplane with wings that folded so the machines could drive on the road. The first prototype flew in 1953; a second “Autoplane” was shown at both the Experimental Aircraft Association’s fly-in at Rockford, Illinois, and also at the Detroit Auto Show. Bryan’s third prototype was a two-seat version of the second model and could reach 60 mph on land or air. This machine carried an aircraft registration number as well as a Michigan license plate, the first and only flying car registered in the state.

Sadly, Bryan was killed in 1974 at the Oshkosh air show in a crash of his third model.

From the mid-1920s through the mid-’30s Detroit was home to the Ford Air Tours, the All-American Aircraft Show, and a flying challenge called the Cirrus Derby, so there’s a history of airplane tinkering here, although flying car enthusiasm seems invisible. These days other flying cars herald from elsewhere, including Massachusetts’ Terrafugia and California’s Moller Skycar.

Notable events in flying car history are marked in tragedy: Inventor Henry Smolinski from Cuyahoga, Ohio, started a company in California that built the Mizar, a Cessna Skymaster-powered Ford Pinto. Smolinski died in a crash testing the machine in 1973. Henry Dreyfuss, a designer in New York, created a fiberglass-bodied Convaircar in 1947, although a crash killing its test pilot ended the project. Waldo Waterman created several flying cars in California, following a 1933 contest proposed by the U.S. Air Commerce Bureau, including Studebaker and Corvair-powered machines, but financially they never took off.

It’s been almost a century since Frank Curtiss’ flying car patent in 1917, but only two flying car designs have ever been certified by the FAA as aircraft. The most famous, the Taylor Aerocar of 1959, of which only six examples were built, sold and flown, is the only one that was ever produced.

Enthusiasm for flying cars was present even when the interstate highway system was designed in 1956 — runways adjacent to highways were a serious part of the planning. These days, though, only western ranch roads and the Alcan Highway in Canada and Alaska have runways for aircraft, not flying cars.

None of that kills my interest in flying cars, and I have a lot more enthusiasm for them than the coming autonomous cars. As Henry Ford predicted in 1940, “Mark my words: A combination airplane and motorcar is coming. You may smile. But it will come.”