If only my car could fly! Who has not uttered this cry in traffic? But what motivated the people who began designing flying cars near the turn of the 20th century?
Most aviation pioneers of the time were thinking not in terms of flight alone but of “personal mobility” and getting cars to take wing, according to John Brown, editor of the Internet magazine Roadable Times. In fact, he notes, “the true brilliance” of the Wright Brothers—who demonstrated sustained, controlled powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903—was their decision to concentrate solely on flying and “forget about the roadability part.”
Of course, over time, additional reasons for pursuing flying cars came into play. Near the end of World War I, for instance, a Chicagoan named Felix Longobardi had military flexibility in mind. In his patent application, submitted in June 1918, he detailed a contraption that was a flying car as well as a gunboat—“for anti-air-craft purposes”—and a submarine. (It saw neither light of day nor eye of fish.)
Even before World War I ended, Glenn H. Curtiss, the legendary aircraft designer, submitted a patent for an “autoplane” that he intended to be a “pleasure craft.” And Moulton B. Taylor, whose Aerocar was famously used by actor Robert Cummings, wrote in his 1952 patent application that he wanted his invention to be suitable “for air or highway travel, and inexpensive enough to appeal to a potentially large market.”
To date, dozens of patents for flying cars have been issued, and more than 10, including a successor to the Aerocar, are under serious development. One developer, Terrafugia in Woburn, Mass., is perfecting (and taking $10,000 deposits for) the Transition, a light sport plane that is not meant for everyday driving. After landing at an airport, though, pilots should be able to fold the wings electronically and just drive the rest of the way to their destination. Test flights in March went well, but whether the company will take off as hoped remains to be seen.