On December 8, 1949, Aerocar No. 1, a vehicle that could transform from an airplane to an automobile in just 15 minutes, is introduced to the public for the first time. The flying car is the brainchild of Moulton "Molt" Taylor (1912-1995), a gifted engineer and inventor born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in Longview and Kelso, Washington. Taylor has long dreamed of a vehicle that could be flown to an airfield, where its wings and tail are removed and stowed in a trailer-like compartment, and then be motoring down the highway within minutes. The dream consumes the next 40 years of his life. Although the Aerocar is certified as airworthy by the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1956, Taylor is unable to line up an aircraft or automobile manufacturer to mass-produce the vehicle. Only a handful of Aerocars are ever built.
The inaugural public flight of the Aerocar was staged to engage and reward Longview investors – teachers, businessmen, doctors -- who had each pledged $1,000 to the project. Taylor hoped that a successful flight would encourage more investors and publicity.
As the crowd gathered at the Longview airport, Taylor drove up in a small, squat two-seater car that looked vaguely futuristic. "Looking like a cross between something a child might draw and the silly BMW Isetta of the same period, the Aerocar in automobile mode was a real head-turner – for all the wrong reasons. But never mind. Here's what Taylor would do: He'd drive this thing to the Kelso airport, put on the wings and tail, and fly it back" ("Winging It").
He did just that, and the investors were delighted. As word spread, popular magazines and scientific journals alike devoted huge spreads to this exciting new flying vehicle, calling it the transportation of the future.
Lifelong Love of Flying
Molt Taylor was born in Portland, Oregon, on September 29, 1912, and grew up in Longview and Kelso in southeast Washington. As a boy, he built and flew model airplanes and worked at the local airport while he was still in high school. He earned his pilot's license at the age of 16 and an amateur radio operator's license, as well. He graduated from the University of Washington during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce, so he joined the U. S. Navy's aviation cadet training program, attending flight school in Pensacola, Florida, and served for three years. Later, when World War II broke out, Taylor was recalled by the Navy, rising to the rank of commander in charge of developing pilotless aircraft.
An inveterate tinkerer and gifted engineer, Taylor had designed many innovative craft, including an amphibian airplane known as the Coot, a one-seater aircraft called the Mini-IMP, and a small amphibious plane he called the Duckling. He had worked as a designer for the Learjet Corporation and started a business in partnership with his wife Lillian Verneil Gregory (1914-2002), also a pilot, to sell Luscombe and Culver airplanes. But his dream to design and build a flying car, one that could soar high above the traffic and then be parked safely in a suburban garage at night, took hold of him and never let go.
Early Test Flights
Other aeronautical engineers and designers had devoted themselves to the challenge of building a flying car, but they all encountered the same stumbling block: Planes have to be lightweight to become airborne but that same quality makes them unsafe to drive on the highway.
Taylor approached the project in an unorthodox way. "A planemobile, Taylor reasoned, didn't have to always be both car and plane at the same time. What if the wings and propeller were just accessories that could be put on before takeoff, then removed after landing? ... Beginning with a little yellow car that looked like a Mini Cooper, Taylor made a detachable wing-propeller combo that could be bolted snugly onto the back of his car in five minutes" ("Going Way Off-Road"). It was this ability to think outside the box that set the Aerocar's design apart.
Early test flights of the Aerocar had their ups and downs. During one flight at Toledo, Washington, the Aerocar spun out, causing Taylor to move his testing program to Chehalis, which had a longer runway. Soon his vehicle was consistently reaching an altitude of 200 feet. Two months after its first public flight, newspaper, magazine, and newsreel photographers began covering the Aerocar's flights from every angle and throughout every maneuver. The publicity helped keep Taylor's dreams alive.
It took nearly eight years, about $750,000, and some 700 hours in the air for the Aerocar to win certification as airworthy from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration). On the road, the Aerocar had about 20,000 test miles and could comply with all the motor vehicle codes that existed at the time.
Mass Production Never Comes
In spite of public interest and media excitement, Taylor was never able to find an aircraft company or automobile manufacturer to mass produce the Aerocar. He came closest in 1970 when Lee Iacocca, president of the Ford Motor Company, researched its market feasibility. The study produced by Ford showed a sales market of about 25,000 Aerocars annually. But new government safety and environmental regulations, coupled with concerns about thousands of regular people taking off into the air over major population centers, were huge issues and Ford decided to pass on the project.
Anywhere from five to seven Aerocars were produced, depending on whether prototypes and production models are counted. Two are on display in aviation museums and the rest are owned by private individuals.
An early version of the Aerocar -- a 1949 prototype known as N4994P – is on display in the Experimental Aviation Association's Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Aerocar III, built in 1968 and the final version of the flying car, is on view at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Taylor had purchased the Aerocar III from its original owner after it was damaged in a road accident and repaired it. After his death, his widow sold it in 1998 to the Museum of Flight, where it remains on display.