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Private Preview 2007: Personal Air Vehicles: The Early Birds

Michael Schulze

Almost as soon as automobiles existed, men dreamed of flying them. As early as 1917, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who had begun his career as a builder of bicycles and motorcycles, invented a flying car that he called the Autoplane. Accounts differ as to whether the vehicle ever left the ground, but it impressed enough people that the Pan-American Aeronautic Exposition included it among the exhibits in New York City’s Grand Central Palace in 1917. Twenty years later, inventor Waldo Waterman built the first car that definitely flew, the Arrowbile (now called the Aerobile), a three-wheeled vehicle with detachable wings. Two Arrowbiles completed flights from California to Ohio; the fifth and last one made was donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian also owns an example of the Airphibian, a flying car that Robert Fulton Jr. created in 1945 to help him travel around the country for government contract work. Fulton built eight production models of the Airphibian, but he lost his financial backing and never delivered the aircraft.

About the same period, inventor Molt Taylor created his Aerocar, which made its first cross-country flight in August 1950. Taylor built five Aerocars, but the vehicle never went into production, again because of funding problems. Taylor eventually sold serial number 4, built in 1956, to TV actor Bob Cummings, best known for his role as fashion photographer Bob Collins in the situation comedy Love That Bob. Cummings, who owned the car from 1960 to 1965, escorted a number of actresses in it, including Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner.

Serial number 4 is now in the hands of an inventor named Ed Sweeney, who continues to fly it at air shows. Sweeney harbors his own dream of building a flying car, which he has dubbed the Aerocar 2000. His concept involves attaching a flight module consisting of wings, tail, and powerplant to a two-seat Lotus Elise roadster. Sweeney hopes to produce a vehicle with a cruising speed of about 140 mph and a range of 300 miles. But like all lone inventors in the flying car business, he needs investors.

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