A Flying Car Took to the Skies Back in 1949: See the Taylor Aerocar in Action

“A secret ques­tion hov­ers over us, a sense of dis­ap­point­ment, a bro­ken promise we were giv­en as chil­dren about what our adult world was sup­posed to be like,” the late anthro­pol­o­gist David Grae­ber once wrote in the Baf­fler. This refers to “a par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tional promise — giv­en to those who were chil­dren in the fifties, six­ties, sev­en­ties, or eight­ies — one that was nev­er quite artic­u­lat­ed as a promise but rather as a set of assump­tions about what our adult world would be like.” In the con­fus­ing­ly dis­ap­point­ing future we now inhab­it, one ques­tion hov­ers above them all: “Where, in short, are the fly­ing cars?”

Even those of us not yet born in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry can sense the cul­tur­al import of the fly­ing car to that era, and not just from its sci­ence fic­tion. Chuck Berry was singing about fly­ing cars back in 1956: His song “You Can’t Catch Me” tells of rac­ing down the New Jer­sey Turn­pike in a cus­tom-made “air­mo­bile,” a “Flight DeV­ille with a pow­er­ful motor and some hide­away wings.”

This was­n’t whol­ly fan­tas­ti­cal, giv­en that an actu­al fly­ing car had been built sev­en years ear­li­er. Demon­strat­ed in the news­reel from that year at the top of  the post, the Aero­car came designed and built by a solo inven­tor, for­mer World War II pilot Moul­ton Tay­lor of Longview, Wash­ing­ton, who in 1959 would appear on the pop­u­lar game show I’ve Got a Secret.

The pro­gram’s pan­elists attempt to guess the nature of Tay­lor’s inven­tion as he puts it togeth­er onstage, for the Aero­car required some assem­bly. Though con­sid­er­ably more com­pli­cat­ed than the push-but­ton mech­a­nism imag­ined by Berry, the process took only five min­utes to con­vert from auto­mo­bile to air­plane, or so the inven­tor promised. Despite secur­ing the Civ­il Avi­a­tion Author­i­ty’s approval for mass pro­duc­tion, Tay­lor could­n’t find a suf­fi­cient num­ber of buy­ers, and in the end only built six Aero­cars. But one of them still flies, as seen on the first episode of the 2008 series James May’s Big Ideas. “I wouldn’t have flown it if I’d seen the wings were attached with elab­o­rate paper­clips,” writes the for­mer Top Gear co-host, “but by the time I real­ized this, we were already at 2,000 feet.”

“As an air­plane, it was actu­al­ly pret­ty good,” May admits, “but then, it would be, because an air­plane is what it was.” As a car, “it was dia­bol­i­cal. Worse than the Bee­tle, to be hon­est, and not helped by the require­ment to drag all the unwant­ed air­planey bits behind you on a trail­er.” Still, the expe­ri­ence of fly­ing in the Aero­car clear­ly thrilled him, as it would any car or plane enthu­si­ast. Even in a non-air­wor­thy state the Aero­car cer­tain­ly thrills Matthew Burchette, cura­tor at Seat­tle’s Muse­um of Flight. In the video above he intro­duces the muse­um’s Aero­car III, the last one Tay­lor built. “If you’re about my age, you real­ly want­ed your jet­pack,” says the gray-haired Burchette, though a fly­ing car would also have done the trick. Alas, more than half a cen­tu­ry after Tay­lor’s ambi­tious project, human­i­ty seems to have made no appar­ent progress in that depart­ment; jet­packs, how­ev­er, seem to be com­ing along nice­ly.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New­ly Unearthed Footage Shows Albert Ein­stein Dri­ving a Fly­ing Car (1931)

The Time­less Beau­ty of the Cit­roën DS, the Car Mythol­o­gized by Roland Barthes (1957)

A Har­row­ing Test Dri­ve of Buck­min­ster Fuller’s 1933 Dymax­ion Car: Art That Is Scary to Ride

178,000 Images Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of the Car Now Avail­able on a New Stan­ford Web Site

NASA Puts 400+ His­toric Exper­i­men­tal Flight Videos on YouTube

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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