“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.
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.