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Sunday, July 15, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Winging It! -- Down The Road, Through The Clouds The Aerocar Idea Is Still Aloft

What a future!

Look at it: Soon we would rocket to the planets for vacations. Big, bubble-shaped rooms would give us views well worth the fare to Mars (though the pictures never actually specified where, for instance, we'd sleep. Just big, bubble-shaped rooms, with smiling Moms and Dads looking down at Junior and Sis, their faces pressed against the astro-plastic material that protected them from the always ``hostile'' environment outside).

We watched ``The Ed Sullivan Show.'' We saw the Air Force guy strap that rocket thing to his back and, by manipulating the handles that extended forward, actually take off, fly around and land. Good deal! It would be a matter of months before we were all doing this. Businesslike men in their suits, reading their newspapers and wearing their Cary Grant hats, zooming off to the office.

This was a pretty exciting time, here in the heady years following World War II. Ray Bradbury had figured it all out. There would never again be any problems. Science (since called ``technology'' and, now, ``high tech'') would lead us forward to horizons that couldn't even be seen from a rocket belt at maximum altitude.

Already for about $3,000 you could buy an Amphicar, which was an ugly little convertible automobile that you could drive into the water, where it would magically become an ugly little boat.

Young men dreamed of the day they would be old enough to afford the several hundred dollars to build a gyrocopter, the plans for which were available for a few dollars from the Benson company. The address was in the back pages of all those magazines commonly read by the generation of practical dreamers the country had produced. If you could dream it, soon it would be done.

Enter Molt Taylor. He was a man with an idea.

``The most important thing in life is time,'' he said. ``The only way you can make time is to save it. Saving time is the only reason there are automobiles or airliners. Did you ever think of how much time you would save if you could fly everywhere?''

The problem with airplanes, thought Taylor, is that they never take you where you want to go. They take you to some airport instead. And unless you happened to own an airplane, they left when they wanted to, not when you did.

``The passenger railroad became outmoded because of automobiles,'' he continued. ``Trains don't go until they want to go, and then they only go to depots. Cars aren't that good an answer, either, because no matter how good the highway system, cars are slow.''

Taylor cogitated on these facts for some time, and came up with a conclusion.

``I reasoned all this out and figured that somebody should build a flying car,'' he said. That somebody, it turned out, was Taylor.

Before this story unfolds any more, it's important to say a little something about Moulton B. Taylor, because it would otherwise be easy to write him off as just another of those colorful crackpot inventors, the kind whose inspiration often as not is visible only to them because there's not much there to see.

Taylor's life parallels that of our great aviation heroes. He was born in Portland in 1912, a time when there was enough wild left in the West to make it a place hospitable only to very sturdy folk. As soon as he was old enough to be interested in anything, he grew to love airplanes. His family moved to Longview. Taylor built his model airplanes and flew them and, on the rare occasion when an airplane came to town, he'd be the first to arrive and the last to leave.

This was the day of the barnstormer; a time when young men bitten by the flying bug in the World War had discovered that they could not bring themselves to return to whatever they had been doing before. Aviation was something for which there was not yet much use, so those who wanted to make their living flying typically bought old warplanes for a couple hundred dollars and hit the sky. They would land in open fields near towns, put on little air shows, and pick up a few dollars giving rides to the adoring locals. It was the most romantic life imaginable, and it very much appealed to young Taylor. When he was 14, he got his first hop in an old biplane, and after that he never doubted that whatever he did with life, it would involve airplanes.

Like our great aviation heroes, he knew how to fly long before he turned 16, and as soon as he reached that legally mandated age he took his solo hop and was awarded his ticket. He was a licensed pilot.

Soon he was off to the University of Washington to study aeronautical engineering and business, obtaining degrees in both. Then he became a naval aviation cadet and rolled up flight hours in Curtis biplanes flung by catapults off the decks of cruisers.

He found time to build his first airplane, constructed from the remains of a trashed two-seat Cub trainer. Most people would have been content to restore the plane to flyable condition. Not Taylor. He built it for instrument flight, then very much in its infancy. This required a small, inexpensive aircraft radio - so he invented one. From this project grew the Taylor Airphone Products company, which was going great guns when World War II erupted and Molt Taylor became Lt. Cmdr. Molt Taylor, USN. As an engineer, he was assigned to help invent the surface-to-surface missile. The top-secret project came up with a powered bomb that had a television camera in its nose. A pilot in another aircraft, perhaps miles away, could guide the warhead to its target.

Taylor was the first person to fly the new weapon into a target, proving that the design was simple enough that a flyer could pilot his own plane and the missile at the same time. He was awarded the Legion of Merit as a result.

After the war he considered several airplane manufacturing plans before he hit on the idea of the flying car. The logic of it was so perfect, so symmetrical. It would succeed. No doubt about that.

Of course, it would take money, something that Taylor had in only limited supply.

``I was in Philadelphia, and I talked to my father, who ran the savings-and-loan out in Longview,'' he recalls. ``He said to come on out, we'd raise the money.'' It may have been, Taylor remembers, that it was a ploy to get him to where his father could talk him out of this business of building a flying automobile. In any case, he went to Longview and before too long the elder Taylor shared his son's vision and enthusiasm.

``Think of it,'' Taylor would tell prospective investors. ``You fly to the airport, fold up the wings and remove the tail, and leave them at the airport, while you drive to wherever you have your business.

``Or imagine that you're flying and you run into weather. You land the plane, but you don't have to stay at the airport. Just fold up the wings and tow them and the tail, trailer-style, until you've gone under the weather. Then go to another airport, take off, and you're on your way again. No time wasted.'' This would be a machine offering door-to-door, not airport-to-

airport service.

``We found 50 guys, each willing to invest $1,000, and that was enough to allow us to build the prototype.'' It doesn't take much imagination to realize that designing and building an automobile that would double as an airplane was not a simple matter. The idea that one guy could design such a craft from the ground up - literally - and have the thing ready to fly in less than a year, and do it all for less than $50,000, is nothing short of astonishing today.

There were, of course, problems. The tail had to be raised well off the ground or the propeller, which pushed the plane from behind the tail, would scrape the ground on takeoff. But that made the tail too high for storage in most garages - so the tail itself was turned upside down, into a Y-shape. It turns out that configuration made the craft more stable in the air.

The car had to be front-wheel drive, because it landed on its rear wheels, the front pair touching the ground only after the plane-car slowed considerably. The sudden spin of wheels connected to anything involved with the drive train would have destroyed the drive train, which eliminated the possibility of rear-wheel drive.

``The engineering is unbelievable,'' says John Lanciault. One of the best restorers of old airplanes in the country - a Grumman Goose amphibian he completed last year is a centerpiece at the National Air & Space Museum - he is restoring that original prototype of what came to be called the Aerocar. The restoration is being done in a hangar at Executive Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When it's done, the plane will be fully flyable, the car driveable.

``Molt thought of everything,'' says Lanciault. ``When the tail and wings are put on, the driving controls are disengaged and the flight controls take over. The steering wheel locks into position fore and aft when it's a car - but becomes a yoke that moves in and out when it's an airplane. What is a horn on the ground becomes a stall warning horn in the air. And it's all put together with interlocks that make it impossible to drive or fly unless everything is in order.''

Following nine months of development work, the prototype - Aerocar No. 1 - was ready to be demonstrated to the investors. Molt gathered them at the Longview airport, then drove up in what can be described only as one of the ugliest automobiles ever put together. 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. That ought to prove his point, oughtn't it?

Which it certainly did. The investors were overjoyed. Taylor was overjoyed. The futuristic science and mechanics publications were overjoyed, too, and ran big spreads about this exciting new transportation system of the future. An oil company sponsored a tour by Taylor and his driving-flying machine. He - and it - appeared on ``I've Got a Secret.''

``The world beat a path to our door,'' remembers Taylor. ``Everybody wanted to buy one. The only problem was, we didn't have any to sell them.''

Though the red tape then was nothing compared with what it is today, even in 1949 it was not possible to simply crank out automobile/airplanes and sell them to anybody who had the money. The government needed to certify planes as being safe for flight before they could be produced and sold. That is an expensive process.

So Molt Taylor, innovative aeronautical engineer, once again became Molt Taylor, tub thumper. The securities laws were such that he had to limit his fund raising to Washington state, but in due course he was able to sell enough stock in Aerocar Inc. to now have the $750,000 he figured he'd need to get government certification.

Despite the difficult process, the Aerocar was certified in 1956.

Aerocar Inc. began to crank out Aerocars. It was an expensive process, because the next phase - establishing a proper factory - hadn't been undertaken. Six Aerocars were built and, except for one that was wrecked by testing, they are all still around today. The first few, being hand-built, cost $25,000 a copy, though Taylor believed that once a production line was set up he could make money selling them for $15,000.

Anyway, there were many more buyers than Aerocars.

Among those who managed to buy one was Robert Cummings. One of the best-known pilots in the country, the handsome actor used the Aerocar almost as his co-star on the ``Love That Bob'' television series. When he took promotional tours for the show, he'd always land his Aerocar, amid great fanfare, at a local airport, then drive to wherever he was supposed to appear. It was a good gimmick for him and good for Aerocar Inc., but that's not why he flew it.

``It's a real joy to fly,'' he told interviewers. ``I love it.''

Orders poured in. But Aerocar Inc. had no airplanes to sell. An arrangement through a third company to have the Aerocar built by LTV Corp. fell through. But the idea was such a good one, and so many people wanted to buy, that Taylor could for once breathe easily and relax a little. Sure, there was work to be done. For instance, there was that nagging little problem of the car being so unrelentingly ugly.

When one of the lucky few was able to buy an Aerocar from Taylor, it was with the provision that, should the owner ever wish to sell, Taylor had the first crack at it. It turned out that Aerocar No. 5 had been involved in an accident - a car crash. Molt bought it back and rebuilt it, with attention this time to styling. Though the finished product was not a thing to cause panic in the classy Italian design houses, at least now, without wings and tail, the Aerocar was sort of slightly reminiscent of an actual automobile. And again, everybody wanted one. And again, there was none to be had. There was no factory to build them.

But now the Ford Motor Co. was interested. Molt was ecstatic. The Department of Transportation was terrified.

``Ford sent engineers out here in 1970,'' says Taylor, ``and they said, `My God! Here's the future of the automobile!' They went back and did some research and figured that they could sell 25,000 of them a year.''

This was finally it. Ford knew how to build a good product, and with that kind of quantity the price would be low. Taylor's dream of a combination airplane and automobile for everyone would come true at last.

``So Ford's engineers and my people went to the DOT and said that we wanted to build 25,000 of these things a year. The DOT threw a fit! They said no way - there was no way they were going to let us put an additional 25,000 of anything in the air. Their traffic air-control system was already screwed up.''

New regulations, effective since the original Aerocar had been certified, made it almost impossible to get an updated version approved. This was not because it couldn't be certified as an airplane, not at all. The DOT insisted that it be certified as an automobile.

The Ford engineers went back to Michigan and took out their slide rules. The financial people did, too. They decided that it would cost $400 million just to see the project through its development stages. The future of the automobile would have to be arranged by someone else.

And that, for the moment, was that. The original handful of Aerocars, those first six, were all that were ever built.

Today, the very first one is being rebuilt. It's a long, slow process, because not all the parts were there when the crated plane arrived last year.

``Because it was the prototype, many changes were made in the later ones, to make them easier to manufacture and sell,'' says Lanciault, who has undertaken the project for the Buehler Foundation, an organization that does much to preserve milestones in aviation history. ``This means that we're having to reinvent a lot of it. Molt has been crucial in helping us do this.''

When the Aerocar is completed, it will be taken to the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual fly-in in Oshkosh, Wis., after which it will become part of the EAA's museum there.

The one that used to be owned by Cummings is in Florida, too.

Family business took a fellow by the name of Ed Sweeney to Longview in 1959. And, just as Taylor had become enamored of the idea of a flying automobile years earlier, Sweeney took a great interest in this unusual vehicle. He became friends with Taylor. He wanted an Aerocar - no, he had to have an Aerocar! Time came that Taylor repurchased the one belonging to Cummings. Sweeney was waiting.

``Oh, yes, we fly it,'' said Sweeney, talking about the car-plane at a reception at the National Air & Space Museum last November. ``We've had it at Oshkosh. It turns a lot of heads.''

Sweeney does not take flying lightly. He and his wife, Sandra, also a pilot with a taste for unusual aircraft, live at Spruce Creek, near Daytona. It's a development designed to make recreation as accessible as possible. But instead of the more typical golf course, Spruce Creek is built around an airport.

It is here that Aerocar No.4, Cummings' co-star, makes its home. Sweeney has other one-of-a-kind Aerocar items, such as a non-automobile fuselage that plugs in in place of the little car. The advantage is that in this configuration the Aerocar can carry four people instead of two.

Two other Aerocars are flown from time to time, one on loan to Seattle's Museum of Flight, the other owned by an Idaho company.

The remaining one was last reported sold in Southern California, but nobody has any idea who has it now.

That would seem to be the end to an interesting chapter in aviation history, a situation not unlike the millions that must have taken place as creatures evolved: A beast perfectly well equipped for survival, indeed to become a dominant species, crushed by random factors that had nothing to do with its ability to survive and thrive. An unhappy story, and one that's at an end.

Don't let Taylor hear you talking like that! The Aerocar idea is as much alive to him now as it ever was.

``I got to thinking,'' he says, ``and if the DOT won't let us certify our airplane as a car, we'll approach it from the other direction. We'll take a car that's already certified and make it into an airplane!''

He's already done some development work involving a Honda CRX. Unlike the original Aerocar, this new manifestation would use the car's engine for driving and a separate gas turbine engine in the tail for flying. He says the thing could easily cruise at 180 miles per hour.

He's also looking at a new small car

from Citroen, the French car maker.

But there's still the problem of crowding the skies with zillions of new airplanes, right? Don't let him hear you say that, either.

``You could take every airplane in the United States, airliners included, and put them all in the air all at once over the state of Washington and still space them so that no one in any airplane would be able to see any other airplane,'' he says. ``So don't tell me that the skies are crowded.

``The only reason somebody can drive from New York to Florida is because some stupid guy walked down the road ahead of you and drew a yellow line in the middle of the road. You do the same thing in the air. You make electronic highways. We now have navigation systems that tell you where you are to within a few feet. We could have a hundred times as many planes in the air and if the control system were what it should be, there wouldn't ever be a problem.''

There is one problem that is difficult to surmount, and that's the issue of product liability. Something on the order of half of the purchase price of a new light airplane goes to payment of insurance, protecting the company in case the plane ever crashes and the pilot - or survivors thereof - decides to sue. But, again, Molt has an answer.

``You sell it as a kit,'' he explains. ``People go out and buy the car. We send them the plans and materials, and they build it themselves. This eliminates a lot of the red tape and paperwork, and a great deal of the liability problem.''

So why isn't he doing it? Well, actually, he is.

``Right now, the important thing is to build the prototype,'' he says. ``If I can raise a half-million dollars, I'll be able to build the prototype. If I can get this thing flying, the world will beat a path to our door.''

DENNIS E. POWELL IS A FREE-LANCE WRITER LIVING IN WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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