Persons of sufficient age will remember how, 50 or so years ago, we looked forward with excitement to a truly remarkable future. There were from time to time world’s fairs which demonstrated how things would soon be. We couldn’t wait to get there.
Among the gadgets we were eager to get our hands on were the Bell Rocket Belts which would allow us to hop on down to the store in just a few seconds. This was some cool new civilization we were building.
Our thrill was underlined by television shows: “Whirlybirds,” in which the leading characters, named Chuck and P.T., encountered adventures while flying a helicopter; “Ripcord,” in which the leading characters, named Ted and Jim, encountered adventures while jumping out of airplanes; and “Sea Hunt,” in which the leading character, Mike Nelson, encountered adventures (and released enough “marker buoys” to float a barge) while swimming around. But the best of these from a gadget standpoint was “The New Bob Cummings Show,” starring the actor Robert Cummings. He played a photographer, but what made the show special was his mode of transportation. He went from place to place in an Aerocar.
This was something that really existed. It worked. It was amazing. And soon we’d all have one.
What brings all this to mind is the report earlier this spring that somebody has “invented” a flying car, and that it actually flew. I heard the report and I yawned. That is because I have flown in an actual flying car, in fact, the very one that Robert Cummings used to ferry passengers that included Marilyn Monroe and Lana Turner. I have even spoken with its inventor, who had the thing aloft nearly 60 years ago.
Moulton B. Taylor got out of the Navy at the end of World War II. He had been a naval aviator. He decided that airplanes had a flaw: they could take people from airport to airport, but not from their homes to their destinations. What was needed, he thought, was a car that could fly. So he built one.
This involved designing a car from scratch. Taylor told me when we talked 25 years ago that this was in part because, due to the need for free-turning rear wheels for landing, the car would have to be front-wheel drive. Working alone, he designed and built the first one in a year, at a cost of $50,000. Of course, that design included removable wings and tail and a “pusher” propeller at the back of the airplane, necessary because a car with a propeller on it would present troublesome safety concerns. Putting it on the removable tail solved the problem. He also made the airfoils on the back of the craft in aY shape — otherwise, you couldn’t fit it easily in a garage.
The car could be driven to the airport, its wings and tail — until then, pulled behind trailer style — would be affixed, and minutes later the driver-pilot would be aloft. After landing, the process was reversed and one would drive the thing away from the airport.
It was a more than decent airplane, though not the greatest car in the world. It looked like something an eight-year-old would draw if trying to envision the kind of car a Martian would drive. But there was more. With a rear engine and front-wheel drive, and often pulling the parts that made it into an airplane behind it, the front wheels had difficulty keeping traction, particularly when performing tasks such as driving up hill. Still, it pretty much worked most of the time.
Of the six built, four are still in existence. The one Bob Cummings owned was bought later by a fellow named Ed Sweeney, who had flown it under the tutelage of Molt Taylor decades earlier and who got it restored and until recently flew it from time to time. I got my hop in it when it was being restored in the 1980s. It’s now on display in a Florida air museum.
All of which suggests to me that perhaps we are not entirely as visionary as we like to think we are. Oh, yes, we now have pocket-sized telephonic devices that let it send live video to one another. That technology, though, was popularized half a century ago by a fellow named Chester Gould, whose comic strip character Dick Tracy had a two-way wrist TV (which was pointed out in the comic strip by a little arrow and a comment that said “2-way wrist TV.”
Apple is excited about its little pocket computer communications device you can tell to do things and sometimes it does them. For decade after decade there were on television and in movies computers that worked that way and that way alone, except for the part about not always getting it right.
Now we have the newly invented flying car. Except that it’s not new at all — it has existed for longer than most of us have been alive.
Maybe our imaginations haven’t gotten any better. Maybe the only improvement has been in the quality of our publicists.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.