Developed by private pilot Molt Taylor, the Aerocar was one of only two flying cars to be certified by the predecessor agency to the FAA. An aircraft company later known as Ling-Temco-Vought looked at the Aerocar, but didn't get enough orders to justify production. Ford Motor looked, too, but lost interest, so Taylor started building sport aircraft.
Salisbury says it was 1970s entrepreneur Henry Smolinski who developed a wing and engine to be hooked to the back of a Ford Pinto, a subcompact car in the era, with hopes of production.
"It was fun," says Bert Boeckmann, whose Galpin Motors in Los Angeles is the nation's largest Ford dealership. He took a test ride in the Flying Pinto to an altitude of about 10 feet.
But the operation "was kind of working on a shoestring" and didn't pay enough attention to safety. Smolinski and a colleague were killed in 1973 when a wing collapse led to a fiery crash.
"Henry said if he ever died, he would like to die in his Flying Pinto," Boeckmann recalls.
Such structural risks inevitably come into play as inventors try to make a car light enough to get off the ground.
"Weight is one of the problems," says Bob Blake, an auto historian in North Carolina. "You're trying to make something that's designed for the highway to go into the sky. Even now, with the lightweight composite materials, it's more of a novelty than something practical."
But the latest entrepreneurs believe otherwise and are convinced they can strike the balance. Drivable aircraft now being developed include:
Dietrich says he thought most interest in his carbon-fiber craft would be from "wealthy playboy types. We have a couple of those but have a lot of retired couples who want to use it to fly around for fun."
He says his company has 10 employees and that he's been working on the Terrafugia Transition's design since 2004. Design goals include a range of 500 miles and conversion from car to plane or vice versa in about 15 seconds.
Dietrich says more than 50 have already been ordered. The first flight is planned by the end of the year, and he hopes deliveries can begin in 2010.
At a projected price of $194,000, the Transition "is not a replacement for a Honda," he says, Rather, it's meant to provide "a fundamental new freedom that has never existed in one package. And we know there is a market for it."
Mitch LaBiche believes he has the winning formula for his flying car: The wings extend from the car with the push of a button, instead of being bolted on or unfolded.
LaBiche Aerospace settled on the configuration after interviewing about 3,000 people to find out what they wanted in a car that could fly. "Most people most interested in flying cars were already pilots," LaBiche says. "They wanted to drive to a local airport, take off, land at their destination — and then reverse the whole process to come home."
He says, "People basically structure their lives around where they live and work. We are a car-based society, and 75% of our travel is less than 80 miles, so people want something that acts more like a car than a plane."
LaBiche is taking orders for the FSC-1 as a buildable kit costing $175,000. He hopes eventually to get the craft federally certified — an expensive proposition — so it can be sold as a fully-built unit.