It's a car! It's a plane! No, it's both! The Aerocar, a combination car and airplane, was designed by Northwest native Moulton "Molt" Taylor, a gifted inventor, innovative thinker, and enthusiastic promoter of what he considered to be the future of aviation. Taylor, who grew up in Longview and Kelso, Washington, began building and flying model airplanes as a Boy Scout, got his pilot's license as a teenager, and entered the U. S. Navy's aviation cadet training program in Pensacola, Florida, after attending the University of Washington. His early inventions ranged from an inexpensive aircraft radio to a small plane with flotation wings he dubbed the Duckling. But it was the Aerocar, a vehicle that could easily convert from airplane to automobile and back, that occupied his attention for 40 years. Backed initially by 50 local investors, the Aerocar's first public flight was held on December 8, 1949. In 1956, after years of tests and data, it received federal certification. At that point, Taylor was itching to crank out Aerocars, but he could not find a manufacturer to mass produce the car. Only a handful of Aerocars were ever built; one is in the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Until he died on November 16, 1995, Taylor never gave up on his dream of seeing a sky full of automobiles.
Moulton "Molt" Burnell Taylor was born on September 29, 1912, in Portland, Oregon, to William Albert (known as Bert) and Kate Taylor, and grew up in Longview and Kelso, Washington. He built model airplanes as a boy and got his pilot's license when he was 16. After graduating in 1930 from R. A. Long High School in Longview, he attended the University of Washington, where he earned a business degree.
In 1936 Taylor joined the U. S. Navy's aviation cadet program, attending flight school in Pensacola, Florida. There, he flew biplane trainers for 14 months and then served three years of active duty on the USS Quincy. At a New Year's Eve party, he met Lillian Verneil Gregory (1914-2002), who went by the nickname of Neil, and the two were married in 1939. The couple shared a love of aviation -- Neil was also a pilot -- and they started a business selling Luscombe and Culver airplanes.
In the late 1930s, Taylor invented the Taylor AirPhone, a portable battery-powered navigational device inexpensive enough to be owned by small-plane owners. This caught the attention of the military and when World War II broke out, Taylor was recalled by the Navy, rising to the rank of commander with the title of Officer in Charge of Pilotless Aircraft Development. In 1942, Taylor guided the first surface-to-surface missile to its target using a new technology called television. He was awarded the Legion of Merit as a result. "The navy encouraged Commander Taylor to make weapons development his career, but Taylor declined. 'I just decided not to spend the rest of my life making things to kill people,' he said later. 'I'm an idealist and admit it'" (Glass, 77).
Lining Up Investors
After the war, Taylor worked for a Cleveland, Ohio, company that wanted to deliver airmail by pilotless aircraft, but that idea was ahead of its time and never got off the ground. In 1944, Taylor began designing a small amphibious aircraft he called the Duckling, but that, too, never made it into production. After considering other aircraft designs, he hit upon the idea of a 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" ("Winging It ..."). Bert Taylor, Molt's father, encouraged the couple to return to Longview and offered to help them find investors so Molt could pursue his dream.
Around this time, Taylor crossed paths with Robert E. Fulton Jr., who had designed a flying car he called the Airphibian. "Molt's interest in this form of aviation was again piqued. When production of the Duckling fell through ... the Taylors moved from suburban Philadelphia to Washington state and settled in a home that Bert had located for them. Now began the passionate journey that would endure for the rest of Molt's life ... to develop a flying car" (Schultz, 15).
For Taylor, a flying car made sense, both in terms of time and convenience. "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" ("Winging It ...").
Relying on his charisma and salesmanship, Taylor convinced 50 Longview investors to contribute $1,000 each so he could begin design of the Aerocar. In 1947, he built a modern-looking factory near the Kelso airport, just west of the Cowlitz River, and went to work.
An early brochure for the Aerocar, produced before the vehicle had even made its first public flight, detailed some of its advantages: "Your Aerocar can be kept at home in the garage, thus eliminating the problem of hangar space. You can step into your Aerocar at your doorstep and fly to your destination with the assurance of being able to return home no matter what the change in the weather, retaining all the convenience of your automobile when you arrive at your destination. The terminal limits and uncertainty of private flying can now be forgotten" (Schultz, 17).
The Aerocar is Born
Robert Fulton's invention, the Airphibian, was built with fixed detachable wings, but Taylor immediately saw the drawbacks of that design. He created his prototype with wings and tail that could be folded back for storage or removed entirely and towed, trailer-like, to be reattached at another landing strip. Although he considered using a rotary wing to provide lift, similar to a helicopter, he decided that permanently attached rotors would present a safety hazard on the roadways.
Taylor first built a one-quarter-scale model that he tested in the wind tunnel at the University of Washington. By June 1949, the car portion of the craft was completed and the odd-looking vehicle became a familiar sight on the streets of Longview and Kelso. From the very beginning, moving easily between two modes of transportation was of paramount concern to the designer. "The changeover from plane to auto can be made by a woman with high heels on," Taylor later remarked ("Longview's Molt Taylor ..."). The actual process took about 15 minutes, and as an ingenious safety feature, the engine would not start until every connection had been properly made.
The Aerocar was 21 feet long with a 30-foot wingspan. The design included side-by-side seating for two, hydraulic brakes, and a single air-cooled, 143-horsepower Lycoming engine mounted over the rear wheels. To keep the weight down, the vehicle used fiberglass on the outer panels and the same steering wheel was used to fly or drive. It had a cruising speed of 100 mph, and a takeoff speed of 55 mph. The pre-production estimate for an Aerocar was $3,000 to $4,000, but once a few production models had been built, the cost had risen to $25,000.
The First Flight
Taylor's flying car was introduced at just the right time, when a spirit of great optimism and positive energy had fired up the nation after World War II. Local Aerocar investors -- doctors, teachers, businessmen -- contributed their hard-earned money for what they hoped would be an engineering marvel.
On December 8, 1949, the Aerocar was ready for its first flight. Taylor's backers lined the field. The first flight went well and the media soon touted the Aerocar as the transportation of the future. Taylor started showcasing his new machine at aircraft and auto shows around the country, including a 1950 appearance at the Livestock Exposition in Portland, Oregon. Looking like a "four-wheel lemon drop" ("Inventor Makes One More Bid ..."), the odd-looking car-plane was a media magnet, and newspapers, magazines, and newsreels covered its every flight extensively.
In 1951, Taylor and the Aerocar were invited to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to be evaluated by the Army Field Forces. Robert Fulton and his Airphibian, which had initially piqued Taylor's interest, were also invited for testing. Taylor was excited about the trip's potential, as seen in a letter he sent his shareholders: "This is really our big chance. It is almost a sure thing that the Army will procure some machines for further tests. How many, no one knows, of course. We only hope it gets to be hundreds" (Schultz, 33).
At Fort Bragg, some 14 pilots tested the Aerocar and gave it positive reviews, but ultimately the Army decided to focus its attention on helicopters as its preferred method of troop transport and deployment. Undeterred, in November of that year, Taylor convinced General Petroleum Corporation to finance a West Coast tour that ended in Los Angeles at Motorama, the nation's largest automobile, aircraft, and boat show, where 100,000 visitors could marvel as his invention.
Taking the World by Storm
Taylor continued to tweak and test his Aerocar design, and by 1954, the first production model was ready. In a demonstration flight that he scheduled for investors, "one of the stockholders at the meeting following the flight was so impressed that he purchased an additional $1,300 worth of stock right then and there and said he hoped that every stockholder would do likewise ... These were very exciting times not only for those who had built the machines, but also those who had supported it financially" (Schultz, 39).
Despite such investor enthusiasm, Taylor continued to strike out on his plans to mass produce the craft. He sold three hand-built experimental prototypes for $15,000 each, earmarking the funds to get the Aerocar ready for mass production, but no aircraft or automobile company stepped forward.
Publicity for the Aerocar continued. In 1959, Taylor appeared on the popular TV show, I've Got a Secret, sharing with host Garry Moore the fact that he had flown in the car parked on stage in front of the studio audience. The Bob Cummings Show used shots of a soaring Aerocar in its opening sequences. A Portland radio station, KISN, flew an Aerocar over the city for several years, filing traffic updates.
In the mid-1960s, Greg Gilbert, a 19-year-old Seattle Times photographer, flew over Longview in the Aerocar with Taylor at the controls. Years later, Gilbert remembered that the Aerocar was cramped, smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle, and very noisy. It took off quickly and felt solid in flight, not the least bit rickety.
In 1956, the Aerocar was certified by federal aviation authorities and Taylor thought his production woes were over. At one point, he had generated orders from 278 dealers across the country, each paying $1,000 down for flying cars that were never produced. A contract with Ling-Temco in Texas to produce the Aerocar quickly went belly-up. "The company suddenly informed him that the money needed for tooling up the factory was gone. It had been squandered by the sales organization formed to promote and facilitate Aerocar sales even before adapting the factory for production had begun. Colossally disappointed, Taylor watched his best chance collapse" (Glass, 85).
In 1970, Taylor redesigned the Aerocar, making it more powerful and sleeker. The new design attracted the interest of the Ford Motor Company, and company president Lee Iacocca ordered a feasibility study of its market potential. The report estimated that sales could reach about 25,000 a year.
But federal officials were worried about thousands of commuters taking to the skies in private car-planes, and Ford executives decided that mass production was not practical. Not only were auto manufacturers facing the energy crisis of the 1970s, but foreign cars were now flooding the marketplace and stricter pollution regulations had been enacted. "The engineers claimed that compliance with new government automobile safety regulations would add so much additional bulk to the Aerocar that it would be unable to fly, thus reviving the weight-versus-efficiency argument that had been leveled against flying cars from the beginning" (Glass, 87).
After 25 years, Taylor still lacked a production deal, yet he never faltered in his belief about the future of flying cars. In a 1988 interview, he told the Longview Daily News: "You can have freeways in the air ... Eventually, you're going to have the goddamned sky full of automobiles. It has to happen" ("Longview's Molt Taylor ...").
Even in the early 1990s, as he approached his 80s, Taylor continued to tinker with his invention. "Now 80 and in declining health, Taylor is determined to make one last swoop at the mass market. And his Aerocar IV, now in the design stage, has won converts that include a Texas promoter, an Arizona flight engineer and the heir to a timber fortune, who still pilots one of Taylor's original machines" ("Inventor Makes ...").
In all, only a handful of Aerocars were ever built -- anywhere from five to seven, depending on whether prototypes and production models are counted. One Aerocar, a 1949 rebuilt prototype, is on display in the Experimental Aircraft Association's Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Another Aerocar, a later version known as Aerocar III, is owned by Seattle's Museum of Flight. Several Aerocars are in the hands of private collectors.
In 2006, Aerocar owner Marilyn Felling put her Aerocar on the market for $3.5 million. A few years later, in 2013, another Aerocar went up for sale with an estimated value of 600,000 British pounds, or nearly $1 million U.S. (No records of either sale could be found.)
Taylor died on November 16, 1995, and is buried in Longview. Before his death, he was inducted into the Experimental Aircraft Association's Hall of Fame in Oshkosh. In 2001, he was entered into Washington's Aviation Hall of Fame. Larry Adams, Walla Walla's airport manager and a member of the Hall of Fame selection committee, called Taylor an incredible guy: "He was one of those guys who shared his enthusiasm for aviation. A lot of people benefited just knowing Molt, not only in Washington, but worldwide" ("State Recognizes ...").
To recognize his tireless efforts in putting Longview on the aviation map, the Kelso-Longview Regional Airport was known as Molt Taylor Field until 2009, when it was renamed the Southwest Washington Regional Airport.