Curbside Vintage: 1959 Curtiss-Wright Air Car 2500 – Like Riding on a Cloud…

In a continuation of our oddities of the 1950’s, let’s take a look at a vehicle that like the Jeep, the original Dodge Power Wagon, and the more recent HUMMER, got its start in life through a military or wartime requirement.

CC readers may remember Curtiss-Wright as one of the government-brokered suitors for the ailing Studebaker-Packard Corporation in the mid-50’s.  The company concluded a three-year management agreement (really a takeover) with S-P in 1956, not so much for the car business but for Studebaker’s lucrative defense contracts – Curtiss-Wright then being a major player in the defense industry.  One of the initiatives during this short merger period was the Air Car.

The Army was looking for a small, light amphibious tactical vehicle, and rather than a usual wheeled/tracked/hull-based model, C-W took a different approach inspired by work in the UK on ground-effect vehicles or hovercraft – the result being the Air Car 2500.

C-W may have overlooked the “small” in the requirements document; the Air Car was 21-foot-long, 8-foot-wide, 5-foot-tall, but being mostly hollow weighed in at a fairly light 2770 lbs.  Power came from two Lycoming 180 hp horizontally-opposed piston aircraft engines, each driving a large vertical ducted fan (front and rear).  Steering/directional change was made by air flowing through moveable louvers on the sides and back.

1958 Packard (Packard-baker) styled by Duncan McRae


Perhaps realizing they now owned a car company with automotive stylists, my guess is C-W asked the S-P designers for some help with the body.  To my eye, there looks to be quite a bit of Duncan McRae here, but not any Raymond Loewy.

 The styling evidently didn’t impress the Army which tested two prototypes in 1960 – and found they lacked payload (just 1000 lbs max), had only a 38 mph top speed, and were limited to completely flat terrain.  No sale…

After the Army passed, C-W thought there might be some private commercial interest, so they had a few new designs drawn up, but that quickly faded as the agreement with S-P had by then ended, and the company re-focused on its core defense business.

Fortunately both prototypes still exist; one is at the US Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and the other in much rougher shape was, as of 2015, sitting near a warehouse in New Jersey