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.
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
I’ve never heard a thing about this project! It’s odd that C-W presumably didn’t test these enough to find out that they wouldn’t fly on uneven ground… or didn’t consider it an issue.
It makes me wonder if someone at Curtis Wright wasn’t just going after a fat cache of military development money, never mind whether there was a real, practical product at the end. This leaves me with the feeling of an all too often ‘legal scam’ that taxpayers end up reading about in the newspaper way too often.
That was the primary motivation, C-W had done their worst on Studebaker-Packard draining all the worthwhile resources while giving little useful management direction then dumped the refuse. Those who’ve researched C-W history in those decades come away with a bad taste in their mouths. Hurley and company were a group of dryland pirates.
Yep, C-W was so bad the USAF refused to order the XF-87 and went with the F-89 Scorpion instead. C-W shut down their aircraft division and sold it to North American Aviation.
Looking at the XF-87, I don’t blame them. Imagine the difficulty controlling it in flight if one of the not very aerodynamic engines failed.
And the gleaming alloy air car was no match for a red Barchetta! 😉
“Sorry, Mr. McRae, there’s no money left for new front fenders designed for dual headlamps; we spent it all on this thing”…
Fifth image looks more like a 1980s boombox than a car.
The air car in the video has a 1959 Pontiac style grille that doesn’t match either prototype.
What does pulling on the telescoping steering wheel do?
Seems like there’s always some kind of interest in an air-car, even if it’s more in the hovercraft vein. With the advances in battery technology, I think the latest versions use somewhat quieter (but still plenty noisy) electric fans. But a practical application (much less an affordable one) is still the realm of Popular Mechanics magazine covers and science fiction (the hover car in the original Star Wars) and far off in the future.
A much nearer possibility is using electromagnets, something along the lines of Japanese high-speed magnetic levitation (‘maglev’) or electrodynamic suspension (EDS) passenger trains.
In fact, the closest thing being researched right now in Indiana is using embedded electric coils in pavement to recharge EVs while in motion, and even that small step is going to take some time to actually implement.
Thanks, Jim Brophy—I remember this *kind* of car in the news, but this design doesn’t ring a bell at all. Different 1959 C-W project vehicle, though another “air car” here (over land and water): https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVABARINKQE5E6V083IVZDPXH7X1-USA-CURTISS-WRIGHT-AIR-CAR-DEMONSTRATED-NEW-JERSEY
And here’s today’s car at Rockefeller Center (more 1959 footage): https://www.britishpathe.com/video/VLVA5S3JUA9B0IU67CX7NQY21D4UL-USA-CURTISS-WRIGHT-AIR-CAR-DEMONSTRATED-IN-NEW-YORK
(You’re welcome to plot either into your essay if you’d like.)
Great stuff, Mr B (aka Our Man On The Buses). One lives and learns (which is pretty much the point and likely means death when it stops, but I digress).
I have seen the first photo before but seriously thought it was no more than some Hollywood mock-up thing, possibly for some ’50’s D-grade horror film. Damn, is it ugly!
About nine photos down, the red thing titled “Curtiss-Wright model 2500 air car”, is it just me or is that nearly the exact face of the 1959 Chev Corvair?
I’m tempted to add that if the two are connected, then the latter, according to popular history, sucks, and the former, blows, but I won’t fall to temptation.
That last one pictured (the coupe) looks like it should be in the next ‘Star Wars’ movie.
“Ever since the XP-38 came out, they just aren’t in demand” – Luke Skywalker
That ’58 Packard looks modern for 1958. Put in the supercharged V-8 and make it a touring car!
This looks like the inspiration for most of the vehicles in the Fallout series of video games.
I see some ‘59 Chevy and even some Corvair in the later versions.
By 1959 CW’s true core business, large radial aircraft engines, was dead. The jet age passed them by. As a defense contractor, they were a relative minor player after WWII.
The R-3350 two row 18 cylinder engine powered the B-29, all Lockheed Constellation variants, Douglas DC-7 and many others. Rival Pratt and Whitney successfully transitioned from piston engines to jets, not so CW.
This thing is awesome. The one in New Jersey just needs a restomod back to original state then add a lightweight pipe organ. That would make for a great car show draw.
I am stunned by the gall of this project. It appears to have been not much else than a way to milk defense dollars out of the Pentagon. I love the fact that this vehicle is 30 feet long, mostly empty, has 300+ HP but cannot climb hills, somehow seats four (across?) and is a convertible. I particularly love the illustrated ad with the woman in the passenger side of the Air Car, it must have been quite the experience floating through the countryside in a vehicle with two immense fans. I doubt there was much conversation…
Bruce McCall tripping on LSD could not have come up with this idea. However, after having seen this, I can understand where the Belchfire, Blastfire and Bulgemobile have come from. In fact, the Air Car may be the closest thing to bringing the Bulgemobile to life, with the exception of the enlarged tail fins on the Bulgemobile. But maybe that might have been on the 1961 version of the Air Car.
The styling in the first photo of the Air Car is horrid; at least after Studebaker’s stylists got involved it looked a little more like a late 1950’s automobile. At least as much as something like that could look like an automobile. In fact, it makes the Packardbaker look absolutely beautiful!
WOW! And the ad claims “Another Curtis Wright first!” Well, as American Inventions go, I guess it was: 1959! only 4 years, perhaps a gnat’s nose less, after Sir Christopher Cockerell filed his first Hovercraft patent. Better than Thomas Alva Edison, the Menlo Park Plagiarist, who took over ten years to “invent” his blatant copy of Englishman Joseph Swan’s incandescent light bulb.
When they got tucked in at night, Nash Metropolitans dreamt of growing up to become Curtiss-Wrights.
Amazing stuff, Brophy-san.
Before the flying De Lorean, and better than the 007 Lotus submarine, America’s overgrown military industrial complex will bring you… The Curtis-Wrong Hoverbrick.
Seriously, it looks like a Soviet ZIL roadster with a pituitary issue.
“The Curtis-Wrong Hoverbrick”….
HA! Good one T…