Airplanes and cars face the same challenge: both spend most of their energy pushing their mass through the air. The lighter and more slippery they are, the better. There’s been many attempts at incorporating aircraft design in automobiles, but most have been little more than superficial styling riffs. A few, like Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car, have taken the idea to the extreme with mixed results.
World War Two brought huge advances in aircraft technology, but froze automotive progress solid, as car production was suspended for the duration of hostilities. Aircraft manufacturer Beechcraft had reaped massive wartime profits building planes, but when the war ended, executives fretted that profits would suffer without lucrative defense contracts. Seeing America’s explosive postwar demand for cars, company executives wondered if aircraft engineering might work in an automobile and set to work on a prototype. The resulting Beechcraft Plainsman was as close to being an airplane for the road as anyone’s gotten. Though never developed beyond a non-functional mock-up and two engineering test mules left over from a wartime contract, the blimpish sedan was projected as an early hybrid with a small gasoline engine generating power. An electric motor at each corner was to have provided four-wheel drive.
The Plainsman’s bulbous body might have been homely, but it was practical. Its unique design combined spaciousness with aerodynamic efficiency long before anyone cared, along with aircraft-like visibility, at least at the front end. Its bulgy body slightly resembled AMC’s Pacer of the 1970s.
The Plainsman’s radical powertrain was projected to deliver a 30 M.P.G. rating when that was amazing. With its lightweight aluminum body weighing in at 2200 lbs., it was projected to be capable of reaching 160 M.P.H. Driven by an electric motor at each wheel relying on energy supplied by a small gasoline-powered generator, the Plainsman was like a Chevrolet Volt, minus the storage batteries. It featured an in-dash miles per gallon read-out and a height-adjustable suspension. Its electric motors reversed polarity as a means of braking. The Plainsman’s generator was said to be a rear mounted, air-cooled “pancake” or “boxer” engine borrowed from a Beechcraft airplane.
A circular antenna above the Plainsman’s windshield was to have allowed in-car radiotelephone calls, yet another radical idea for 1946. The interior was designed for safety with copious padding and a lack of protruding bits, but seat belts were strangely absent.
When introducing the Plainsman concept car, Beechcraft announced that production models would be priced like Cadillac limousines, placing it in rarified strata, indeed. Later studies concluded that it would actually cost twice that price, making sales prospects dubious. Though to be fair, Beechcraft engineers had introduced innovations that weren’t readyto appear on production cars for decades to come.
Soon enough, Cold War government contracts began to pile up on Beechcraft executives' desks, burying any plans to enter the automotive market. As airplane production ramped up, the radical Plainsman slipped into the oblivion of forgotten automotive dreams. No one seems to know what happened to the single prototype as all that remains are a few faded photographs. The radical Plainsman remains a mysterious footnote in automotive history--a premature dead end for ideas born half a century too soon.
Written by Jim Cherry