Road-going airplane stalls on takeoff
America lionizes go-it-alone types, independent thinkers who dazzle us with something brilliant. Our country was founded by such visionaries. People who blaze new trails to grace our lives with things like lightbulbs, GPS, the internet, television, airplanes, and surround sound. Though prohibitive costs often limit experimentation in the automotive world, a shift from fossil fuels currently spurs on a new generation of innovators. Who knows what kind of cars we’ll be driving in fifty years?
The 1970s were lean times for lone wolf automotive visionaries, as stringent new federal emissions and safety requirements strained even major car company budgets. But the country’s 1970s gas shortage was real enough that federal mandates dropped highway speeds to 55mph. Long lines at gas stations that were charging ever-higher prices spread anxiety across the land.
So, far from Detroit, off on the wind-swept plains of Nebraska, the visionary spirit that had seized pioneers like Henry Ford and Ransom E. Olds inspired unknown inventor Paul M. Lewis to found The Highway Aircraft Corporation. Fired up to produce a radical new car that would hit the energy issue head on, Lewis built three working prototypes, printed brochures, produced an explanatory film and built a scale model to attract investors.
Lewis’ three-wheeled Fascination could turn completely around in its own length and easily park in a space just a foot longer than its torpedo-shaped body. One of a long line of auto dreamers who designed cars with airplane characteristics, he named his company Highway Aircraft Corporation, intending his first prototype to be driven by a propeller located aft of its cabin, but an accident during a demonstration doomed that idea, and a conventional drivetrain was tucked beneath its rear deck.
Lewis predicted that the Fascination's powerplant would be as radical as his car's design. His brochure stated, This engine is a closed two-cycle reciprocating engine that has no intake, uses no air, emitting no exhaust at all… The fuel is self-contained and hermetically sealed in the cylinders which are initially charged at the time of manufacturing, carrying their own power supply that will last approximately 60 to 75 thousand miles with no fall off of efficiency.
A car engine with zero emissions and 75,000 miles between fill-ups sounds great, even to this day, but Lewis' miracle powerplant never materialized, instead, his prototypes were powered by conventional Renault engines.
Lewis attracted investors to his scheme, but they eventually grew dissatisfied and forced him from his own company. Though a total of five cars were built, the Fascination dream collapsed, leaving Lewis as just an eccentric footnote in automotive history. Fortunately, all was not lost, as the Fascination prototypes have survived to grace car shows and museums from coast to coast.
By Jim Cherry