When Cars Flew

1959 Ford Levacar and Curtis-Wright Air Car 2500

The late fifties were a strange time in America. The bubble of optimism that began at the close of World War II was pushing the limits of its surface tension. A dream car fever that infected the country had shot up like a rocket, illuminating a wonderland of fantastic automotive possibilities while jet-powered, self-guided bubble-topped experiments multiplied until it seemed like there was no frontier left. 

With seemingly no worlds left to conquer, someone decided that the wheels had to go. Why bump along on greasy tarmac when you can dump those troublesome wheels and glide? Thus was born the air car, a funky roadside attraction that still inspires head scratching wonder.

The air car is not to be confused with the flying car, that unholy hybrid of car and plane that performs poorly in either guise. Air cars don’t really take to the air but instead, glide along just inches off the pavement. As Science & Mechanix magazine described the principle in 1960, “air is pulled into the vehicle and blasted out by a propeller through its bottom against the ground, creating a supportive cushion of air on which the car floats.”

General Motors was most aggressive in developing concept cars during the period. Though their creations featured innovations like jet powerplants and self-steering, they remained conventional cars that rolled on wheels. Chrysler turned out a series of suave-looking, internationally-styled dream boats. But only Ford spent millions developing the Levacar Mach I . Though the tiny, single-passenger bubble was restricted to gliding around an indoor glass track, the Jetsons-styled coupe actually did levitate. 

Aircraft component manufacturer Curtiss-Wright spent millions developing a functional air car for sale to the public, producing a few working prototypes and lots of hype. Their Air Car 2500 Gem (Ground Effects Machine) hovered six to twelve inches off the ground to cruise at a maximum 35 m.p.h. Curtiss-Wright’s chief project engineer Michael Cutler was quoted in a 1959 New Yorker magazine, “The air cars are going into production and will sell for $15,000 for a four passenger model and $6000 for one carrying two passengers. With a decent production run," he said, “we should be able to cut those prices in half."  

The GEM (Ground Effects Machine) was styled like a giant shoebox with a Cadillac bumper bolted on its front. Though far larger than today’s biggest SUV, the GEM carried but four passengers, guzzled gasoline at the rate of 3 miles per gallon, was barely controllable, created a deafening noise and could only handle a gentle grade. Though Curtiss-Wright claimed the GEM “made expensive roads unnecessary,” in truth, a typical sedan of its day had a better off-road ability than the cumbersome contraption. The U.S. Army bought two for testing and the project sputtered out, ending the only serious attempt to make a practical, commercial air car. 

Ford’s Levacar was destroyed in a fire. The U.S. Army displays the last remaining Curtis-Wright Air Car at its Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Virgina. 

Written by Jim Cherry