The mid-20th Century was an optimistic time in America. Fresh inventions like space satellites, stereo sound, and remote-controlled color television sets led people to believe nearly anything was possible through the wonders of advancing technology. Flying cars? They seemed inevitable.
A surge of interest in air cars led to experimental hover craft that were tested on land and sea with varying success. Ford built a tiny single-passenger coupe that ran around on a tethered, circular track, called the Levacar Mach I,. In 1960 California custom car king George Barris built what some consider the wildest air car of all, the XPAK 400, designed by Steven Swaja.
“It was the beginning of a new decade and things were getting pretty exciting in every engineering field. I wanted to reach out into the future when the XPAK idea came to me, so I designed and built an air car, a car of the future,” Barris expressed his motivation.
Famed California "Kustomizer" George Barris’ XPAK 400 really flew, sort of. At least enough to dazzle show crowds from coast to coast before mysteriously disappearing without a trace during the nineteen-sixties.
A swoopy fiberglass body with huge fins, bubble top, TV set, telephone, gold plated trim and a paint job made from diamond dust and fish scales gauranteed the XPAK show stopper status. Introduced at the New York Auto Show, Barris' creation wowed the crowd sufficiently to draw attention away from million dollar dream cars presented by big three Detroit automakers. And it really was a beauty, perhaps Barris’ prettiest creation. Noted social chornicler Tom Wolfe, in his essay, “The Kandy-Kolored Streamlined Tangerine Metalflake Baby” wrote, “It’s a pure piece of curvilinear abstract sculpture. If Brancusi is any good, then this thing belongs on a pedestal, too.”
The XPAK actually levitated by way of two twenty-inch cast aluminum fans driven by airplane electric starter motors, but lacked sufficient lift to support a human passenger. Instead, a department store dummy sat in its pilot seat during remote controlled demos. A billowy skirt around its edge captured the forced air for increased lift. The dashboard incorporated a compass and something called “Phone-o-Vision,” an early suggestion of videophone technology.
The XPAK also appeared in an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, but soon its glory soon faded. After its time in the spotlight was over, Barris placed it in storage at Van Nuys airport and forgot it. Years later when he went to recover his creation, he was shocked to discover it had been sold off to settle a debt. In all the years since, the XPAK has never reappeared. Not a clue of where it might be has appeared, but rumors of alien life forms jacking the spacey-looking coupe back to their home planet have so far proven unsubstantiated.