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Glenn Curtiss in his Biplane, 1908

Glenn Curtiss, born to a world of whirlwind technological change in 1878, was an archetypal speed- and thrill-chasing American legend. By age 30 he had broken the land speed record on a motorcycle he developed, was the first licensed pilot in America... Oh, heck, let him brag about himself.

Aerial Age Weekly, March 10 1919, 1306-7

Now that's how you do bullet points on a resume.


This ad is copied from Aerial Age Weekly - what a wonderfully evocative title - on March 10, 1919. Howard Garis, the pen behind "Victor Appleton," knew him and so it's unlikely to be coincidental that his first title was Tom Swift and His Motor Cycle, followed quickly in 1910 by His Motor Boat, His Airship, His Submarine Boat, and His Electric Runabout, and that in Airship Tom wins the same international air meet in France that Curtiss had won the year before.


Buried in the second page of those brags is a statement that should pop out to anyone looking for flying cars: "Invented and built the first flying aerial limousine - the Curtiss "Autoplane."

Curtiss "Autoplane" 1917

The Pan American Aeronautical Exposition of 1917, held in New York's gaudy Grand Central Palace exhibition hall, represented "the biggest and best display of airplanes, aeronautic motors and aerial accessories and supplies ever gotten together on this continent." To put that in context, twelve (12) airplanes were on display. But President Woodrow Wilson opened the Exposition by wireless telephone, Governor Charles Whitman of New York made the opening address, and John Barrett, Director-General of the Pan American Union (the predecessor to the Organization of American States) appeared to gloss over the reality that nothing not from the U.S. could be found. In short, it was a spectacular celebration of the power of American technological ingenuity, accorded all the pomp that pre-war America could offer. A room full of airplanes in 1917 tingled the same synapses that fire when we wander into a museum full of dinosaurs, hitting primal emotions that bring out the child in each of us when seeing something huge and powerful and seemingly magic.

The Pan American Aeronautical Exposition show floor

That large craft with pride of place in the front of the photograph is the Curtiss "Autoplane." It was one of the most interesting exhibits at the Exposition. How do we know this? Well, Curtiss told us so. If it disconcerts you to find out that most newspaper reports of new technology, new products, new anything come from press releases handed out by companies, you'll probably be more distressed to know that this charade has been true for the entire history of newspapers. Almost everything in the public record is a reprint of a single press release, repeated verbaitim in publications from The New York Times on Feb. 11, 1917 to the Tombstone Weekly Epitaph as late as April 1, 1917. Here's a nice, clear version from the March 24 Kansas City Kansan.

Curtiss Aeroplane, Kansas City Kansan Mar. 24, 1917 page 5

The Autoplane quickly picked up the nickname "aerial limousine" because the pilot sat at the steering wheel and the two passengers in seats behind him. I say "picked up" the nickname, but it was probably self-bestowed because it seems to first appear in a Feb. 13 advertisement for the Exposition placed by The America Trans Oceanic Company, hailing the Autoplane as "Epoch making in its conception and design, this wonderful aeroplane is a veritable drawing room on wings, a modern magic coach which can actually whisk you away at the speed of the wind." Current wind speed outside my window as I type this is 1 mph, but sense and logic bow down before hyperbole.


Fortunately, Flight magazine gave a full technical description of the Autoplane in its March 15, 1917 issue. Note that the word used for wing is "plane." Plane derives from the Latin planum, "flat surface," and had only recently started to be used as shorthand for the whole "machine." A triplane is a craft with three sets of planes, i.e. wings.


This machine, one of the greatest attractions of the exhibition, gives a modern designer's idea of the "limousine of the air." The body is a combination of the motor car and aircraft practice, and follows very closely the lines of a modern limousine or coupé car-body. It is constructed mainly of aluminum, the windows being of celluloid. Elaborate upholstery and tapestries are employed for the interior, which accommodates two passengers in the rear and a "chauffeur" forward. Right in front is a circular radiator, through which passes a starting handle for the engine, a Curtiss OXX 100 h.p., which is located under the bonnet. From the engine, power is transmitted through a shaft, extending to the rear of the body, to the four-bladed propeller located at the top. There is a pair of wheel fore and aft, mounted in a similar way as on the Curtiss tractor triplane. The axle of the front pair, however, follows motor car practice in that the wheels are pivoted and connected to the control so as to enable the machine to be steered on the ground. The triplane wings are also similar to the triplane tractor, except that they are staggered and the lower plane is of shorter span. The wing section is "F-2" with an angle of incidence of 4º and a dihedral angle of 3º to the lower plane. The top plane is connected to a cabane mounted on the roof of the "car," whilst the centre and lower planes are attached to the body itself. Covered-in K-shaped interplane struts separate the planes, and interconnected ailerons are fitted to top and centre planes. The tail is carried by a pair of horizontal tubular outriggers attached to the centre plane. The tail surfaces consist of a rectangular horizontal stabiliser, divided elevators, rudder and triangular vertical fin. Mounted on the bonnet, just above the front wheels, is a small plane. The general dimensions are as follows: - Span (top and centre) 40 ft. 6 ins., (bottom) 23 ft. 4 ins.; chord (top and centre) 4 ft., (bottom) 3 ft. 6 ins., gap, 3 ft. 3 ins.; stagger, 11 ins.; overall length, 27 ft.; height 10 ft.; width of body, 3 ft. 6ins.; speed range, 45-65 m.p.h.; useful load, 710 lbs.


As usual, what doesn't get said is telling. In a report that gets down to dihedral angles not a single word is given that speaks to any possibility of converting the plane to a car. Apparently the reader should simply intuit that somehow the wings, tail, and propeller are detachable when it flies. Or should I say if it flies.  Flight never mentions flight; the press release uses conditionals: "is designed to leave the surface;" "will drive the autoplane."


Did it ever fly? Patrick J. Gyger, in his comprehensive book Flying Cars, wrote that it was "capable of making only short hops." All other sources I've seen use the same terminology, "short hops." Is that flight? Doesn't really matter. Rick Leisenring, the Curator of the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport, New York, says they have no documentation that it ever lifted off the ground at all. Worse, it also never seemed to have taxied, so that knocks out the car half. Articles about the craft kept appearing for months and any successes would have been trumpeted by a company that loved to brag about itself. With the U.S. entering World War I just two months after the Exhibition, there probably wasn't time for serious testing before all civilian applications were abandoned for military ones.


The Curtiss Autoplane is mostly important because it brought the notion of a flying car into tangible form, tantalizing the public with promises that both ultra-modern technologies would merge into an all-purpose vehicle. Illustrated World, a magazine that later was folded into Popular Mechanix, ran the first article on flying cars in its April 1917 issue, C. H. Claudy's "Aero-Auto-Craft: The Car of the Future." He started off by writing, "The aeroautocraft of the future will roll on the road, cleave through the water, fly through the air. Its owner will start from his garage or hangar, travel streets or roads at will, cross streams or lakes that lie in his path, rise in the air and fly over a hill, a valley, or woods, to another road, all at his pleasure."

Illustrated World, April 1917, page 177

The article concluded with a lushly beautiful drawing of the Autoplane whizzing down a road, proving that the insane depiction of flying cars driving on normal roadways with giant whirling propeller still attached goes all the way back to day one.


Flying cars start as a dream of the near, almost touchable, future, a dream with a touch of surreal madness. How thoroughly appropriate.


Note to nitpickers and pedants: You might ask whether this is really the first attempt at a flying car. Probably not. The idea almost certainly entered the heads of inventors not long after confirmation of the Wrights' achievement became public knowledge. Diligent historians have traced the notion back several years before Curtiss, to one William C. Metz. Metz offered a build-it-yourself car kit starting in 1909, and based on its success placed an advertisement for the Metz-Air-Car in 1911 newspapers. That name misleads. Metz intended only to sell airplane kits, and only one was ever built. A squib in The Horseless Age for December 15, 1915 comes much closer. In the section titled "Recent Trade Developments," the editors reported (i.e., reprinted a press release) that "William N. Parrish and his son, Russel Parrish, of Richmond, Ind., have announced the perfection of plans for an aero-automobile, a machine that can be used on the land and in the air." "Perfection" is always a dead giveaway in older usage; it means, "hasn't been built yet but we're looking for money." In fact, the next sentence reads, "The first model will be completed, it is said, as soon as patent applications have been filed." Uh huh. We're still waiting.


The Curtiss Autoplane, therefore, seems to be the first "machine" actually constructed with the idea of both road and air use. Is it the first flying car? Read the page on René Tampier and decide for yourself.

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