The Hélica airplane car at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris
If this is the future, where are our flying cars? Well, we’ve actually had the airplane car for a hundred years, although a grounded version, it just never quite caught on. Back in 1913, French engineer Marcel Leyat used his aviation technology expertise which he’d honed in World War I to design a car that would be both swift and efficient for the new automotive scene.
Advertisement for the Hélica (via Tarrantry)
Leyat was born in the French town of Die in 1885, and maybe the bubbles of the local clairette, a sparkling wine similar to champagne, gave some buoyancy to his brain, as he applied the aerodynamics of the airplane to the road. He designed a vehicle that seems like a car imagining itself in the skies, with the body of a plane that could carry two passengers, driven by a propeller connected to an eight horsepower engine. Being very lightweight with its wooden body, aluminum wheels, and lack of a bulky engine, it could move quite swiftly along. Known as the Hélica, as “hélice” is propeller in French, this was not meant to be some one-off high concept machine. Leyat really believed that propeller cars were the way of the future for automotive transportation, as they were simple and thus cost-effective for mass-production.
The Hélica cruising by the Eiffel Tower (via The Old Motor)
When the car made an appearance at the 1921 Paris Auto Show, hundreds of people put in their orders, but unfortunately Leyat couldn’t get together the money for their production and the Hélica never really took off into the mainstream. The Hélica also tended to be a bit unstable and accidents in the quick moving (over 100 miles per hour in one later model), shaky cars could be common. While this means that the airplane car never got to soar over the developing network of highways, Leyat did make about 30 of the cars through the mid-1920s, and they’ve ended up in museums and collections, such as one from 1921 in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.
The Hélica at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris
As for Leyat, the inventive engineer moved into music, strategizing new ways to learn scales and even designing his own piano. For more information on the Hélica, visit the site of the Association des amis de l’Hélica (Association of the Friends of the Hélica) which continues to promote Leyat’s legacy in car aviation history.
THE AIRPLANE CAR: MUSEE DES ARTS ET METIERS, Paris, France
All photographs by the author unless indicated.