Driving and flying Miss Daisy, Part 1

The one and only Wagner Aerocar roadable helicopter. Anon., “Aviation générale.” Aviation magazine international, 1 August 1967, 42.

Welcome, my reading friend, to this last minute addition to this bulletin / blog / thingee. Having realised that there were five weeks in August, yours truly scrambled like mad to find a topic that could be of interest – and include some Canadian content. And here it is.

Around 1960, a new small West German company set out to design a family of multipurpose helicopters fitted with two coaxial main rotors that turned in opposite direction. The government provided some funding to help it. One of the two designs completed by Wagner Helicopter Technik was, no, not the Wagner Aerocar. The helicopter in question was the Rotocar III, the immediate predecessor of the Aerocar. This three-seat proof of concept prototype was one of the first, if not the first roadable helicopter ever designed. Turning this air vehicle into a ground vehicle was relatively simple. The pilot / driver folded back and secured the four blades of the two coaxial rotors. The mechanical linkage between the rotors and engine were then disengaged somehow in order to bring power to the four remarkably small wheels of the vehicle. Whether or not the Rotocar III actually flew is unclear.

Before we go any further, yours feels the need to write, dare one say pontificate, on the rotors of the Aerocar. Virtually all the helicopters you and I see on a daily basis have a single main rotor and a small tail rotor. The former provides both lift and thrust to these helicopters. The tail rotor, on the other hand, prevents their fuselage from rotating in the direction opposite to the main rotor. As such, it is essential to the safe operation of this type of machine. By comparison, a helicopter fitted with two coaxial main rotors needs a tail rotor like a fish needs a bicycle, if I may borrow this well known expression. Such a helicopter can use its full power to lift a load rather than waste part of it on a tail rotor. Better yet, the absence of this tail rotor eliminates a major source of injuries and, sadly enough, fatalities to both grounds crews and bystanders. Coaxial rotor helicopters also tend to be quieter, less subject to vibrations and more compact than those fitted with a tail rotor. Mind you, coaxial rotor systems are more complex and, potentially at least, more prone to failure. But back to our story.

Reasonably satisfied with the design of the Rotocar III, Wagner Helicopter Technik refined it to create the Aerocar. A prototype of this futuristic four-seat machine was completed and flown in 1965. According to some, the Aerocar is slightly similar in appearance to the flying family car owned by the main characters of the American animated television series The Jetsons, broadcasted in 1962-63 and 1984-87. Unlike its fictional counterpart, it did not prove commercially successful. Wagner Helicopter Technik sold the production rights of its various projects, including the Aerocar, to a small West German company with a really long name around 1971. Helicopter Technik München Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung & Company Anlagen Kommanditgesellschaft put a stop to the development of the Aerocar almost immediately.

Whether or not it would have proven safe to drive an Aerocar on a freeway, or a crowded city street, is a good question. All roadable aircraft and flying cars have to face this problem. It is this writer’s humble, if controversial opinion that most of these vehicles would be unsafe at any speed.

After reading all this, my reading friend, you may wonder, or not, if this story has the least Canadian content. I say fear not, for it is coming in the second part of this brief, yes brief, article.

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Rénald Fortier