What happens when you combine a car like the Ford Pinto with a plane like the Cessna 337? Nothing good, it turns out.
People have been dreaming of flying cars for over a century now, with purely theoretical weird designs of the 1920s, and small-run novelties of the 1950s. But when two guys in California tried to make a “flying Pinto” back in 1973, it was a really bad idea. How bad? They died testing the stupid thing.
Henry A. Smolinski and Harold Blake founded a company that they called Advanced Vehicle Engineers, abbreviated as AVE, in Van Nuys, California in 1968. They built a flying car called the AVE Mizar, and they had high hopes for actually making it into mass production. But the vehicle, which would forever be called the Flying Pinto, never got beyond the testing stage.
The Ford Pinto was not known for its safety, even before Smolinski and Blake put wings on it. The Pinto was introduced in 1971, as a tiny car in an age with not only high gas prices, but a gas shortage that would lead to rationing and infamous lines at the pumps in cities across the U.S. Countries around the world were struggling with the shortage and some places even banned cars altogether on certain days, like in the Netherlands where they had car-free Sundays, and people took to the streets on bicycles and horses.
But eventually the Pinto, first known as an economical and practical car, was no longer seen as an eco-friendly choice. It became known in the 1970s for constantly bursting into flames when people got rear-ended. Seriously. Some people even died, and Ford was sued at least 117 times over safety concerns surrounding the Pinto. Ford even lost one particularly important lawsuit, becoming the first U.S. corporation to be charged with reckless homicide in 1980.
But those lawsuits hadn’t happened yet when Smolinski and Blake set out to make their Flying Pinto in the early 1970s. In the summer of 1970, they had a press conference to announce their plans, but they hadn’t even decided on the kind of car they would be converting at that point. One syndicated newspaper report from the Los Angeles Times floated the idea that it might be a flying Firebird that the company was working on, an idea that would actually make more sense for marketing purposes.
From the L.A. Times in August 1970:
The idea, now in the preliminary design stage, is to integrate a conventional automobile with a certified airframe and engine and thus succeed where other flying cars have failed over the years.
They may not have settled on the exact type of car yet, but they knew they wanted to make a very literal hybrid flying car, using the wings and rear engine mount of a Cessna plane and simply fitting them onto a normal automobile.
“Our plan is to make the operation so simple that a woman can easily put the two systems together—or separate them—without help,” Smolinski told reporters.
The pair took the next two years working on their designs, eventually settling on the infamous Pinto, and getting to the point where they wanted to test fly the thing. And amazingly, they were able to get their contraption into the air on a number of occasions. Some newspapers even seemed to give the two men the benefit of the doubt that their scheme could lead to a revolution in transportation.
One story that was syndicated throughout the U.S. and appeared in the August 26, 1973 edition of The Oklahoman newspaper really did seem convinced that these two men were building the future of air travel.
From the Oklahoman:
It’s finally happened. A car that flies. Called the Mizar 210, the vehicle is a two-door, four-seater 1973 white Pinto with detachable wings. It was developed three years ago by Henry A. “Hank” Smolinski, aeronautical engineer, founder and president of Advanced Vehicle Engineers of Sepulveda, Calif.
“Let’s say you want to go to Disneyland,” explains Hank. “You can get into your car and take the freeway and get hung up in traffic for a few hours. You could also fly over and land at an airpark—a kind of freeway off-ramp for small aircraft—and then you could rent a car, or call a cab, or wait for a friend to come and get you.
With the Mizar, all of that is eliminated. You fly to the airpark, land, remove your wings, move the automatic shift from neutral to drive, and take yourself to Disneyland.
The press really seemed convinced that they were on to something during those early tests in the summer of 1973. But it ended in tragedy on September 11, 1973. That day, Smolinski and Blake took their car to Ventura County Airport in California where they had a deal with the airport manager.
The inventors were supposed to notify the manager whenever they were on site doing their tests, but they failed to do so that day, according to Mental Floss magazine. It’s not clear why. The men successfully took off, but things quickly went wrong, with black smoke emanating from the aircraft. They were only in the air for two minutes before one of their wings started to come off. The plane crashed and both men died.
From the Sacramento Bee on September 12, 1973:
The two developers of a flying automobile have been killed in the flaming crash of the craft only minutes after take off, officials report.
Known as “the flying Pinto,” a combination of a Ford Pinto auto and a Cessna airplane, the prototype plunged to earth about a mile from Ventura County Airport late Tuesday afternoon.
Killed were Henry A. Smolinski, 40, Santa Susana, and Harold Blake, 40, Los Angeles. They were the founders and top two officers of Advanced Vehicle Engineers, launched at nearby Van Nuys in 1968.
The “flying Pinto” had been scheduled for a 40-city nationwide sales promotion tour.
The ironic thing about using a Pinto was that despite being a small car, it was still way too heavy for the Cessna plane they had Frankenstein’d onto it.
YouTube has a great video that shows the Flying Pinto in action. It’s narrated in German, but even if you don’t understand the language, it’s still a fascinating look at how the strange vehicle looked.
In 1978, five years after the death of both Smokinski and Blake, the Pinto was recalled by Ford. And their adventures would become merely a memory in the long history of failed inventors being killed by their own inventions.
There have been plenty of flying car inventors chasing their dreams since that tragic flight in 1973. Paul Moller is perhaps one of the most infamous, having spent the past 30 years trying to get his own invention off the ground. But mostly he’s just wound up with failed companies and a settlement with the SEC for issuing fraudulent stock. Moller settled for $50,000 but went on to form new companies and try his hand at crowdfunding.
And let’s not forget about Terrafugia, a company that has been trying to get flying cars on the market since 2008. Every news cycle brings a promise that their flying cars are just two years away. But we’re still waiting.
Even billionaire Elon Musk said he wanted to develop a flying car back in 2014, but we haven’t really heard anything about that lately. Mostly he seems to be spending his time running over pylons with his earth-bound Cybertruck cars these days.
But Moller, Musk, and the folks at Terrafugia are still alive and kicking, unlike the inventors of the Flying Pinto—the worst idea in the terrible idea of flying car history.