Once the stuff of James Bond-esque grandeur and boyhood fantasies, flying automobiles are finally taking off in 2022 and beyond – literally.
Flying cars are finally emerging from fiction into reality. There was the airborne DeLorean in Back to the Future, while James Bond baddie Francisco Scaramanga used a wing-sprouting AMC Matador in The Man with the Golden Gun to commute from Bangkok to his Phang Nga Bay hideaway. Inspired by 007 and sci-fi, roadable aircraft are making their way from the highway to the skyway, to beat the traffic and make the route from your townhouse to private island faster and more direct.
Over the years, there have been wild concepts and wide-eyed dangerous looking things bolted together in hobbyists’ garages. These vehicles have, more often than not, resulted in a visit to Accident & Emergency. Most never got off the ground.
The first attempt at a flying car came courtesy of an American inventor, Glenn Curtiss, in 1917, 14 years after the Wright Brothers introduced aviation to the world. Curtiss’ aluminium Autoplane had three giant wings and a four-bladed propeller at the rear, but only managed a few short hops. The first time the Federal Aviation Administration certified such a vehicle was 1946 – the 150bhp Airphibian – but this was, in fact, a plane converted for road use rather than the other way around. It inspired the Aerocar which, in 1970, the Ford Motor Company seriously considered marketing, but the decade’s oil crisis put paid to those plans. Since then, flying cars have made occasional appearances in movies and on television, most notably on the animated sitcom The Jetsons, but in the real world the road and air remained separate.
Until now. Suddenly there are new aeronautical races on. There is space tourism and, back on Earth, flying cars that aren’t pie-in-the-sky concepts but real, altitude-riding air-autos that are certified are on sale right now. It’s like the 1950s again – but more focused and boutique. Professionals have taken over from mad hobbyists, designers are honing the packaging not just for practicality, and some of the biggest brands in the industry – including Renault – are putting their names to it.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of its iconic 4L hatchback (which is to France what the Mini is to Britain and the Fiat 500 to Italy), Renault has collaborated with international mobility design hub TheArsenale to create a one-off eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) drone car. Far from those awkward-looking 1950s half-car half-plane mock-ups lifted from the pages of Arthur C Clarke, this transportation device is distinguished through its considerable style.
The AIR4 has no wheels, so it doesn’t actually drive. Instead, there are four two-blade propellers, one at each corner of the vehicle. It can soar to as high as 700 metres at a 45-degree inclination during flights, and up to a maximum inclination of 70 degrees. The chassis, meanwhile, sits in the middle of the rota-frame. The pilot and passenger access the vehicle by lifting the reimagined Renault 4L shell, which is hinged at the front. The minimalist, utilitarian cabin has seating for two.
Built on France’s Côte d’Azur and first tested from Monaco’s heliport last autumn, this unique vehicle is for sale and priced at HK$30.8 million. Payment must be made in cryptocurrency.
Liable to put Bond’s quartermaster Q out of business, TheArsenale was launched as an ultra-exclusive e-commerce store for independently designed motion products in Paris in 2016. It bills itself as “the most insane garage in the world” and has now spawned three physical stores, in Macau’s City of Dreams, Miami’s Art District and New York’s SoHo.
There are four distinct divisions. Earth, Air, Sea and Beyond. For the last one, think outer space and the metaverse. TheArsenale’s name is derived from Italy’s Arsenale di Venezia, which was like a Formula One paddock for Marco Polo’s ships. This is an inventory of lifestyle weaponry. Its founder, French entrepreneur Patrice Meignan, is a lifelong petrolhead, as evidenced by the custom supercars and motorbikes on offer on his website – as well as crocodile-skin skateboards, NASA suits and personal submarines – but his Air Division is what’s getting him most excited today.
At the heart of this enterprise is a desire to be different, to stand out from the crowd, and that is a theme seen today across luxury industries. Luxury is not simply a ticket to turn left when entering an aeroplane. True luxury is the freedom of imagination, where the sky is no limit at all; instead, it’s just the beginning. A car that turns into a helicopter? That’s what puts the first into first class.
“The oldest pictures of me, from the late 1970s, show me in an aeroplane hangar holding a screwdriver while my dad fitted a VW Beetle engine to a custom prop plane. TheArsenale is the sum of this passion. There is a world to be discovered, and connecting those with the courage to build a different and better future through new technology is what drives me,” says the 44-year-old Meignan.
“Pat” and I worked together when he published the ground-breaking car culture magazine Intersection in France, and this sense of cutting-edge automotive style has informed his latest project. “We’re small, but we understand car culture. Most flying car companies build things that look like bubbles with skis. Design is vital. There is a language between man and machine. I added the flair of concept car design.”
It’s that flair that led him to move from Paris to Miami, where Donald Trump and his youngest daughter recently swung by TheArsenale to purchase merchandise. “Fifteen Cadillac Escalades pulled up,” remembers Pat. “I thought they’d come about my visa”. Other celebrity patrons include Will Smith and a host of rappers.
The new age of flying cars has come about, explains Pat, through “entrepreneurship, greater access to technology, and a revolution in mobility. I wanted to be a part of that change. I wanted to make a federation, like an FIA (the governing body of world motorsport) for automotive builders.” This has led to a number of sexy collaborations, but Renault is the first that’s blue chip.
“It started like a joke from Renault. They would call and ask what I could do cool for them. I used the 60th anniversary of ‘La Quatrelle’ to sit at the table with these big players, and the AIR4 was the appetiser I served them. Now we’re creating a brand lab, working with Thales, Airbus, Dassault, Orange, and Renault, which will play a key role in our personal vision of flying cars in an
“I’ve never seen such a quick development and appetite for this new ecosystem. There are now 50 companies working on flying cars, a lot of them eVTOL. The limit has not been reached yet. On Earth, maybe, but the air is the new highway.”
Here are three other cloud-reaching machines you can keep on your driveway.
KLEIN VISION AIRCAR
This January, the Slovakian-made AirCar prototype was certified as an airworthy aircraft and is on sale with a starting price of HK$3.9 million. The AirCar’s main fuselage doubles as a two-seat road car with four wheels. The wings fold out hydraulically, a pusher propeller is installed in the extending tail, and the whole thing converts from road to air mode in just two minutes
and 15 seconds.
Styled like a sports coupe, its carbon body contributes 30 percent of its total lift when off the ground and it’s powered by a 1.6-litre BMW engine developing 140bhp. The runway requirement is 300 metres, max altitude is just over 4,500m and cruising speed is 169kph. Plans are already in motion to introduce a higher-performance derivative with a 3.2-litre 280bhp V6, which will increase flying range to just over 800 kilometres.
The AirCar’s main competitor is the similarly Slovakian AeroMobil, which has been in development since 1990 and is expected to debut, finally, in 2024 with a price of HK$13.3 million. Now in its fourth prototype stage, this sleek-looking vehicle is powered by a hybrid Subaru boxer turbo engine and electric motor, developing over 300bhp. Maximum road speed is 161kph, and air speed is 257kph, with a 690-kilometre range. Like the AirCar, it can convert from road to air mode in under three minutes.
Standing for Personal Air and Land Vehicle, this Dutch-engineered two-seater has the comfort of a car, the agility of a motorcycle and, oh, the ability to fly. A three-wheeled road-going gyrocopter, the 200bhp PAL-V has a top-speed of 160kph on the ground and 180kph in the air. Range is 500 kilometres. Handling on the road is helped by a patented tilting system, while in the air it is equally easy to control and cannot stall. It can switch between flight and drive mode in ten minutes. Because 165 metres of runway is required to go airborne, the PAL-V can’t always escape traffic jams, unfortunately. Yet because it’s designed for low altitude, commercial air traffic and fixed routes aren’t an issue. On sale since 2018, the HK$4.5 million machine has found its way into the hands of a wide range of customers, from cowboy-astronaut-millionaires to border patrol agencies.
HOW IS THIS LEGAL?
Drone vehicles such as the AIR4 require no pilot’s licence, whereas the Pal-V needs a private gyroplane licence, and full-on flying cars like the AirCar and Aeromobil require you to study for your wings in the same way you would to pilot a light aircraft. As for driving on public roads, the machine needs a number plate and national vehicle licensing institutions will sort that. The inventors not only require a certificate of airworthiness in the country of manufacture, they also need to register the “car” as an approved M1 special purpose vehicle. This paperwork allows the driver/pilot to take to the tarmac and the clouds, but one still needs to obey highway and airspace rules.
Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7