Have you ever wondered if a wheel-less vehicle that hovers over the ground would ever be invented? A car like something from the Jetsons or a landspeeder from Star Wars?
Little did I know, something like that already existed. Who knew we could look to the past to find something we thought would might come in the future? I came across something today called the Glideair hovercar made by Ford all the way back in 1961.
I saw these images at Retronaut.com, which labeled the car as being from 1961 (the source of the images says 1961 as well). I came across a magazine article from 1958 that mentions the Glideair here though, but the article doesn't actually show a picture of the Glideair. Here's an excerpt from that article:
This revolutionary new mode of travel was recently unveiled by the Ford Motor Company in the form of the Glideair—a wheel-less vehicle that rides on a thin film of air a fraction of an inch above the road.
Says Andrew A. Kucher, Ford’s vice president in charge of Engineering and Research: “We look upon Glideair as a new form of high-speed land transportation, probably in the field of rail surface travel, for fast trips of distances of up to about 1,000 miles.”
A gas turbine or turbojet engine would supply the power to both levitate and propel the Glideair. Instead of wheels the vehicle would employ “levapads,” a Kucher-coined word. Tiny jets of air would stream through holes in the levapads, supporting the vehicle. It is significant to note that levapads have already been designed to fit around a standard rail. They raise the vehicle from the rail and keep it away from the rail sides.Apparently the idea didn't quite "take off" though (pun intended), because we aren't driving around in these today. I haven't found much information on what happened to the car, but I did find this on Wikipedia about it:
One of the earliest hovertrain concepts predates hovercraft by decades; in the early 1930s Andrew Kucher, an engineer at Ford, came up with the idea of using compressed air to provide lift as a form of lubrication. This led to the Levapad concept, where compressed air was blown out of small metal disks, shaped much like a poppet valve. The Levapad required extremely flat surfaces to work on, either metal plates, or as originally intended, the very smooth concrete of a factory floor. Kucher eventually became VP in charge of the Ford Scientific Laboratory, continuing development of the Levapad concept throughout.
It does not appear any effort was put into vehicle use until the 1950s, when several efforts used Levapad-like arrangements running on conventional rails as a way to avoid the hunting problems and provide high-speed service. A 1958 article in Modern Mechanix is one of the first popular introductions of the Levapad concept. The article focuses on cars, based on Ford's prototype "Glideair" vehicle, but quotes Kucher noting "We look upon Glideair as a new form of high-speed land transportation, probably in the field of rail surface travel, for fast trips of distances of up to about 1,000 miles". A 1960 Popular Mechanics article notes a number of different groups proposing a hovertrain concept.
What was lacking from all of them was a suitable way to move the vehicles forward – since the whole idea of the hovertrain concept was to eliminate any physical contact with the running surface, especially wheels, some sort of contact-less thrust would have to be provided. There were various proposals using air ducted from the lift fans, propeller, or even jet engines, but none of these could approach the efficiency of an electric motor powering a wheel.
So as cool and retro-futuristic as it looks...apparently it just wasn't as efficient as using wheels.
Update (04/26/14): According to this article, the car in the picture above is not the Glideair, which apparently didn't even exist. However, it is not fake, and is actually the "Bee" by Curtis Wright from 1959. So mystery solved!