Why the Flying Family Car Never Took Flight

Monday, January 22, 2018

In the late 1930s, a revolutionary new personal airplane hit the market. Designed to be as easy to fly as getting behind the wheel of the family car, the ERCO Ercoupe promised to democratize flying. Despite the Ercoupe’s intuitive controls and life-saving safety features, this little plane never gained more than a small devoted following, and its design innovations did not catch on.

A 1946 ad for an Ercoupe
A 1946 ad for the plane.

In an author talk at Hagley on October 26, Dr. Alan Meyer explained why the Ercoupe never became the ubiquitous flying car its makers hoped it would be. Taking the audience inside the world of private pilots in the postwar era, Meyer showed how this overwhelmingly male community shunned airplane designs that could make flying more accessible to the general public.  Private pilots—many of them trained in the military—valued daring, technical competence, and skill over safety, accessibility, and ease of use. 

These values shaped the market for personal planes, relegating designs like the Ercoupe to the sidelines, and ensuring that the community of private pilots changed little in its makeup over the ensuing decades.

Alan Meyer poses by a small private plane

A historian of technology who teaches at Auburn University and a longtime private pilot himself, Dr. Meyer (pictured, right) based his talk on his book, Weekend Pilots: Technology, Masculinity, and Private Aviation in Postwar America, recently published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Dr. Meyer conducted research for the book at the Hagley Library, which holds the records of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, an important player in pilot training and advocacy in the postwar era.

Run by the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society, Hagley’s author talks feature researchers who have published books on topics that relate to the library’s collections on business, industry, transportation, technology, consumer culture, and design. 

Cover of "Weekend Pilots" a book by Alan Meyer

You can listen to Dr. Meyer’s fascinating lecture—which begins with a gripping true story of adventure in the air—in full on the Hagley website and on Soundcloud.

Amrys O. Williams is Associate Director and Oral Historian of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at Hagley Museum and Library.