Technical details, innovative design, racing success, management, empire building and the ups and downs of markets are common elements of automobile history. For all their importance, however, it is the flamboyant, calculating, imaginative, competitive personalities that give the automobile's evolution its color and character.
Rarely do so many memorable personalities intertwine as in the story of this Curtiss Aerocar. Paramount among them is Glenn H. Curtiss. Born in 1878 in Hammondsport, New York at the foot of the Finger Lakes, young Curtiss was taken with mechanical devices. In 1907 he set a land speed record at 136.6 miles per hour at Ormond Beach, Florida on his motorcycle, a record that stood for four years. He built his first flying machine in 1908, designing the Curtiss JN-4, the American Expeditionary Force's standard trainer known as the "Jenny." His NC-4 flying boats made the first heavier-than-air crossing of the Atlantic in 1919 and his lightweight aircraft engines were the standard of flight in America in the first decades of the 20th century.
Curtiss retired at 40 after World War I, a wealthy but still restless and creative man who loved, along with many of his contemporaries, the "outdoor life." Successful and perhaps a bit pampered, Curtiss designed a camping trailer following his own ideas of advanced design, comfort and convenience that facilitated his ventures into the Adirondack wilderness.
Built along contemporary aircraft lines with a lightweight wooden framework braced with nickel-steel wires and covered with fabric and composite materials, Curtiss addressed handling problems with a fifth wheel hitch at or, preferably, forward of the tow vehicle's rear axle. A tapered nose reduced aerodynamic drag. Close-coupled with the tow car the two elements formed a single aerodynamic element. Tests showed that towing a Curtiss Motor Bungalow - as it was then known - actually increased the car's top speed.
Enter the second personality: Carl G. Fisher. Fisher made his first fortune with the Prest-O-Lite company, became the impresario behind creation of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then turned his attention to grand real estate development schemes at Montauk, Long Island and, more successfully, Miami Beach, Florida where Curtiss was also actively developing planned communities. Fisher experienced Curtiss's latest trailer, called the Aerocar, and enthusiastically promoted it to his contacts in the automobile business like Roy Chapin, Howard Coffin, Walter O. Briggs, Walter P. Chrysler and Alvan Macauley.
The Aerocar Corporation was established in Opa-locka, Florida, one of Glenn Curtiss's planned communities, in July 1928 by Curtiss, Fisher and Coffin. Briggs Body Company, one of Detroit's dominant volume auto body builders, took up a Curtiss Aerocar license and continued to build trailers based on Aerocar designs until World War II. Although Glenn Curtiss died from complications after appendicitis in 1930 the Opa-locka Aerocar facility moved to Coral Gables in 1934. During the Thirties a panoply of models were built along Aerocar lines including multi-passenger coaches, horse haulers, mobile showrooms (for Enna Jettick shoes, GE appliances, Kingfisher tackle, Grolier books, Victor radios, Fostoria glassware, Cities Service gasoline) and ambulances, all exploiting the Aerocar's light weight, ample interior room, good dynamics and economical operation.
During the late Thirties travel trailer applications remained foremost but at prices that deterred all but the most discerning, demanding clients. One of those was our third personality: Augustus Post. His forebears are unclear but Augustus Post had a swashbuckling persona and in 1938 he ordered this combination of custom built Chevrolet HC 1-ton truck and custom-built Curtiss Aerocar trailer. An early aeronaut in hot air balloons, Post was a daring risk-taker, distinctive in his handlebar mustache and goatee. Post and his co-pilot Alan Hawley had been carried away on zephyrs with their balloon "America II" in the fifth Gordon Bennett balloon race from St. Louis in 1910. They disappeared into the Canadian wilderness and were lost for a week until they trekked out on foot (flight distance unknown.) His best story concerns his balloon collapse over Berlin in 1900. Post bailed out on his parachute at 3,000 feet, landing on a rooftop directly across from a lady's boudoir. The consequences are unknown, but the possibilities are intriguing.
Post commissioned the special tow vehicle from the Standard Coach Works in Los Angeles designed to complement the style and aerodynamics of the Curtiss Aerocar trailer. Surviving photos of the Chevrolet show it under construction employing traditional wood-framed, metal covered techniques. The tow vehicle was driven across country to Coral Gables where it was mated up with its custom-designed travel Aerocar.
The second owner was the famed Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel (site of the first Academy Awards) which used the Aerocar combination for luxury tours for patrons. Sold next to Jack Smith, the owner of Republic Van Lines in Santa Monica, California, it was bought in 1960 by the next personality: Wolf River Bob. Wolf River Bob (Robert Breeze) was a carryover from the days of Wild West Shows, a specialist in "Bull whips, fast draws and fancy gun work? My specialty for 20 years." Wolf River Bob worked rodeos as a clown and entertainer, did movie work, ran a restaurant and, maybe, created his own legend. It doesn't really make much difference, because Wolf River Bob bought this Aerocar combination and preserved it, driving it from show to show from his base in the village of White Cloud, Kansas.
Aircraft-style construction, fittings and equipment are used throughout both the Chevrolet tow vehicle and the Curtiss Aerocar. The four-door Chevrolet has a bench style front seat with two cloth upholstered reclining aircraft-style seats in the rear and is very comfortably trimmed and finished including wood window surrounds, rollup windows and a pull-down rear window shade. The fifth wheel mount located over the rear axle is based on an aircraft tire, wheel and axle, a system patented by Glenn Curtiss. The 207 cubic inch overhead valve inline six-cylinder engine has an Ellis intake manifold, split exhaust manifold and dual exhausts. A 4-speed transmission, 12 volt electrical system, hydraulic brakes and two 20-gallon gas tanks complete its equipment. The Aerocar has its own vacuum-operated braking system.
The practice at the time, and the underlying intent of the Aerocar, was for passengers to ride in the comfort, quiet and luxury of the Aerocar on the road, like a private railroad car. It is equipped with a telephone-style system to communicate with the tow vehicle. The Aerocar is divided into two rooms. The front compartment has a rear-facing settee, two comfortable aircraft-style seats; pull down Pullman-style bunks, cabinets, clock, altimeter, folding table and chairs that convert into more beds, chest of drawers and even a closet. To the rear the other compartment has a full kitchen with an icebox, 3-burner stove, sink, water holding tank in a stainless steel enclosure. A separate bathroom has a toilet, shower and lavatory. The Aerocar is equipped with its own pair of 20-gallon water storage tanks with pressure pump and a butane tank for the stove mounted outside the back just above the rear-mounted spare. It is wired for external AC power.
Now over seventy years old this Chevrolet HC-Curtiss Aerocar combination has never been restored. According to Wolf River Bob it was painted only once, in the 1960's in Ventura, California. It was driven recently from Kentucky to St. Louis and runs and drives well. Its age is evident but its condition is still usable and presentable, demonstrating the years of valuable service it has delivered and the care - even affection - which it has had from just four owners from new. It also exhibits the ingenuity, creativity and imagination which Glenn H. Curtiss established as the principles of the Aerocar Corporation.