Bi-planes, human drones, and private jets! Here’s what these car makers produced to take to the skies.
You may know about BMW, a company that got their start making aircraft during the second world war long before there was such a thing as the M4, but did you know a lot of companies also dabble in aircraft? When you have a surplus of motors and are trying to fine-tune your performance it always helps to take to the air! As a company, you learn how to deal with lightweight and far more reliable materials. It's a great thing to have on your résumé as an automaker, and a government contract doesn't hurt, either.
From the equivalent of Cessnas to fighter jets, and even private jets!… these companies have been dabbling in aircraft, some of them for over 100 years! Considering the track record some of these car companies have (ahem! Ford) would you ever fly in one of the aircraft? We're going to tell you exactly what airplanes they built and how well they did on the market.
Many people know that BMW got its start making airplanes, their logo is even a picture of their iconic 801 engine on an airplane during World War II. While they actually started off with cars very first they did soon move to airplanes for the war. The most popular engine was the large 41.8-liter engine of which they had demand for over 61,000, moving them into the limelight of success.
Unlike some of these following companies, they did not continue or ever dabble in modern aircraft, but they do have close ties with (as in they own) Rolls-Royce who continually makes airplanes and, more recently, jet engines. All BMW's aviation pursuits lie with that division now. But we will get to that later… For now, suffice it to say that BMW was an avionic hit, and except for losing the war, they made decent airplanes with respectable performance.
The founder of Chevrolet, Louis Chevrolet, had a deep interest in aircraft. It started in the 1920s and grew in 1925 when he started attending airshows. Later he negotiated with some businessmen to start creating an airplane engine for their aircraft based on engines he already produced.
After two initial failures that broke up the original deal, they developed a four and six-cylinder engine that would go on to be the powerhouse of the Travel Air Biplane in 1929 under the brand name "Chevolair." Later they developed the D-333 4-cylinder Engine that would be used in several different aircraft ranging from a monoplane to a seaplane, giving Chevy moderate success and holding up well in air travel before Louis changed the name five different times for no apparent reason and then lost interest altogether before 1940.
Rolls-Royce has famously been making airplane engines since around World War II, but not many people know that they still make them today! They have an entire division called "civil aerospace quote referring to jet and high-tech engines including those used often in passenger planes. Recently they celebrated the sale of over 1000 XWV engines, their flagship jet propulsion system.
Rolls-Royce continues to strive for zero emissions and more efficient engines, and they even have the world's fastest all-electric plane (pictured). The airplane is called "the Spirit of Innovation" and it can go 300 miles per hour… which isn't necessarily impressive, but seeing how there's very little in the way of electric planes it's certainly commendable! To take a company with a short and troubled hybrid and electric car history like BMW/Rolls and be able to crack the secret of power output and weight in a craft that can fly… we couldn't do that!
Ford only designed one aircraft that went on sale, and true to the Ford way they were all-in and trying to make something revolutionary from the ground up. This was in 1925 and after making 199 of these Ford tri motors, they ended production in June 1933. The three motor aircraft was designed for convenient civilian use but also saw a little bit of action during both world wars, and it wasn't the only attempt at innovation.
In 1925 Ford bought Stot, an aircraft company, and use one of their single engines to turn into a tri engine. The wings and the side of the airplane were made of corrugated metal because it was stronger and very few other airplanes used all metal, so it needed their extra rigidity. The inside was rather classy with exposed wood and just want to see on either side of an aisle allowing for up to seven passengers. Another side-project by Ford was a tiny and affordable plane called the "Flivver," made to be the "Model-T of airplanes" for the masses. Seeing how pilots don't prefer "cheap" planes too often, it never was even pushed past a few test flights.
Believe it or not, Honda actually makes a great number of private jets that stretch into more elite areas for the upper-class, a complete 180 from their cars! The brand name it flies under is "HondaJet," a part of the Honda Aircraft Company. One of their more recent models is the HondaJet Elite S. This is what they claim to be the "world's most advanced lightweight jet." A major selling point that they hit is that it is efficient, which I'm sure is the first concern of anyone flying a jet worth $5.4 million. If you're wondering how the inside is…
It's very nice. Compared to its predecessors, the HondaJet Elite S boasts more carrying capacity in both weight and physical space. It has a reasonable cruising speed of 485 mph. This is a very respectable speed for such a small jet seeing how it is only 42 feet long and 40 feet from wingtip to wingtip, one of the smallest jets you can or would want to buy privately.
If you do not recognize this company that is because you're probably too young. The UK company teamed up with Studebaker and then promptly went out of business in 1956, but not before taking to the skies. For a large part, Packard worked with Rolls-Royce when it came to aircraft engines, but it had its own name emblazoned on engines like a liquid-cooled 12 cylinder that kicked off in the UK in 1941 and ran on a revolutionary four-stage supercharger which allowed for more power at higher altitudes.
In the year 1940, they reached an agreement with Rolls-Royce that resulted in a $130 million contract (converted to USD and adjusted for modern inflation) to build its first airplane engine. The engine was used in large European planes for the allies from bombers to cargo. After the war, it took its place next to the famous P 51 mustang as an ideal army surplus race engine and would have one last flair of popularity as the company that birthed it… died out.
Fiat Aviazione (ay-vi-ay-zee-oh-nah) was an Italian aircraft company that started in 1908, as soon as airplanes begin to "take off." After World War I, the Fiat company bought several small aircraft manufacturers and consolidated them into their own group. Fiat would go on to famously produce the Fiat CR.42 Falco Biplane in the 30s as well as a bomber called the BR.20. In the 1950s even designed a light ground attack plane.
They would continue to dabble in aviation but would give up most of their aircraft company in a partnership with Aefer. They continued to develop Jets and even created the Harrier jump jet, and early vertical takeoff and landing craft for military use. They would even consult on projects like the Boeing 747, and in 1997 the whole company and its owners were bought out to consolidate Italian companies under the Alfa Romeo Avio group.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries which owns the Mitsubishi Aircraft Corporation was once a part of Fuji Heavy Industries which dabbled in a lot of Japanese cars, maybe you've heard of Subaru? They have long since become two different companies altogether, but Mitsubishi kept a good part of the old name. Currently, Mitsubishi plans to make a lot of the passenger jets for Japan that you most likely will fly on if you ever go in the future. One of their latest models is called the SpaceJet and no, it is not actually a jet that can go to space.
Before this, there had been no Japanese airliner since 1962, so the need was obvious. Mitsubishi announced the project in 2007. It took its maiden flight in 2015 and while it has yet to be put into use, it was delayed due to COVID-19. The intent was to compete with the popular Boeing 747 and while they do already have some pre-orders, the 100-passenger jet most likely won't be put into use until 2023.
Toyota does not have their own current airplanes per-se, but they are trying to innovate with a company called Joby Aviation. Currently, they have successfully flown a prototype of what's known by them as an "eVTOL." Essentially it is a two-person drone that's capable of taking off vertically. If you think this is just some marketing play as so many concepts are, the odds are that this is not. Toyota has already invested $394 million in this project, a good sign of something that will see the showroom (or drone equivalent thereof). As of 2020, they have successfully taken flight.
Previously they have made their own airplanes entirely on their own like the TAA-1 which was a light aircraft made for Japan and the United States starting around 2002, and it was compared to a Lexus of the skies. Instead of going to market, the TAA-1 would stay as a prototype with only one ever being made, and was halted as Toyota focused on the new future of developing ground-going hybrids, enter; the Prius.
Subaru has a lot more of a play in modern airplanes than you might've thought. For one, they were directly responsible for keeping you safe every single time you might've landed in a large Boeing passenger jet, such as the 767 and 777 series. They are the ones who ensured that the main wing is integrated with the landing gear as simply and safely as possible for a more structurally-sound landing. These advancements also lend to the possibility of much, much larger passenger jets, as you can see below. On their own, they have made rotary wings like the Subaru Bell 412EPX.
Subaru is even playing with UAVs and has 50 years of experience in defense aircraft. In their own words, they are "a leading company in this category in Japan." Except for the helicopter, Subaru doesn't actually put its name on any other aircraft, it's simply contributing to the development of the Japanese military and Boeing. Developed by Subaru, a fancy technique called "laser pinning" or LSP has been able to increase the torque output and reduce the corrosion of metals inside the engines by essentially blasting them with lasers at a certain frequency. If you wanted us to explain it past that, sorry we are just car guys, but this has made their helicopters shockingly reliable with a greater amount of torque available. If only they could do that to their car engines!
The U.S. Air Force boasts some of the world’s most formidable aircraft in its arsenal, but not everything about them is public knowledge.
Wyatt is from Utah and likes to bike, ski, and drive too fast. He’s written articles on motorcycles and cars for years, and especially likes Japanese cars and off-road vehicles. He has been featured in DriveTribe more than once and some of his content has had over 6.5 million views. He loves Formula 1, Formula Drift, the Baja 1000, and World Rally Cross!
Bi-planes, human drones, and private jets! Here’s what these car makers produced to take to the skies.