By on July 6, 2014

Since this isn’t The Truth About Airplanes or even Planelopnik, we don’t generally cover aviation here at TTAC, either general or commercial (sorry about that pun). However, Honda announced that last week the first production HondaJet took its maiden test flight, near Honda Aircraft’s Greensboro, NC headquarters, and Honda does, after all, make and sell a few cars too. They aren’t the first car company, though, to get into the airplane business. As a matter of fact an earlier automaker had a seminal role in the development of commercial passenger aviation and even took a flier (sorry again, couldn’t resist) at general aviation, though that experiment was less successful. I don’t know if Soichiro Honda’s ever envisioned his motor company making jet airplanes, but since one of Soichiro’s role models, Henry Ford, helped get passenger aviation off the ground (okay, the last time, I promise) it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the thought may have crossed Mr. Honda’s mind.

You may have heard, or even seen Howard Hughes’ famous and enormous World War Two era wooden airplane nicknamed The Spruce Goose. That nickname was taken from “The Tin Goose”, the popular name for the Ford Trimotor airplane (also known as the Tri-Motor), produced by Henry Ford’s company from 1925 to 1933. It wasn’t made of tin, by the way, but rather was one of the first uses of aluminum in airplane construction. Intended for the civil aviation market, most of the 199 Trimotors that were produced carried passengers or cargo, but the plane was used all over the world for a variety of purposes, including by some countries’ militaries. One Trimotor, the one in these photographs, in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum and on display there, was used by Admiral Byrd in his expedition to fly over the South Pole.

The Ford Trimotor most likely came about because of Edsel Ford’s interest in aviation. When Edsel was just 15 years old, a year after the Model T went into production in 1908 he persuaded his father to loan him three Ford workers to help him and a friend build an experimental monoplane powered by a Model T engine. Henry had encouraged Edsel’s mechanical interests, even building him a full machine shop above the carriage house at the family’s mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district. It should be noted the the Fords built that 10,000 square foot house before the Model T was ever made. The success of the Model N and Model S Fords had already made Henry Ford a wealthy man before the T became a phenomenon that changed the world. Henry alternately doted on his only son and, worried that he would grow to be the soft, effete son of a rich man, humiliated him in front of others to ‘toughen him up’. He gave Edsel great power at the family company, but limited autonomy. The senior Ford, whom I believe was not a particularly good business manager and who was an even worse manager of people, relied heavily in terms of operational management of Ford Motor Company on James Couzens and his son Edsel. Both men chafed at their overbearing employer. Couzens, though, had a choice in the matter.

James Couzens was one of Henry Ford’s earliest employees. He also invested $10,000 in the new Ford Motor Company. Few of Henry’s business associates stayed with him for their entire careers and it was after Couzens and his wife had returned to Detroit from a trip to New York City that Ford’s longtime business manager finally had enough of Henry’s ways. Couzens and his wife had spent a night out on the town in Manhattan, taking in a play and eventually getting a room at a swanky hotel. However, when Couzens got back to Dearborn he was called onto the carpet by Ford, accused of stepping out on his wife. Henry, who had a long and quite possible fecund relationshp with a young Ford employee named Evangeline Dahlinger, had another standard for his employees, and it seems that one of Harry Bennett’s spies didn’t recognize Mrs. Couzens. Irate, and by then a very wealthy man in his own right from dividends on the Ford stock he owned, Couzens quit. Later, after stockholder lawsuits over unpaid dividends and a threat by Henry to start a new car company to compete with Ford Motor Co., Ford paid Couzens something like $29 million dollars in 1919 for that initial investment of $10,000.

Edsel Ford ended up far wealthier than James Couzens but he paid a high price for that wealth and unlike Couzens there was no way that he could leave the family company. Despite their sometimes strained relationship, based upon his behavior one would have to say that Edsel loved his father. Loving a difficult parent can create stress, not to mention the stress from running a large company. The younger Ford developed stomach ulcers. His immediate family is said to have blamed Henry for Edsel’s poor health. In 1942, when undergoing surgery to repair an ulcer, doctors discovered that Edsel had rapidly metastasizing stomach cancer. He also apparently contracted undulant fever from drinking unpasteurized milk produced at the Ford Farms in Greenfield Village. Edsel Ford died in 1943 at age 49.

Two decades earlier, Edsel was one of the early investors in the Stout Metal Airplane Company. In the early 1920s, most airplanes were still relatively small aircraft built with coated fabric laid over wooden or metal frameworks. William Bushnell Stout was an aeronautical engineer who had embraced many of the principles of Hugo Junkers, the German aircraft pioneer. He had had some limited success building airplanes for the American military starting during World War One. He was an early advocate of building aircraft using duraluminum, a copper and magnesium alloy of aluminum that was age-hardenable.  Stout was also a pretty savvy salesman. He sent out mimeographed letters to 100 leading business men, asking them each to invest $1,000 in his new venture. In his letter, he breezily said, “For your one thousand dollars you will get one definite promise: You will never get your money back.” It must have worked because Edsel invested and convinced his father to go in on the Stout company as well. It’s not clear how much money Stout raised. One source says $20,000, while another say it was a bit more substantial, $128,000.

However much the initial investment was, by 1924, the Ford Airport, one of the world’s first modern airports, was operating in Dearborn, in part to serve the growing business aviation needs of FoMoCo in addition to Ford’s interest in manufacturing airplanes. Once the Trimotor was in production, Ford would take out advertisements in national magazines encouraging local municipalities to build airports as a sign of their modernity and forward thinking. In 1925 the Stout company was made a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company. Stout’s original single engine design with the wing mounted above the fuselage and made with a stressed skin of corrugated aluminum over an aluminum frame was modified to take three Curtiss-Wright radial air-cooled engines and named the Stout 3-AT. It’s possible that Stout was a better salesman than an airplane designer because while the prototype flew, it didn’t fly well. A well-timed and fortuitous fire apparently then destroyed the prototype. By then Stout had a team of engineers to work with and subsequently the far more successful 4-AT and 5-AT production models were developed. The production 4-AT Trimotor was 50 feet long with a 76 foot wingspan. It weighed just 6,500 lbs empty and had a top speed of 114 mph.

While the Trimotor was not the first all-metal airplane, it was considered to be one of the most advanced aircraft of its day. Stout used a fuselage and wing design originated by Junkers. Some of those Junkers planes were exported from Germany to the U.S. and Stout was undoubtedly also influenced by their use of corrugated aluminum as a skin. The added stiffness caused by the corrugations was considered worth the increased aerodynamic drag. That Stout borrowed Junkers designs was attested to by the fact that Junkers successfully sued Ford when the American company tried to export the Trimotor to Europe. Ford tried to countersue but a Czech court ruled that the Ford designs indeed infringed on Junkers’ patents.

The 4-AT Ford Trimotor carried a crew of three, a pilot, co-pilot and a stewardess, along with as many as nine passengers. The seats were simple and could be removed for cargo runs. The entire body of the plane, including the control surfaces was made of the ruffled aluminum. Many other aircraft continued to use fabric covered rudders, elevators and ailerons into the World War Two era. The controls surfaces were activated by cables that ran to lever arms located outside the plane near the cockpit. Interestingly, the engine instrumentation was also outside the cockpit, mounted directly on the engines but so the pilot could see them through the cockpit windshield.

A total of 86 4-AT Trimotors were produced. Specifications and performance of the slightly larger and significantly faster 5-AT Trimotor were as follows:

Crew: three (one Flight attendant)
Capacity: 10 passengers
Cost: $42,000 in 1933
Length: 50 ft 3 in (15.32 m)
Wingspan: 77 ft 10 in (23.72 m)
Height: 12 ft 8 in (3.86 m)
Wing area: 835 ft² (77.6 m²)
Empty weight: 7,840 lb (3,560 kg)
Loaded weight: 10,130 lb (4,590 kg)
Max. takeoff weight: 13,500 lb (6,120 kg)
Powerplant: 3 × Pratt & Whitney Wasp C 9-cylinder radial engines, 420 hp (313 kW) each
Maximum speed: 150 mph (241 km/h, 130 kts)
Cruise speed: 90 mph (145 km/h, 78 kts)
Stall speed: 64 mph (103 km/h, 56 kts)
Range: 550 mi (885 km, 478 nm)
Service ceiling: 18,500 ft (5,640 m)
Rate of climb: 1050 ft/min (5.334 m/s)
Wing loading: 16.17 lb/ft² (78.87 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 10.71 lb/hp (6.52 kg/kW)

Henry and Edsel Ford and a Ford Trimotor, 1930. Photo likely taken at Ford Airport, Dearborn.

Henry and Edsel Ford and a Ford Trimotor, 1930. Photo likely taken at Ford Airport, Dearborn.

Though he likely had very little role in its design, the Ford Trimotor expressed many of Henry Ford’s core ideas that could be seen in the Model T and in the Fordson tractors. It was well-designed, reliable, and relatively inexpensive to build and to buy. In 1928, a Ford Trimotor cost $42,000, the equivalent of 84 Model A Tudors that year. The rigid metal structure and simple control systems gave the Trimotor a reputation for being able to take some abuse and like the Model T, it could be serviced and repaired almost anywhere that a pilot might land it. For bush and marine pilots, the Trimotor could have skis or pontoon floats fitted.


Though there were passenger planes before the Ford Trimotor, it made a significant impact on the then young commercial aviation industry. When introduced it was considered a major advance over other early passenger airliners. It was reliable so the planes arrived on schedule and it was comfortable enough so that when they arrived, passenger felt it was worth the fare. Well over 100 airlines around the world eventually used the Trimotor. Soon after the Trimotor’s introduction, an airline, Transcontinental Air Transport was founded specifically to used the Trimotor to provide coast-to-coast service, though passengers had to rely on rail connections for parts of the trip. A year later, Transcontinental would merge with another young airline, Western Air Service to create TWA. Pan American Airways, later PanAm, started flights from Key West to Havana, eventually adding service to Central and South America by the early 1930s. Many of the 80 small carriers that merged to form what was to become American Airlines also operated Ford Trimotors.


By the late 1920s, what by then was called the Ford Aircraft Division was considered to be the largest commercial airplane manufacturer in the world. Henry Ford even looked into producing a single seat “commuter” plane, a Model T of the air, if you will, called the Ford Flivver, a plane that would contribute to Ford withdrawing from the airplane business. I hope to cover the Flivver in a subsequent post, but for now I’ll just say that only two pilots flew the plane. Charles Lindbergh, a personal friend of Henry Ford, said it was the worst plane he ever flew. The other pilot was Henry Ford’s personal pilot, Harry Brooks, who was killed when his Flivver crashed into the ocean on a test flight, his body never recovered. Brooks death contributed to Henry Ford losing interest in aviation.


Ford published advertisements encouraging the development of modern airports.

By the early 1930s, much more modern airliners than the Trimotor were being designed and produced, starting with the Douglas DC-2. In another bit of automobile-airplane trivia, it was E.L.Cord who was one of the driving forces behind the development of the plane that took what the Ford Trimotor did for passenger aircraft and made it a far more practical way of travel, the DC-3. It’s not coincidental that in the Henry Ford Museum’s aviation section, the wings of the museum’s Ford Trimotor and Douglas DC-3 overlap each other. Those two planes pretty much created passenger air travel in the United States.

Another factor in Henry Ford leaving the aviation industry was that by 1933, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression and Ford Motor Company needed to focus on its core enterprise, building and selling cars. Speaking of which, in the early 1930s, Henry was sort of preoccupied with the development of the flathead Ford V8 engine, and meanwhile Edsel was getting on with his part of the invention of automotive styling, supervising what would become an all-time classic, the 1932 Ford. Trimotor production ended in 1933 after just fewer than 200 were built after eight years of production. It would be another eight years before Ford Motor Company would produce an  airplane again, though by the time Ford Motor Company was finished with production of that particular plane, at a rate of one plane per hour, Ford could build 200 B-24 Liberators in less than two weeks at the Willow Run plant.


That’s a Douglas DC-3 in the background. Full gallery here.

As the Douglas planes supplanted the Trimotors for passenger service, the Trimotors were sold off to smaller airlines and cargo firms, some of them staying in service until the 1960s. During World War Two, Trimotors were converted for military use. Of the 199 Trimotors built, 18 of them still exist. A small number of Trimotors are even in service to this day, 80 year old airplanes that are still airworthy and providing excursion flights to vintage flight enthusiasts (here, here and here). Stout and his team indeed built a reliable and durable aircraft.

As with many of Henry Ford’s associates, William Stout and the automaker eventually parted ways. At first Ford moved him aside from technical responsibilities, instead using the designer as a company spokesman and sending him on a publicity campaign. In 1930, Stout left the company he founded, operating the Stout Engineering Laboratory, producing a variety of aircraft as well as the Stout Scarab, an early, limited production, aerodynamic automobile powered by a rear-mounted flathead Ford V8 that is considered to have been very influential in automotive design history. Stout had many admirers in the Detroit automotive design community and while he and Henry Ford parted ways, he’s still honored. Right in the middle of Ford country in Dearborn, on Oakwood Blvd adjacent to the Ford test track and just down the street from Ford’s Product Development Center is William Stout Elementary School.


External levers controlled by the pilot actuated the plane’s control surfaces via cables. Full gallery here.

Though Ford Motor Company stopped making Trimotors in 1933 and though Henry Ford personally lost interest in aviation, commercial aviation was dramatically affected by Ford’s involvement in the Trimotor project. Many of Henry’s personal projects, like the electric car he tried to develop using his former boss and later close friend Thomas Edison’s nickel-iron batteries or Ford’s Village Industries project never made money. However, after Ford had bought out all of his partners and investors by 1919, to paraphrase Bob Dylan’s Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, “he did whatever he wanted”. The same was true of the Ford Trimotor. Ford likely never turned a profit on the venture. However, he had a lasting impact on passenger air travel. To begin with, at the time he was America’s most celebrated industrialist. His reputation gave credibility to both the aircraft and airline businesses and through the Trimotor he helped create much of what we know today as commercial aviation: paved runways, passenger terminals, hangers, airmail and radio navigation. The Ford Trimotor also helped make “airmail” a reality.

The Ford Trimotor pictured here was the first airplane to fly over the South Pole. On November 28, 1929, Admiral Richard Byrd, along with pilot Bernt Balchen, radioman/co-pilot Harold June and photographer Ashley McKinley, flew in this Ford Trimotor from their base camp on Antartica to the South Pole and back. According to the Ford museum, Byrd’s Trimotor was “souped up”, with a 520 hp center engine flanked by two 220 hp units. The flight took them almost 19 hours and they almost didn’t make it. In order to be able to gain sufficient altitude so as not to crash into the Polar Plateau, they had to drop not only their empty auxiliary fuel tanks but also all of their emergency supplies. Had they had to emergency land the plane, they likely would have starved to death. The flight, though, was a success and Byrd’s expedition is now in the history books. In case you’re wondering why the plane has “Floyd Bennett” painted on the side, the admiral named the plane in memory of his pilot on earlier expeditions who died from pneumonia contracted while recovering from a crash.

Note: In the narration of this video, I erroneously said that the Ford Flivver was the first airplane that Henry Ford produced. Ford in fact decided to make the “Model T of the Air” in 1926 after the initial success of the TriMotor.

As I said at the outset, TTAC is an automotive publication but if you’ve read this far you probably have an interest in airplanes as well. If so, the Henry Ford Museum is probably worth a visit for you (it should go without saying that the museum’s Driving America and Racing In America exhibits are a “must see” for any car enthusiast). The Ford Trimotor and Douglas DC-3 aren’t the only airplanes on display at the museum. There are two replicas of the 1903 Wright Flyer, one constructed to honor the 75th anniversary of the Kitty Hawk flight and the other built at the Wright Flyer’s centennial. In the adjacent Greenfield Village is the Wright brothers’ Dayton, Ohio bicycle shop where they honed their design using a 6 foot wind tunnel and then constructed the first Wright Flyer. Like many of the other historical buildings in the Village, the Wrights’ actual building was relocated there by Henry Ford. Other fixed-wing and rotor aircraft on permanent display in the museum include the 1909 Bleriot XI, 1931 Pitcairn Autogiro, 1939 Sikorsky VS300A Helicopter, 1920 Dayton Wright RB-1, 1927 Stinson Detroiter, 1927 Ryan “Spirit of St. Louis” Replica, 1929 Lockheed Vega, 1926 Ford Flivver, 1927 Boeing 40-B, 1915 Laird Biplane, 1917 Curtiss Biplane, and a 1926 Fokker Trimotor (used in Byrd and Bennett’s earlier attempt to fly over the North Pole).

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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57 Comments on “Honda’s Not the First Car Company to Make an Airplane: The Ford TriMotor...”

  • avatar

    Other car companies with airplanes in their blood are SAAB and Mitsubishi. Again Ronnie, thanks for a nice history lesson, I always learn something.

    • 0 avatar

      Also Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, BMW, Piaggio, Renault… the list is pretty long.

      • 0 avatar

        and Subaru

      • 0 avatar

        There’s that project to recreate the airplane that Bugatti designed. Also, the Franklin car company, famous for making air cooled cars, evolved into an aircraft engine company, Air Cooled Engines.

        • 0 avatar

          And I think the Franklin engine tooling was sold to a Polish company and the engines are still in production.

        • 0 avatar

          I have enjoyed using Microsoft Flight Simulator over years to virtually fly vintage and modern planes of all kinds to places around the world. Someone created the Bugatti racing plane, and threw in a couple of Bugatti cars to drive on the ground as well.

          The Ford Tri-motor is well represented, and someone created the textures for Byrd’s Tri-motor and the scenery for his base camp. I created a series of Early Fairchild aircraft for Microsoft Flight Simulator which included “Stars and Stripes”, the Fairchild FC-2W2 that Byrd also took to the South Pole, and is owned by the Smithsonian and on loan to the Virginia Aviation Museum. Another designer who is also an actual pilot helped me to get the cockpit details and the flight characteristics correct; and I found the proper engine sounds as well.

          Someone also made the Ford Flivver for Flight Simulator. The quality of aircraft you can find free for downloading ranges from postively awful to absolutely amazing and accurate; someone used a commerically sold model of the B-24 to recreate the final moments of the “Lady Be Good” as it flew itself into the Lybian desert after the crew had bailed out at night to later die of exposure and thirst.

        • 0 avatar

          I coincidentally learned earlier today that the French arm of Hispano-Suiza also became an aircraft-only firm after WWII.

          Thanks for a great article.

  • avatar

    Really nice article! I’m always interested in aviation history and the connection between cars and aircraft is particularly strong. The Experimental Aircraft Association (of which I’m a member, and referenced in your first link) owns a flying Trimotor which occasionally makes national tours to offer rides.

    Model T engines were used by many homebuilders to build aircraft back in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, there is a thriving community of builders using Corvair engines. VW, Subaru, Honda Chevy and Ford engines are all used in experimental aircraft (although not, in some cases, without some serious issues).

    In many respects, our conventional Lycoming and Continental general aviation engines keep automotive history alive and well. We prime engines, adjust mixture, use magnetos and leaded fuel and treat engine oil as a consumable (our club Cessna 150 goes through a quart every few hours of flight).

    The EAA Trimotor represents the efforts of people to restore and preserve aviation history by actually flying historical aircraft.

    • 0 avatar

      I have been on the EAA trimotor, it is a lovely example of history working in real time, the sounds those engines make is music, no othe configuration of engine makes this kind of sound, the control imputs will ilicit induced yaw if not enough rudder goes in, as for lycomings and continentals goes, I think those engines were designed in the mid to late 1930’s, they are indeed a window into a culture where a person had to think about what they were doing, from a preflight and sumping the tanks to making sure controls were free and correct, today people get into a car with no thought of anything mechanical.

      • 0 avatar

        Speaking of sounds. I read where one could tell which flight crew was pilot or co-pilot by who was deaf in the ear adjacent to those loud outboard engines.

    • 0 avatar

      You mentioned Lycoming. In the article I mentioned E.L. Cord’s role in the development of the DC-3. Cord owned Lycoming. In a lot a ways he wa a one man conglomerate. I’ll have to check the info but I believe he rolled his aviation related businesses into Avco Aviation. It’s interesting that while he got out of the car biz, he continued to make money.

      Anyone know of a good book on Mr. Cord?

      • 0 avatar

        I read a book about him, or possibly it was just a chapter in a book I will have to look through a bunch of old automobile books that have been in storage since my office became the kids room. When I have a chance I will dig it out for you, quite a story.

        Avco is still around but it’s part of the Textron family.

      • 0 avatar

        Ronnie, here is a good book on E.L. Cord.

        E.L. Cord His Empire His Motorcars.
        by Griffith Borgeson
        published by Automobile Quarterly Press

  • avatar

    If you can get there, the Ford Museum is well worth your time. He collected industrial equipment like flywheels and monstrously-sized water pumps as well as planes, trains, and automobiles.

    • 0 avatar

      The Ford Museum isn’t just about technology, though it’s a great place for that. There’s also a large section devoted to how American homes have changed over the years as well as more general American history stuff like the Rosa Parks bus and materials related to Abraham Lincoln (like the Ford Theater chair he sat in when he was shot). Also, there’s Greenfield Village which contains actual historic buildings moved there by Ford. The Village and Museum require separate admission fees, though I think they may offer a combined ticket. Either way, the combined institution can’t be taken in in just one day.

      As an aside, people from outside of southeastern Michigan sometimes think of this place as an economic wasteland. If you drive by the HFMGV complex on any summer weekday you’ll find that the parking lots are quite full. They get about two million people a year there as far as I know the only bigger draw in the state is the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. On the 4th of July after I shot the photos for the Liberty Motors HQ post, I drove over to the Henry Ford Museum to get some shots of the clock tower, which like the Liberty HQ is a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. On the 4th, they have special events including a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and fireworks. Not only was every parking spot taken, FoMoCo’s adjacent conference center lot was full and cars were parked side by side off of Village Rd all the way from the Village entrance to the complex entrance on Southfield Rd.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah, my Mom and Dad were fascinated by the kitchen appliances and farm equipment.

        • 0 avatar

          I would hope that the Ford Museum would have a couple examples of Ford’s enormously successful N series tractors.

          Ford sold 524,076 8N tractors in a 5 year production run, that’s simply incredible.

          • 0 avatar

            They have lots of Deere and McCormick agricultural equipment so I’d be surprised if they don’t have Ford or Fordson tractors. Let me check…

            The museum websites mentions that they have the first Fordson tractor built. Not sure about the Model N. I featured a couple of Model N’s in my TTAC post about tractor shows.


            I also was lucky to find some stereo photo pairs taken about a century ago of Fordson tractors being built:


          • 0 avatar

            There are lots of 8Ns in rural Pennsylvania still doing work on small farms and houses with decent amounts of land. Guess the parts are cheap and the old flathead 4 and transmission are super reliable.

      • 0 avatar

        Henry Ford started out tinkering with machinery on the family farm, and over the years he amassed a collection of perhaps a hundred steam engines; mostly traction engines (steam tractors) and stationary steam engines. The Henry Ford Musuem back then was mostly a technical museum built around his collection.

        During WWII, the Henry Ford sold off some of his collection as scrap for the WWII metal drives. During either the 1970s or 1980s (I forget which), even more of the collection was sold off to make room for the section on American homes and contemporary living. The sold equipment went to both museums and private collectors around the country; I was visiting a mining museum in Colorado a few years ago, and they had an old beam type steam pumping engine of unknown providence that they purchased from the Henry Ford.

        Greenfield Village has a complete shop for working on the old machines, and also maintains two steam locomotives in working order. At one time, they also had a working steamboat, the Suwanee, which was a reconstruction of a steamboat that Thomas Edison used to ride in Florida; it was rebuilt around the original engine with the captain’s help in 1929. That made Greenfield Village one of the few places in the world where you could see and maybe ride behind a steam locomotive, aboard a steamboat, and a steam traction engine.

        For reasons that I don’t know; the boat was decommissioned and scrapped in 2011. The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village are still worthy of visiting; but the machinery collection nowdays is only a small portion of what it once was when Henry Ford was still alive.

      • 0 avatar

        @Ronnie Schreiber not a bad Museum ,some strange choices(Hot Dog Car) , Too bad Ford retreated from aircraft so early in the piece, they could have been major players now.

  • avatar

    Great article. I was fortunate enough to get a ride in the EAA’s trimotor. It’s a remarkable airplane. such a lazy take off – just kinda floats into the air as soon as it starts rolling.

  • avatar

    What an outstanding article. Please keep bringing the history Ronnie.

  • avatar
    Point Given

    Loved the Ford Museum when I visited last year. If any of the B&B here are visiting Detroit (and area) do go. Highly recommended.

  • avatar

    Quite amazing to think what people have accomplished.

  • avatar

    The major difference Ford Tri to other airliners of the 20’s was its aluminum wing structure where the standard was a wood main spar. Rockne and 7 others died when a wood wing spar Fokker F.10 broke up in a storm 31 March 1931 near Bazaar Kansas. After that, all new transports had aluminum wing construction.
    “Charles Lindbergh, a personal friend of Henry Ford, said it was the worst plane he ever flew.”
    Eye popping statement because Spirit was unstable and a handful to fly.

  • avatar

    I flew one of the handful of Fuji Heavy Industries Aero Subaru FA-200s imported into America. It handled well and was well constructed, if a bit slow for its 180-hp Lycoming engine – only 102 mph at 60 percent power. The cabin was comfortable with outstanding visibility. The airplane I flew was rated for aerobatics. Very stable in slow rolls and big loops. Recovery from spins was easy. I recall the takeoff roll and climb were disappointing – adding 10 degrees of flaps helped a little. Its relatively high asking price did it no favors. 294 were completed. Fuji stopped production to concentrate, with the Rockwell company, on the Commander 700 light twin. 49 of these airplanes were built. Its complicated piston engines hurt it, I think. A pair of turbines and this one would have been a success.

    • 0 avatar

      The Fuji looks to be a copy, at least in spirit, of the North American_Navion, an example of which I owned in the nineties.

      I was headed one bright morning in the Navion with a friend to circle Mt St. Helens on our way to Puyallup, Wa. when a Bi-plane painted up in Red Baron colors and Iron Cross with a pair of machine guns mounted on the top of the fuselage, with a pilot in period flying gear, leather helmet, goggles and a scarf, came along side. He waved and then did a perfect barrel roll over us around our longitudinal axis.

      My Navion had the rare full light all plexiglas canopy conversion like a military plane and we could look up at him above us as he went over us in that bright Blue sky. He came up from under us and a long side, a shit eating grin on his face. He waved again and disappeared into the ether.

      To this day, I have never seen an airplane piloted to such a degree of control except in a box at aerobatic competitions. I certainly can not exercise that degree of control even with years of practicing aerobatics. Some guys just have the gift and that talent left me and a friend a memorable experience.

  • avatar

    As a native Californian baby-boomer, I am steeped in all things car – made more intense by my dad’s college education at the General Motors Institute (Class of ’49). Yet, each year in the 1960’s, we attended the Van Nuys Air Show when the Van Nuys Airport billed itself as the largest airport in the world (measured by take-offs and landings). There one year, I flew in a Ford Tri-motor, which was my first airplane ride ever. This was an experience of the early 20th century’s mechanical world where every sensation was derived from the mashing of metal on metal under the controlled explosions of petrol. From all that industrial effort, we flew. It was loud, bone-rattling excitement I’ll never forget. Thank you for the back-story.

  • avatar

    I have to envy those few who have flown on this dinosaur. Once I was able to take a walk-through of a Trimotor, though. The impression I got was opposite of solid. The corrugated aluminum panels looked like outhouse roofing, and the wicker seats asked, “Picnic, anyone?”

    The corrugated metal skin always seemed like a bad choice. Did any other successful plane use that? From the little I know about aero, I’d suppose that the Trimotor was especially susceptible to sidewinds, which would blow across the corrugations at a right angle.

    • 0 avatar

      Stout, who was a adept at adopting the good ideas of others, borrowed the use of corrugated aluminum from German plane makers, particularly Junkers. As mentioned in the article, the structural benefits were considered to have outweighed the aero issues.

      Speaking of aero and the Ford museum complex, the Wright Bros’ bicycle shop is in Greenfield Vilage and I don’t know if it’s the actual artifact or a reproduction but they have a 6 foot wind tunnel as used by the Wrights in designing their Flyer.

    • 0 avatar

      We are talking about a very long time ago and the tin was certainly better than the fabric that was standard at the time. I thought there was a German WWII aircraft that used this.

      Edit – Yes, the JU52 which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Ford.

    • 0 avatar

      IIRC Republic SeaBee’s used corrugated wings and tails, I’m sure there are others. It is an elegant engineering solution, when done right, but I imagine the production tooling would be expensive.

    • 0 avatar

      Come to EAA Oshkosh Airventure, lay your fifty dollars down and go for a fly.

    • 0 avatar

      Several Junkers aircraft, including Ju-52M of World War II fame, were also built with corregated skin. The Ju-52M was nicknamed Tante Ju (“Aunt Ju”) and Iron Annie; and was a tri-motor as well, but with a low mounted wing. It was used for passenger and freight hauling during the 1930s and 1940s, and as a troop and cargo transport and even a bomber by the Luftwaffe during WWII. Way more were built than the Ford Trimotor in part to replace losses sustained during the war, and like the Ford Trimotor several of them continued to operate into the 1980s.

    • 0 avatar
      VA Terrapin

      The Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird uses lots of corrugated skin on its wings. Corrugated skin is used to maintain integrity of the skin while expanding due to heat generated during supersonic flight.

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    Great article man. I appreciate the history lesson.

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    Well, if the Trimotor was good enough for Indiana Jones…

    Nice try, Lao Che!

    • 0 avatar

      Lol!!!! I scrolled through the comments just to see if anyone else was thinking of the same Indiana Jones quote!! The TTAC B&B truly are “top men.”

  • avatar

    A few thoughts in no particular order;
    Fokkers we built in the states by GAC which was owned by GM.
    The trimotor was resurrected as the Bushmaster.
    GM owned Allison which manufactured aircraft engines
    GM also owned Eastern Aircraft which manufactured the FM-X Wildcat, the TBM-X Avenger and tooled up for the FM-3 Bearcat.
    GM Fisher also produced the XP-75 experimental fighter.
    Ford built the B-24 Liberator.
    Packard built the V1650 Merlin.
    Chrysler built radial and Jet engines.
    Buick built jet engines.

    I was also flying on Kelvinator and Studebaker R2800/R1820’s on USN aircraft until the early ’80’s.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t leave out the Packard diesel aero radial engine.

      • 0 avatar

        Lincoln was founded by Henry Leland to make Liberty engines used in aircraft and boats during WWI. Apparently Billy Durant was a pacifist which led to Leland leaving Cadillac.

        In 1940, Edsel Ford made a deal for Ford to make RR Merlins for the British and American governments, but Henry Ford publicly disavowed the deal, though apparently Ford of England built almost as many Merlins as Rolls-Royce did.

        The original development work on Chrysler’s hemi shaped combustion chamber was for an experimental V16 aircraft engine, though it never flew.

        Nash Kelvinator made Sikorsky helicopters. It was only one of three automakers who made complete aircraft. I assume the others were GM and Ford.

      • 0 avatar

        The R680? Wasn’t it an oddball 8 cyl radial?

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    This may be your best ever. Thank you, Ronnie.

    Golly, I want to go sightseeing in southeast Michigan.

  • avatar

    Let’s not forget forays into the automobile market made by aircraft manufacturers bracing themselves for the glut of military contracts feared after the conclusion of the war and trying to figure out something to do. Here’s the 1946 Beechcraft Plainsman, an all-wheel drive gas-electric hybrid of all things with an air-cooled engine in the back, and rudimentary forms of antilock braking, traction control, and electronic ride damping.

  • avatar

    Rolls Royce?! :)

  • avatar

    This was an awesome article. I never even knew Henry Ford helped revolutionize planes as well; that’s spiffy.

    And thank you for not using too much plane lingo. I’m as good with planes as a white girl who plays tennis is with cars haha (I probably couldn’t tell a 737 apart from a 747. Maybe it’s because I’ve never flown before).

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks. I’m no expert on aviation. I’m just happy to have not embarrassed myself in front of our commenters here who are pilots. I’m sure some of them could do a better job talking about the Trimotor than I can.

      • 0 avatar

        I am only a private pilot, I got to fly right seat in the Trimotor when the EAA brought it to Pontiac a few years ago, the chief pilot for this Trimotor is Cody Welch, I believe he lives in Linden MI not to far from s.e. Mi, Your article is pretty factual and for someone who dose not write about aviation was pretty good, I detected no mistakes. This is the largest aircraft that I ever sat at the controls of and got to play with for a few brief moments, this was an awesome experience, compared to light G/A aircraft, this bird is very stable, demands some muscle for the imputs to pitch and bank and demands rudder to fly in coordinated flight, Cody joked that this aircraft had a take off, cruise and landing speed of 85 miles per hour. My hats off to you sir!

      • 0 avatar

        I’ll confirm with j.grif that the EAA Tri-motor is not significantly harder to fly than my Aeronca 7BCM (Piper Cub equivalent) once up in the air. The real challenge is landing the aircraft with its “tail-dragger” gear on a hard surface runway. The EAA pilot would turn the control wheel (yes a real rubber wheel!) lock-to-lock while landing, in addition to dancing on the rudder pedals.

        I’ve also flown the EAA B-17G, which is more like driving a truck without power steering than the Tri-motor. And after flying the EAA “Spirit 0f St. Louis” replica, I can state that it is much more unstable than the Tri-motor, no matter what Charles Lindbergh said.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    I second the opinion of other posters: this is one of your best articles, Ronnie.

    Although not an “automobile post”, it is related to one of the most influential men in the auto industry.

    And as other posters have also mentioned, several other car companies have also produced aircraft or aircraft components. In a certain way the car and the airplane are complementary.

  • avatar

    I can’t thank you all individually so thanks to everyone for the kind words. I’m glad you all like it and I’m humbled by your remarks. Also, thanks have to go to our Editor in Chief pro tempore, Mr. Baruth, since he approved the digression into aviation before I wrote it.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Another great entry, Ronnie.

    I’m always amazed at the breadth of dabbling in other realms done by some entrepreneurs. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and declare “that couldn’t have ever worked”, but those guys didn’t have benefit of hindsight. They just tried stuff, using the best information they had. Some of it worked spectacularly, some of it failed the same way.

    I wonder who among us is working the same magic today.

  • avatar

    There is/was a Ford Tri-Motor based at PDX that daily flew to the Hillsboro airport and returned. As I didn’t live far from the airport, I could hear it take off and fly over any day I was at home.

    I finally managed to get a ride in the plane to add to my collection of flights in various historic aircraft_ 1941′ DC-3(PDX to Rajneeshpuram, Oregon and back), and a B-17, from Troutdale to Hillsboro, Or.

    I have personally flown a number of other historic aircraft, including, but not all, a WW1 Jenny, a Ryan ST-3, a 41′ Beech ‘Stagger Wing’ and a number of light aircraft from Aeronica’s to Taylorcrafts.

    I still haven’t got a ride in a blimp, but did wrangle a ride in a Russian jet fighter a 60’s MIKOYAN MIG 21 an example of which is currently for sale for only $69,000.

    By the way, the Ford Tri-Motor has a very unique sound with its three radial engines.

    There were other winged Fords back in the thirties, Ford’s Indy cars.

    Nice write up on the Winged Fords, Ronnie.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    As most of the readers and commenters on TTAC, I love big things that move, and that includes aircraft and their history.

    The Ford Tri-Motor is on the list of my favorite aircraft. Had a nice model of one when I was young.

    One of these days, I’ll make it to Detroit and the Henry Ford Museum.

    Thanks for a very well-written article, Ronnie!

  • avatar

    I recall in my younger days building a reasonable facsimile of a Ford Trimotor out of Lego bricks, except mine was harlequin rather than gray. I did have a pilot, though, out of some Johnny Thunder set (Lego’s Indiana Jones parody/ripoff in the 90’s).

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