Back Roads to Blue Skies
Planes and cars have long since gone their separate ways, but they were once two sides of the same industrial coin. Here's a rundown of many dalliances, both successful and otherwise, between automakers and airplanes. -- Robert Cumberford
Alfa built aircraft engines of its own design in the 1920s and 1930s. It produced Daimler-Benz V-12 engines under license during World War II.
Rolls-Royce Group, the second-largest builder of aircraft engines in the world, has been estranged from the car company since 1973 (including Bentley, which itself started as an airplane-engine builder during WWI). However, it retained rights to the Rolls-Royce name and logo until it sold them to BMW in 1998 -- a nasty surprise to Volkswagen, which had bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars earlier that year.
Bavarian Motor Works started out as a manufacturer of aircraft engines and branched out into cars after WWI. BMW has maintained some involvement in jet engines, including a relationship with Rolls-Royce, which helped in the acquisition of the Rolls-Royce name and logo.
No Bugatti airplane ever flew, but sixteen-cylinder engines built by Ettore Bugatti for aircraft use are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and at the Air Force museum near Dayton, Ohio. Bugatti also worked on a speed-record plane. Its aerodynamic wooden frame currently resides in the Experimental Aircraft Association museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Hopes for production of a Citroen helicopter were quashed when the company was acquired by Peugeot. A prototype was displayed at Retromobile a few years ago.
Among myriad aviation exploits, Fiat powered the fastest propeller-driven seaplane ever built, which hit 424 mph in 1933.
Ford mortified auto-industry insiders when it named Boeing engineer Alan Mulally CEO, but the automaker was itself a leading producer of airliners in the 1920s. The corrugated-aluminum skins on those Jazz Age aircraft seem to have made them immune to metal fatigue. Many are still flying today.