Propellor-Driven Cars

Gallery opened: Dec 2004

Updated: 4 Dec 2018

The Schlörwagen prop-car

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The history of motor cars has thrown up some strange designs; so far the Museum of RetroTech has barely dipped its institutional toe into a vast subject. Almost all designs, however, no matter how weird or misconceived, had one thing in common- they were propelled by applying torque to the wheels that supported them. Not these machines, though. They were pulled (or more often pushed) along by a propellor.

An obvious objection to the concept is the loss of efficiency due to the propellor drive system. A conventional car has an effectively solid connection between engine and road, though there are inevitably some small losses in the gearing and the hysteresis of the tyre rubber. Propellers are very inefficient working much below their design speed, ie the natural advance ratio. (sort of how the propeller would move forward if it was working in jelly) Efficiency drops fast, to below 20% when you are going at 20% of the design speed. This is why prop-cars have the universal disadvantage of really poor acceleration from a standing start.

I imagine a variable-pitch propeller would help with this to some extent, but it would not be a complete cure. Variable-pitch propellers are a relatively advanced technology, beyond the reach of most amateur inventors. The only known example at present is the Maybach.

One (probably the only) advantage of propellor traction is that a slippery road surface does not affect propulsion; however, since friction between wheels and road is still required for braking and steering, this might not be very useful.

For more unusual propellor-driven vehicles, see also The Anzani Propellor-Driven Motorcycle and The Propeller-Driven Sleigh.

THE ABC PROPELLOR CAR: 1911

Left: The ABC propellor test car: 1911

This car was built, not as a transportation device in its own right, but to test aeroplane propellors. The one shown was designed by a Mr Lang, seen here seated beside the driver, Mr Charteris. It is shown here at the Brooklands motor circuit, having driven there from Southampton by propeller-power only in the early hours of the morning, a time no doubt chosen to minimise the number of other road users minced by the wholly unguarded propellor. It is hard to see how that can have been been legal.

Fom Flight 27 May 1911

The engine is an 80 HP V-8 with open valvegear built by the All-British Engine Company. Just in front of it is a large radiator. On the trip up from Southampton the engine was run at 900 rpm, giving a propeller thrust of about 330 pounds.

Left: The ABC propellor test car: 1911

This is obviously the same machine as above. It is shown here after arriving at Brooklands.

It looks as though two people sat in the front, and two in the back, one each side of the radiator, and precariously close to that big unguarded propellor.

THE AUTO-AERO PROP-CAR

Left: Auto-aero prop-car: 1912

This machine was designed by Count Bertrand de Lesseps, a son of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who developed the Suez canal. He stands here on borrowed time; he was killed in the First World War.

The lugubrious chap to the left of the car appears to be holding a spare propellor.

Objections were that the acceleration was leisurely, there was no engine braking, and the noise level was too high; objections applicable to all prop-cars. Not to mention the horrible danger from that vestigially-guarded propellor.

THE FRENCH ARMY PROP-CAR

Left: French Army prop-car: 1912

This is believed to be the prototype of the machine below, built by Lieutenant Lafarque or Lafargue.

Features include an unusual 6-wheel configuration, with the four back wheels in tiltable pairs, presumably to aid crossing rough ground, and two bucket seats on outriggers.

The seven-cylinder engine at first looks a bit inscrutable, having the propellor apparently fitted on the wrong side of the engine. The explanation is almost certainly that it is a rotary engine, in which the engine and propellor go round together, but the crankshaft is rigidly fixed to the chassis; the date fits in with the period of popularity of rotary engines. They were later dropped because of their inherent limitations.

Left: French Army prop-car: 1914

With a truly enormous unguarded propellor; just reversing towards the enemy should frighten them off. But I see no sign of reversible-pitch propellor blades so going backwards was presumably not possible- unless of course the conventional drive to rear wheels was retained.

This machine is believed to have been built by a Lieutenant Lafarque or Lafargue.

THE GARBACCIO PROP-CAR

Left: Garbaccio prop-car: 1915

This appears to be one of the very few amphibous prop cars. Floatation tanks are attached at the rear and the sides.

François Garbaccio, from the canton of Valais in southern Switzerland, built it from 1908 - 1915 in Sierre, Switzerland.

The propeller was about 2 meters in diameter. The vehicle was intended to achieve 100 km/hr on land and 50 km/hr on water; it is highly unlikely it managed either. It remained a prototype. The engine is a V-3 of unknown make; John Sullivan suggests it is probably an Anzani 3-cylinder fan engine; see Wikipedia.

THE SIZAIRE-BERWICK WIND WAGON

Left: Sizaire-Berwick Wind Wagon: 1915

The "Wind Wagon" was a 1915 conversion of a Sizaire-Berwick car. It was a British Admiralty experiment, that like the French Army prop-car above, was intended to solve traction problems on sand in Africa and the Near East. Only one prototype was made, and it was only ever tested in England, which seems to indicate the results were not promising.

A 110hp Sunbeam aircraft engine was installed, angled to give some down-thrust. The 'armor' was ordinary steel plate. There was room for 2 crew members and it carried a 0.303 calibre Vickers machine gun. Length was 170", width 67", height 78", and the weight about 8800 lbs. This appears to be the only photograph in existence.

Sizaire-Berwick was an Anglo-French car manufacturer active between 1913 and 1927.

There are instructions on modelling the Wind-Wagon on YouTube.

THE HELICA

The Helica was invented, developed, and manufactured by the Frenchman Marcel Leyat, between 1913 and 1926. Thirty are said to have been built, though I am not at present sure if this includes prototypes, of which there were several; only a few are shown here. Certainly some were built for sale, and two of these survive.

Left: A early Helica: 1913 design.

This is a three-wheeled two-seater. Note the complete absence of any guard for the propellor; it is difficult to believe this would have been street-legal.

The engine appears to be a V-twin.

Left: An Helica: 1914 model, called "The Helicocycle" .

This model has gained a wooden shroud around the propellor, presumably for safety reasons. I Am Not An Aerodynamicist, but it looks too short to give a ducted-fan effect, which would have improved propulsion efficiency over an open propellor.
There also appears to be a wire guard over the front of the propellor, which is again two-bladed in this version.

Still a three-wheeler.

Only two Helicas survive. Here they are:

Left: A surviving Helica in CNAM: 1921 model.

This four wheeled Helica belonged to Gustave Courau. It was donated to the CNAM Museum in Paris in 1931, and is still on show there. CNAM is the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a very fine museum frequented by concept car enthusiasts, overall Parts Geek admirers and even just the casual car lover.

Note the propellor is now four bladed, possibly to reduce noise and vibration. According to the notice attached by the museum, this Helica was capable of "rapidly achieving a good 70 kph" but this is only 43 mph, unimpressive even for its day.

The notice also says that the Helica did not succeed because the propellor wash was too uncomfortable for the occupants. Since even the versions with a roof seem to lack a windscreen, this was almost certainly a contributing factor; however what killed it off was the general impractability of the whole concept.

Left: A surviving Helica in CNAM: 1921 model.

Another view. The passenger gets a rudimentary windscreen, but not the driver.

Note "La Gellicyne" is written on the side. For a long time its meaning was obscure, but one of my correspondents informs me it's an advetisement for a brand of cosmetic cream. Computer enhancement shows "Pour les mains. Pour le visage" ("For the Hands. For the Face") in very faded lettering below "La Gellicyne" .

Left: A surviving Helica in CNAM: 1921 model.

The engine. I could not see any maker's name. It is an air-cooled horizontally opposed twin, with pushrod valves and magneto ignition. The propellor is directly-driven.

The two curved pipes direct the exhaust to the underside of the Helica.

Left: The only running Helica, seen under power at Goodwood racetrack (Britain) in July 2003.

This Helica is owned by Jean Francois Bouzanquet of Paris. It was bought new by his grandfather in 1922, and it has been in the family ever since.
The engine is a British two-cylinder ABC of 1203 cc, driving a 4.5 foot diameter wooden propeller; maximum speed is about 60mph, which is a good deal faster than the Helica in CNAM.

Left: The only running Helica at Goodwood in July 2003.

The steering wheel operates the rear wheels by wires, which can, according to the owner, be 'interesting'.

Left: The only running Helica at Goodwood in July 2003.

The Bouzanquet Helica is said to be in original condition except for a replacement propeller. In WW2 the German forces attempted to commandeer the vehicle. Confused by the steering system, the driver turned right instead of left, hitting a tree and breaking the propeller.

The exhaust silencing arrangements look rather rudimentary.

Left: The only running Helica at Goodwood in July 2003.

The replacement propellor is two-bladed.

There is a YouTube video of a Helica allegedly dating from 1924. The model however most closely matches the 1914 model pictured above.

Many thanks to Paul Dunlop for drawing my attention to this remarkable series of machines, and special thanks to Claude Guéniffey for permission to use images from his superb website- the home of Helicas- at http://www.helica.info/

UNIDENTIFIED PROP-WAGON

Left: Unidentified prop-driven vehicle: 1922

This photograph commonly appears when you Google 'propeller-car' or similiar. However no information is ever attached apart from the date 1922. Any assistance on identification would be much appreciated by the Museum staff.

Here we see a big 2-bladed propellor mounted on something like a heavy farm wagon, and driven by a water-cooled V-8 engine. A small radiator is perched above the engine. The tank on stilts at the back is probably a gravity-feed petrol tank.

Here is all that is known: the photograph comes from the Library of Congress‘s photo archive, which describes it simply as a “wheeled vehicle with mounted propeller” and dates it to 11 October 1922. Someone called Herbert A French (unknown to Google) donated the photo to the library in 1947. The overhead-camshaft V-8 engine appears to be a World War I Hispano-Suiza aircraft engine.

What purpose this machine was built for is currently obscure, but looking at the unusual way the propellor blades are mounted to the hub, it might be an experiment in varying blade pitch.

Thanks to Pavel Panenka and John Sullivan for their contributions.

THE MCLAUGHLIN PROP-CAR

Left: The McLaughlin prop-car: 1926

This image is another that appears repeatedly if you Google 'propeller-car', but once again information is in short supply. It was built by George McLaughlin in 1926. Apart from this image, he appears to be unknown to Google.

There was a McLaughlin motor car company, but no link has so far been established.

The engine appears to be a straight-6.

THE JAMESON PROP-CAR

Left: The Jameson prop-car: 1929

One issue of The Boy Mechanic, published in 1925 had an article titled “Building a Wind Wagon.” It is unknown how many were built but here is one version constructed in the late 1920s.

The angle-iron chassis carries a beam front axle, and has neither front nor rear suspension. The propeller is driven by a Harley-Davidson V-twin motorcycle engine.

It was reported its acceleration and hill climbing abilities left something to be desired. According to Lane Motor Museum it worked best on a frozen lake.

The text on the round thing behind the driver is mostly illegible, but the largest text says 'Goodyear Tyres'.

One wonders about the safety implications of encouraging boys to experiment with whirling propellors...

THE HELICRON

The Helicron prop-car was a later design. It was a one-off conversion from a Rosengart chassis, and was built in France in 1932

Left: The only Helicron. It has rear-wheel steering, and only the rear wheels are sprung

The car was restored after being found in a barn in 2000. The original engine was lost and has been replaced by a flat-four Citroen GS engine. An idea that a true Parts Geek with experience in car maintenance or restoration can certainly appreciate.

The car has allegedly passed a French safety inspection and is legal for use on public roads. Given that barely-guarded propellor, I find that very surprising. As one unconvinced commentator put it: "Leave it up to the French to design a car where the express purpose seems to be mowing down snivelling pedestrians for the sake of style."

The Helicron these days resides at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tenessee, and it is drivable. The Helicron appears in the video from 11:54 to 14:54. The Museum say that the car was based on an Austin 7 chassis. Many more photographs of this car can be found by Googling "Helicron".

THE AIR-DRIVEN AUTO

Left: The Air-Driven Auto: 1932

This one-off prop-car was tested in Detroit, with a 100 HP engine driving the prop. Note that all the performance claims are 'expected', so the testing can't have been very thorough.

This article extols one of the few advantages of propellor drive- that forward thrust does not depend on tyre adhesion.

At least guarding the prop seems to have been taken semi-seriously, though it still looks as if the top half of it is a major hazard.

Note that a new version is planned which 'will be able to attain a top speed of almost two miles a minute without leaving the road or overturning', which is typical of the wild claims made for unconventional cars. I am much reassured about not overturning at 120 mph...

From Popular Science, Dec 1932

THE PONDER PROP-CAR

Left: The Ponder prop-car: 1934

None of your mollycoddlng nonsense about guarding the propellor here.

I have grave doubts if 85 mph was actually obtained, but at least there is no doubt that it was actually built.

This image from Modern Mechanix, Nov 1934

THE SCHLÖRWAGEN PROP-CAR

Left: The Schlörwagen prop-car: 1936

The Schlörwagen Pillbug was a prototype highly-aerodynamic rear-engined car developed by German engineer Karl Schlör (1911–1997) in 1936. In English a pillbug is basically a woodlouse, which has a similiar body shape. There is a Wikipedia page.

Initial wind tunnel tests on the unengined body gave an extraordinarily low drag coefficient (Cd) of 0.113. It was then fitted with a conventional rear engine, which degraded the Cd slightly, probably because of shape changes at the rear to accomodate the engine. It was exhibited at the 1939 Berlin Auto Show. The design had stability issues with crosswinds probably due to the engine position which was well behind the rear wheels. The project was shelved with the onset of WW2.

In 1942, the Schlörwagen prototype had somehow gotten into Russian hands; it was fitted with an Soviet radial air-cooled aero-engine which appears to have developed 100 or 125 hp, driving a ducted fan. Several references say it was a five-cylinder engine, but in this view three or four cylinders are visible, which suggests it was actually a seven-cylinder engine.

Why this conversion was made is unknown, but the Russians have always been keen to put propellors on things, including sledges.

It certainly makes most of the other prop-cars look very amateur.

THE MAYBACH PROP-CAR

Left: The Maybach prop-car: 1938

This German design was a bit more sophisticated than your average prop-car. The Maybach had a seven cylinder radial engine and a three-blade variable pitch propellor; the latter should have done something to improve the otherwise dire low-speed acceleration, but no accounts of its operation have been found so far.

The vestigial propellor-guards on each side are not very reassuring.

The purpose of this project is currently unknown. It might have been intended as an army staff car to deal with difficult ground conditions like ice and snow.

The body is believed to have been made by Spohn, who had frequently collaborated with Maybach on streamline designs.

Left: The Maybach prop-car: 1938

For some reason this picture is much rarer than the two above.

And yes, these two lads are in the uniform of the Hitlerjugend.

THE CLIFFORD ROBBINS PROP-CAR

Left: The Robbins prop-car: 1955

This three-wheeled prop-car was built by 32-year-old Clifford Robbins of Yeovil, Somerset. The propellor was 3 feet in diameter, and the engine was a 15 HP V4 which was allegedly obtained by cutting a Ford V8 in half. (Is that possible?) It is said to have cost £200 to build, and six months work. The builder claimed a top speed of 70 mph and a fuel consumption of 60 mpg.

There is a British Pathe newsreel on YouTube of TYD 297, made (in colour) in 1955. Clifford Robbins is in various sources described as a grocer or a 'professional confectioner'.

You will note that early on in the video, at around 0:17, the prop-car is overtaken with ease by two ordinary cars and a van.

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