In the late 1980s, as students in Soviet-controlled Bratislava, Štefan Klein and Juraj Vaculik used to sit on the eastern bank of the Danube and stare longingly at Austria, the west and freedom. Vaculik, a drama student, found escapism in the theatre of the absurd. But Klein, an engineer then studying design, dreamt of a more practical solution.
“During our student years, we wondered if we would ever be able to travel there. Different ideas were created. And one was born in Štefan’s head: why not have a flying car?” recalls Vaculik, now 48.
Within two years the Berlin Wall would fall and the Danube would look a lot less wide to the then-Czechoslovakian graduates. But tucked in the boxes that Klein carried home from his student digs was a thesis on a flying car. Two and a half decades later, his idea could change the future of personal transportation.
“After 1989, I had my design qualification — and we had freedom,” says Klein, 55. “This was the perfect way to fly to the west, I thought. The first model was literally a child of the revolution.”
From a small airfield with a grass runway and a rusty hangar in rural Slovakia, the two men and their small band of engineers and enthusiasts have turned those dreams of freedom into a product piquing the interest of the world’s automotive and aerospace industries. Their creation is the stuff of both sci-fi dreams and elite modern transportation desires: think Blade Runner but for the Davos set.
The AeroMobil is the world’s first fully transformable flying car. It drives along the road like a space-age roadster. It flies through the skies like a private jet. And if everything goes to plan, it could be in customers’ garages within two years.
No longer or wider than a standard five-door Bentley, the two-seater AeroMobil has two wings that fold back behind its main cockpit, and a back-mounted propeller that tucks in between the retracted wings when driving on the road.
On a February afternoon at the airfield in Nitra, 100km east of Bratislava, the car purred out of its hangar, paused to unfold its wings, drove a few hundred metres along the grass field, turned around and took off. From parking space to hundreds of metres in the air took just over three minutes.
“James Bond!” blurts out Vaculik, as Klein — the car’s chief designer, co-owner and the only man currently insured to fly it — soars over the small crowd that has gathered to watch.
His excitement is understandable. In an age of 850-seat A380s, 17-hour nonstop flights and interminable waits in security queues, there is an undeniable rush of freedom in seeing a handmade car soar into the skies after trundling out of a garage just moments earlier. “From this airfield, I can fly the car to anywhere I want in Europe, from a few hundred metres of grass,” says Klein after the flight, the first to be witnessed by a journalist.
Klein has aviation in his blood. His grandfather and father were both keen pilots. His second cousin flew for the Royal Air Force. Trained as a pilot by the Czech armed forces, he still flies his entire family to Croatia for a holiday every year in a tiny 1959 L40 Meta Sokol plane.
He and Vaculik are not alone in their flying-car dreams. In 1917, the Curtiss Autoplane got off the ground for a few seconds to secure its place in the history books as the world’s first flying car. Dozens more concepts have taken to the skies — and roads — since. And AeroMobil has a modern challenger in the Terrafugia project that began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is now a private company racing with the Slovakian start-up to get commercial products into the market.
Like AeroMobil, Terrafugia has got its prototype up in the air and demonstrated its ability to drive on the roads. But while Terrafugia’s product is designed to be a plane with wings that retract for short driving distances, AeroMobil’s creators say its unique edge lies in the vehicle’s design as a fully transformable vehicle that is suitable to both drive and fly as well as any mono-use rival.
“We wanted to create something with only one hat on, not a car hat or a plane hat. I don’t like compromise,” says Klein, still wearing his leather flying jacket. “It is the most amazing feeling of freedom to be able to drive through the town and five minutes later be up in the air, flying away.”
The flying experience, he says, is no different to any purpose-built small aircraft. There is no pressurised cabin or oxygen supply, so altitude is limited to 3,000m, but it comes fully equipped with an autopilot system and built-in parachutes.
AeroMobil says its vehicle also boasts the world’s first single steering column that incorporates both a steering wheel and a flying yoke, meaning that switching between driving, take-off and flying does not involve switching controls. And, Klein jokes, it is even easier to land than a normal plane because four wheels correct even the bumpiest of landings.
In one sense, Klein and Vaculik are two comfortably rich, middle-aged university buddies living out a boyish dream. Indeed, the first two prototypes were built, by hand, in the old servants’ quarters of Nitra Castle, the 11th-century citadel where Klein lives, burnishing his credentials as a mad inventor with a passion for flight.
But around the boardroom table in the company’s Bratislava headquarters there is a plan to make serious money. So far, all of the company’s €300,000 funding has come from Vaculik’s pockets, funded by his successful career as a marketing executive. Now he is on the hunt for €10m worth of fresh investment to take the company to the production and commercialisation stage, which could come as soon as early 2016.
“It started as a dream but it isn’t any more,” says Vaculik, who was a student leader during the Velvet Revolution that toppled communist rule in Slovakia. AeroMobil has received “plenty of offers” from automobile, aerospace and IT companies to invest and sign supply agreements with the company, says Vaculik. He now wants to find a flagship investor to fund the shift from prototype to full production.
Both private and public investors have come knocking and venture capital firms are keen, he says, declining to provide names due to non-disclosure agreements. The company had an offer in early 2015 to sell itself to an industry player, which it rejected. And the two men are also dead against selling out to a rich individual that wants bragging rights. “We can take dumb money, sure. Many rich people want to invest, to make it a pet project, a toy,” explains Klein. “But I am strict about this. I want smart money.”
That “smart money” is likely to come from an established industrial or technology player, the co-founders suggest. They are keen to bring in experience in scaling up prototypes and managing complex research and development projects.
“We must become a new company, it must be professional and bring in a structure to organise the new technology and production,” says Klein.
They have brought a former executive from McLaren, the Formula 1 car manufacturer, on to their board and are working with British regulators and the European Commission to ensure the product meets road and air rules. “We are taking the same steps once taken by Ford or Boeing,” he says. “We need more steps, more investment, improvements. We are creating a new segment.”
Vaculik laughs as he recalls car executives telling him that while the prototype, now in its third incarnation, looked beautiful, it would never be able to satisfy both drivers and pilots. Now some of these people are queueing up to convince AeroMobil to use their engines. But securing fresh capital from the right source is just one hurdle. Just as important is getting the final preproduction version right.
The team constantly stress that the vehicle is still a prototype. Indeed, it lacks the refined edge of a commercial product, and is held together in some places with well-placed silver gaffer tape. But it is nothing compared with the previous generation that the team keep in the garage to remind everyone how far they have come. Built from a simple steel skeleton covered in stretched canvas, it barely looks roadworthy, let alone fit to take to the sky.
Cobbled together by Klein and his uncle, it has a small engine lifted from a Honda motorbike and the steering column uses parts scavenged from a Fiat. “He is a crazy man,” says Vaculik, shaking his head. “But he is also a genius.”
“It is a very primitive object,” admits Klein. “But it confirmed our idea. It was only after I managed to fly this thing that I knew this project was completely commercialisable.”
From that moment in 2013, both men were convinced. Vaculik began running the company full-time and Klein hired a crew of 10 to take the skeleton from the castle outhouse to the airfield hangar. There, in a workshop filled with spare parts, discarded carbon-fibre pieces and machine tools, the team assembled the prototype that flies today.
The engine is bought from outside, but Klein reckons that more than 90 per cent of the other parts are sourced locally. When they cannot find a suitable supplier, his uncle simply disappears into his private workshop for a few days and builds the component from scratch.
The team is scheduled to grow to about 60 people within a year and hit 200 when the vehicle goes into full production. The next, and likely final, prototype will have a new propeller, a more powerful engine and incorporate research findings to tailor the cockpit to market demands. Klein and Vaculik are aiming for a 1,000km flying range, a 200km/hour cruising speed and a total flight weight, including passengers, of less than 650kg.
The team plan to build about 250 vehicles a year marketed to selected customers — much like supercar companies such as Ferrari or McLaren. And potential takers are already in touch. The price tag, which will be largely irrelevant to the majority of its target market, will be “around a few hundred thousand euros”, according to Vaculik, or one-tenth of the price of a typical private helicopter.
The company hopes that a move into the mid-market will follow, attempting to follow a path forged by Tesla, the electric-car company that started with an exclusive roadster and is now attempting to make a vehicle for the masses. But while a move to Silicon Valley (where Tesla has built its headquarters) is tempting, Vaculik says Slovakia is the perfect place to base the company.
The country is the world’s biggest producer of cars per capita, a low-cost manufacturing base and, say Vaculik and Klein, home to five private aeroplane manufacturers. “All my major suppliers are in a radius of 200km. So to be in Silicon Valley gives me access to lots of technology but it would all be much more expensive,” says Vaculik.
The AeroMobil lands as the sun begins to set over the airfield and afterwards the company’s two co-owners relax over drinks in the small flying-club bar. Even here, where Klein is a legend, the members had written off the prototype’s potential. On the day it first flew, they choked on their pints of lager.
“Some people might find it difficult to imagine that flying cars will be a daily, common reality,” says Vaculik, who is training for his pilot’s licence and has his heart set on the first vehicle off the production line. “But look at the mobile phone. Some analysts at first said that they had limited applications and would never become a mass- market product,” he smiles. “The time is now.”
Henry Foy is the FT’s central Europe correspondent and was previously its automotive correspondent
Photographs: Andrej Balco
This article was amended on Friday April 24 2015 to correct a quote by Juraj Vaculik. The price tag of the AeroMobil is a “around a few hundred thousand euros” not a “around a few thousand euros”
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published