It’s funny how new technologies can have a sort of intoxicating effect on people. There’s a strange, almost irresistible urge to incorporate the latest technology into everything. Remember internet-connected refrigerators? Back in 1930s France, the latest and most exciting thing was the airplane, and the urge to put plane tech in cars was intense, like the urge to stick a web browser in a fridge. In this case, though, it was even more terrible and dangerous than reading web pages on fridges.
It turns out that propellers are a pretty crappy way to move a car around. I don’t think I fully realized this until I drove this 1932 Helicron and really experienced the raw, visceral feeling of a car that can sometimes barely move at all.
The Helicron is a one-off built by an unknown French airplane enthusiast back in the 1930s. It’s based on a Rosengart chassis, but flipped backwards, so the steering gear is at the rear. Originally, the car had a flat-twin engine, but that was replaced with a Citroën GS flat-four after it was discovered and restored in 2000.
A propeller is fantastic when you’re not actually in contact with anything solid, like the ground, but given the choice between pushing against the big, hard ground and pushing against the mix of nitrogen and oxygen we call air, I’ll take ground every time.
The crazy thing about driving the Helicron—and I suspect every propeller-driven car—is that it reverses all the sensory stuff you expect when driving. For example, when I was trying to get up a hill in the Helicron, I had the throttle pegged, and I heard the engine roaring at maximum revs, and felt the wind blasting my face from the propeller spinning.
It was just like going really fast in any old, open car, with the one difference that I was barely crawling up a hill.
In the Helicron, on a flat or downhill, you can throttle the engine back and the propeller will get you going at a decent clip. So, when it’s quiet and calm, you’re going fast, and when everything is roaring and your hair is being whipped by wind, you’re most likely going slowly. It messes with your mind.
That said, I really liked driving this thing. It’s not much like driving a car at all, though. Because the wheels aren’t transmitting any power, it has this odd, floaty feeling, and because you steer with the rear, every turn feels like a drift. It’s sort of like drifting a very low flying carpet with a wind machine on the front.
Plus, you can’t beat the look of the Helicron: that wooden boat tail, the weird butterfly-shaped steering wheel, the wide-set fenders with the big yellow lights, that huge freaking propeller... it all feels like what we should be driving if Edward Gorey was the architect of the modern world.
A car like the Helicron does simplify cars dramatically, though. All that engine has to do is spin the propeller. No transmission, differential, or anything like that is needed. That’s a pretty appealing advantage, especially if you’re some French dude building a dream car in a barn in the 1930s.
Of course, there’s a disadvantage as well, that detail about how a propeller-driven car becomes a remarkably effective murder and mulching machine when you mix it with pedestrians or pets or birds or almost anything in front of it.
Sure, some prop cars had meshes and protective gates over the props, but those actually reduce the efficiency even more. A city full of Helicron traffic would be a nightmarish miasma of blood clouds in the air and flung viscera all over the place.
Just to get a feel for the sort of damage that a propeller car could inflict, we tried a little experiment with some specially engineered ballistic-grade hot dogs we picked up at the gas station. I’ll just let you watch and enjoy that.
The Helicron is an amazing and fascinating dead end. It’s one of those failed technologies I’m pretty sure nobody has any regrets about. Still, I’m glad a few of these still exist, because they’re sort of an idiotic blast to drive.
(As always, big thanks to the Lane Motor Museum, who actually let me spray pureéd hot dog meat over a one-of-a-kind 80-year-old car. I can’t think of any other museum anywhere that would let me do that.)