Car ferries in the skies: The rise and fall of the Aviation Traders Carvair

(CNN) – If an aviation enthusiast were to compile a list of the world’s weirdest aircraft, the ATL-98 Carvair would definitely deserve a place of honor.

His bulbous nose, which seems to be out of proportion to the rest of his body, gives this now defunct aircraft a plump, unmistakable appearance.

And yet the Carvair, who made a brief appearance in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”, expected features that we would later see on legendary aircraft types such as the Boeing 747.

This strange-looking aircraft was actually a heavily modified Douglas DC-4 airliner that was supposed to serve a very special mission in the 1950s: to fly both cars and their drivers overseas.

To load Carvair aircraft, vehicles would be raised to cabin level with a scissor lift and loaded through the front door.

Courtesy of Iberia Photo Archive

British car owners looking to drive their own vehicles in mainland Europe can choose between the slow and potentially shaky sea crossing, or just fly to the continent by air and all.

Travelers would drive straight onto the airport apron and into the belly of the waiting aircraft, just like a ferry that carries cars over water.

Born from post-war travel dreams

Aircraft such as the Bristol 170 Freighter and its larger derivative, the Superfreighter, began shipping cars as cargo from the mid-1940s, shortly after the end of World War II.

These planes were rugged machines that sacrificed speed and range for robustness and economy. They had shell-like front doors that opened sideways to allow cars to be driven into the hold, while the raised cockpit increased cargo capacity by making the full length of the hull available for self-rolling loads.

As ingenious as the design was, these planes had a relatively limited payload and couldn’t carry more than three average-sized cars at a time.

A car is loaded onto an Aer Lingus Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvair at Bristol Airport, UK.

A car is loaded onto an Aer Lingus Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvair at Bristol Airport, UK.

Alamy

In the late 1950s, as the war years increased in rearview mirrors and car ownership, legendary aviation entrepreneur Freddie Laker saw an opportunity.

Laker, later known for its groundbreaking but unfortunate budget airlines in the 1970s and early 80s, came up with the idea of ​​building a bigger and better car ferry.

With the advent of the jet era, many World War II-era propeller-driven aircraft, such as the DC-4 or its military version, the C-54, were quickly becoming obsolete and inexpensive. This worked in Laker’s favor.

One of the companies already in his portfolio, Aviation Traders Limited, had extensive experience converting and converting a large number of military aircraft that had been used for civilian purposes during the war and was well positioned to realize his vision.

The result was the ATL-98, also called “Carvair” – short for “Car via Air”.

Connect Great Britain to the mainland

To make this airborne car ferry, Aviation Traders Limited took a DC-4, cut off its front section, and added an extra section to stretch the fuselage. Next, it was outfitted with the Carvair’s signature raised cockpit and a few side wing doors that could be used to load cars and other cargo through the front.

The resulting aircraft could carry up to five cars and 22 passengers at a time, a significant improvement over the Bristol 170 Freighter.

Even better: this configuration can be quickly and easily adapted to current requirements. For example, it could only carry three cars and 55 passengers, or it could be converted to carry either cargo only or passengers only. If the latter option were chosen, the Carvair’s pressureless cabin could be equipped with up to 85 seats.

In Spain, domestic airline Aviaco's Carvairs took passengers - and their cars - back and forth between the Balearic Islands and mainland Spain.

In Spain, domestic airline Aviaco’s Carvairs took passengers – and their cars – back and forth between the Balearic Islands and mainland Spain.

Courtesy of Iberia Photo Archive

In the auto-carry mode, vehicles would be raised to cabin level with a scissor lift and loaded through the front door, while the passengers would sit in the back of the aircraft like in a conventional airliner.

The Carvair was developed primarily for cross-channel routes connecting Great Britain with mainland Europe. Another company in Freddie Laker’s aviation empire, Channel Air Bridge, operated 24 daily round-trip flights from Southend Airport near London to Calais (France), Ostend (Belgium) and Rotterdam (Netherlands) at its peak.

Eventually, the network would extend much further into continental Europe, with planes flying to Strasbourg on the Franco-German border and the Swiss cities of Geneva and Basel.

In later years, when interest in car ferries waned, the planes were used to send cargo.

In later years, when interest in car ferries waned, the planes were used to send cargo.

Richard Vandervord

In Spain, the domestic airline Aviaco operated a regular car shuttle with Carvairs between the Balearic Islands and mainland Spain, while Aer Lingus operated car ferries between Ireland and the British cities of Liverpool and Bristol and Cherbourg in France.

The Irish airline also used its Carvairs for regular cargo services to several British cities.

Why don’t we see car ferries in the sky today?

Twenty-one Carvairs were built between 1961 and 1968. At the same time, faster and more efficient sea transport options became available on most routes served by aviation ferries, and none of the new, modern aircraft were developed for this niche market.

In the end, the concept just disappeared.

However, the evaporation of the car ferry market and chronic maintenance issues did not prevent Carvairs from continuing to act as freighter for a number of freight carriers around the world, from New Zealand and Australia to the US, Europe and Africa.

21 Carvairs were built between 1961 and 1968.

21 Carvairs were built between 1961 and 1968.

Courtesy of Iberia Photo Archive

Despite a relatively high rate of wear and tear, with nearly half of the global Carvair fleet being lost to accidents in its nearly four decades of service, some of them continued to fly until at least 2007 when one of the last surviving airframes crashed. without sacrifice while attempting to land at the Nixon Fork Mine in Alaska.

As of 2021, no Carvair is known to be operational, although some airframes are in long-term storage. Your airworthiness status is uncertain.

One of them is in Gainesville, Texas, where it has been parked at the local airport for several years. The other is owned by Phoebus Apollo Aviation, a South African pilot training school at Rand Airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Attempts to contact this company and determine the status of the aircraft went unanswered, although publicly available images (including those found on Google Earth) indicate that it is no longer airworthy.

Miquel Ros is an aviation blogger and consultant. As an economist, he worked for Flightglobal and Bloomberg. He currently covers the aviation industry through Allplane.tv.

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