On the day the first lockdown is put into effect in San Francisco, March 17, 2020, I get a call from my friend Dezső Molnár. COVID-19 has hit California—Governor Gavin Newsom has already declared a state of emergency, and there is a mood of panic in the air. Molnár is calling me from the road, driving from the Bay Area back to Los Angeles, because he’s getting the hell out of Dodge. Yet the voice on the phone is dead calm. Molnár has a message for me. “You know the movie Mad Max?” It isn’t really a question, just a setup for one of Molnár’s rants. “Nobody understands that movie,” he explains. “People think that it’s about what you need to do in order to survive after the apocalypse. But it’s not about that at all. When the apocalypse hits, 99 percent of the people simply die. The only ones spared are the ones who are prepared. They already have the technology that can get them out of trouble when the shit hits the fan.”
Molnár is an inventor. He lives, breathes, and dies for technology. And—no coincidence here—he has the right technology to survive any doomsday scenario. Molnár is one of the rare pilots in the United States who is also licensed to fly a gyroplane. He is a living, breathing version of the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2: a slightly crazed but ultimately lovable mechanical genius.
Molnár and Fisher joined Alta Live.
Fifty-five years old, Molnár is prone to wild hair, black leather jackets, and combat boots. He’s an L.A. native who put in some childhood years in rural Ohio before returning west. As a young man, Molnár was the protégé of the legendary rocketeer Robert Truax, the man who built Evel Knievel’s rocket bike, the Skycycle X-2, which the daredevil rode in an unsuccessful attempt to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon.
During a stint in the U.S. Air Force, Molnár learned how to maintain and fly transport jets. After his discharge, he moved to San Francisco and styled himself a musician, playing the bass guitar in a modern pop band that he led, Casino Mansion, until he invented the Mixman DM2, which was one of the first digital, scratchable consumer remixing machines. He licensed the rights to the Mixman first to Atari and then to Mattel. When those deals petered out, he ended up in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert chasing the land-speed record with the five-time world-record holder, Craig Breedlove. He was Breedlove’s crew chief, responsible for getting the jet-powered Spirit of America past the sound barrier during Breedlove’s final, unsuccessful attempt to hold on to his title.
Molnár’s current obsession, however, is the flying car. He’s built two: the Molnár GT, which successfully flew in 2005, and the Molnár G2, a two-seater version of the GT. And now he has the bare beginnings of a third, piled on a trailer behind the busted-up Honda Element from which he is calling me.
Both the GT and the G2 were so-called gyrocycles—half gyroplane, half motorcycle. But the latest, called the Streetwing, is of an entirely new design. It’s an airplane with removable wings that, once those are stowed, can drive around like a car. Molnár plans to give it an all-electric power train, like in a Tesla, but to have it charge itself via solar panels built into the wings. The solar-electric design would free the Streetwing, in theory at least, from the grid. It’s the ultimate answer to the Mad Max scenario: roving bands of scavenging brigands fighting to the death over a gallon of oil. If anyone can survive the apocalypse, it’s Molnár.
Molnár is an unusual guy. In my book, he’s definitely a candidate for the Most Interesting Man in the World. I’d describe him as “the poor man’s Elon Musk” except that I did it once already, to his face, and deeply offended him: “What has Elon Musk ever done?” he retorted. Molnár prefers to describe himself as “El Mariachi of aerospace.” He sees himself as a freelance inventor who’s able to do for a few pennies what billionaires do for many, many millions. Molnár has a point. There are now more than a dozen well-funded flying-car companies operating in the world, and so far all that most of them have been able to come up with are prototypes. Last summer, Kitty Hawk, a startup company backed by Google money, abandoned its flying-car ambitions—after five years of hype about a soon-to-be-released commercial version and many, many millions spent—in favor of developing an autonomous one-seater. Uber also canceled a much-hyped flying-taxi program. Likewise, Joby Aviation, the granddaddy of flying-car companies, has attracted nearly $800 million of venture capital and has very little to show for it. They’ve done exciting demos, for sure—but they’ve built nothing you can park in your garage right now. (For more on these startups, see “Hail an Air Taxi!”)
Molnár, by contrast, is one guy with a small team of volunteers who mostly lives on the road, sleeping in one of his many hidey-holes: an apartment in Burbank, a shipping container near an airstrip in the Mojave Desert, a hangar on an airfield in Pacoima. All in service of bootstrapping his vision of a flying car. The itinerant lifestyle is a deliberate choice. To Molnár, nothing is truly authentic unless it’s made by one’s hands with blood and sweat and tears and piss and vinegar and baling wire and duct tape—lots and lots of duct tape. And he, in contrast to the billionaires and their broken promises, is not going to miss his deadline. He vows to show me the Streetwing, he says on the phone, in nine months’ time: on January 1, 2021.
Molnár is inviting me to witness an idea being born: innovation in all its gory glory. As a journalist, I’m surprised. Generally speaking, the subjects of magazine profiles will do everything they can to make sure you don’t see them fail—or even sweat. Yet invention requires both. Thomas Edison famously failed to find a good light bulb filament 10,000 times before he succeeded, describing the process as “ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Having never been flown or driven, Molnár’s flying car is simply an idea, a light bulb that has yet to be lit. But to his credit, and true to his word, on the morning of New Year’s Day, 2021, I find myself on the ragged edge of El Mirage, a vast dry lake in the Mojave Desert. Molnár forbids me to divulge our exact location, but I’m about halfway between General Atomics’ flight-testing facility and Edwards Air Force Base. Molnár and I idle in a rented pickup truck in front of a locked gate. He is on the phone, asking to be let inside: “Hello, may I please speak to the general in charge of the Polish Air Force?”
It’s a joke, of course: the keeper of the gate, and king of the compound, is one Tadeusz “Teddy” Udala, a 73-year-old Polish American retiree who lives on-site in a trailer and spends every day he can flying his own gyroplane and helicopter. Udala’s open-air work shed is the headquarters of the Popular Rotorcraft Association’s inaugural chapter and mecca to experimental aviators the world over. With runway to the horizon in every direction, El Mirage is a test pilot’s dream, because the moment something goes wrong, one can simply land. Udala’s lakefront compound is also just about the closest thing to Mad Max that the real world has to offer: a random assortment of trailers, lean-tos, containers, sheds, broken-down horse stalls, and improvised shelters of all kinds, made permanent by slow accretion. A Quonset hut would look like a castle here. Everything is scavenged, recycled, repurposed, homebuilt. The end-of-the-world aesthetic is born of necessity, explains Molnár. The place is remote enough that one can’t simply run to Home Depot for supplies. Furthermore, the local workforce has a bit of a methamphetamine problem and a reputation for coming back to the jobsite after hours in order to steal. So, here one just has to do what one can with the materials on hand. Plus, the DIY approach keeps costs down. “The rent on my hangar is 60 bucks a month,” Molnár says proudly, prying open the garage door of a rickety structure made entirely from garage doors. “That’s how I’m able to do what I do.”
Inside is Molnár’s personal gyroplane. Before we get to the Streetwing, he wants to fly me in this open-cockpit two-seater. He rolls it out of his hangar and onto Udala’s private runway. Then he hauls a five-gallon gas can up a ladder and siphons its fuel into the gyroplane’s tank—which doubles as the passenger seat. “This is the part that I want to eliminate from flying,” says Molnár, “the fuel.” After the fill-up, he descends, hollers “Clear prop,” and attempts to start the motor. The engine almost sputters to life a couple of times, then Molnár turns to the Alta Journal photographer documenting his struggle and says, “Do you have any jumper cables?” The answer is no, but after another call to the Polish Air Force, it’s Udala to the rescue.
After a successful jump start, I saddle up, buckling myself to the passenger seat–tank. The gas cap is just over my left shoulder, the rotor above me, the motor and its propeller behind my back, and just in front of me, on the rear of Molnár’s seat, is a notice from the Federal Aviation Administration. “PASSENGER WARNING,” it screams. “This aircraft is amateur-built and does not comply with federal safety regulations for standard aircraft.”
The gyroplane is half helicopter, half soap-box-derby racer. The noise, vibration, and harshness mount as Molnár slides the thrust lever forward and the prop starts blowing us down the runway. After 150 feet of taxiing, I glance at the ground beneath my feet and am startled to see my own shadow—in its entirety. I didn’t realize we had left the hardpan until well after it had happened. Molnár is driving me through the sky, about 100 feet above the desert floor. The tour, from one end of the lake bed to the other, follows the flight path for the air race portion of Molnár’s other dream project, the Flying Car Racing league. That’s Molnár’s ultimate reason for building the Streetwing. He wants to fly it in the world’s first air-and-road race.
The Flying Car Racing website is live, and Molnár, who counts as an OG in the flying-car world, has already rounded up 20 potential competitors. Most people who own flying cars are much like Molnár, eccentric inventors with homebuilt projects in their garages. There’s Jeremy Trilling, for example, a talented twenty-something who’s built a paragliding go-kart. And there are at least five other inventors who’ve got their own ’chute-and-buggy contraptions. The same is true of Molnár’s original gyrocycle—there exist at least four other similar designs. Flying cars may seem like a new idea, but the dream is at least as old as the Taylor Aerocar, which was certified safe by the U.S. government back in 1956 (and, unfortunately, never made it to market). With all these homebuilt projects sitting around, not to mention the dozen or so prototypes that the nascent flying-car industry has already produced, why not have a race? Or, for that matter, a racing league?
On my wild, windswept flying-carpet ride, anything seems possible. The idea of a race between flying cars that all actually exist already? It just seems obvious, pedestrian even. Molnár lays it all out for me: The competitors will take off from El Mirage, just as we have, and fly a circuit of 30 miles, just as we are doing. Then they’ll land for the driving portion of the race, another 220 miles along old Route 66 and then on to the finish line in Boulder City, Nevada. Of course it will happen.
But when, exactly? “The first flying-car race,” explains Molnár matter-of-factly, “will happen whenever two hopefuls wish to duel it out.” There is no lack of certainty in his voice—there never is. This, the El Mirage Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, is Molnár’s cornfield, and, he assures me, they will come.
Back on the ground, the Alta photographer’s assistant asks Udala if he’s ever been flying with Molnár. “Nope.” Why not? “Too dangerous,” says Udala, with a wry smile under his walrus mustache.
Molnár and I land without incident.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the lake, in the off-highway recreation area parking lot, sits Molnár’s streamlined baby. The Streetwing, which was little more than a random collection of parts and matériel nine months ago, stands waiting for us—absolutely gorgeous—shining in the noonday sun. Its paint, which is still drying when we arrive, is a sparkling silver. The three-bladed propeller, of a pusher type and thus mounted in the rear, is a bright lipstick red. Missing are four wings that, if they were fitted into slots that still need to be drilled into the body, would turn the car into a plane. “It’s old sailplane technology,” Molnár explains: a dead-simple solution, which is the kind that Molnár likes best. And because a Streetwing will one day fly through the air—not today, but someday soon—its body is ridiculously long and slippery.
The Streetwing is undeniably sexy. It looks for all the world like a giant high-heeled shoe. The Alta photographer is loving the play of light across its body. Again, Molnár hollers “Clear prop,” and the red propeller smears into a wash of pink while he makes sure that it doesn’t spin too fast. He doesn’t want the Streetwing to blow itself across the parking lot and into oblivion. The spinning prop is really just a demonstration of future possibility, because this Streetwing is not yet a plane but simply a rolling prototype, a proof of concept.
This becomes hopelessly clear once I peer past its canopy and into the narrow one-person cockpit. The Streetwing is as brutal on the inside as it is beautiful on the outside. It’s not the fact that no concession has been made to comfort, for that is only to be expected from a machine meant to compete in the future Flying Car Racing league. It’s that the inside could easily be mistaken for a torture chamber: an iron maiden crossed with an electric chair, perhaps.
It’s hard to explain just how raw Molnár’s creation really is. The steering wheel looks like something out of a fighter jet, if a fighter jet were to be made by a small agricultural village. The same goes for the seat, which actually is a tractor seat—but one fashioned from carbon fiber and screwed directly to the plywood floorboard. As for the dashboard, it’s empty save for a toggle switch and two push-button switches. The toggle switch controls the single headlight. The push-button switches light the blinkers, which are hand operated—one button push for every blink. There’s a motorcycle throttle to get the machine moving, a foot brake to slow it down, and that’s it.
Inspecting further, I realize that the Streetwing’s glistening silver body, from its tip to its tail, was made by laminating fiberglass over a plywood frame. In other words, the construction has more in common with a homebuilt boat than with any car. Molnár explains that the swooping silver shape before my eyes is not the final Streetwing—but rather the first of many steps in eventually making a Streetwing that will achieve flight. I am looking at the plug for a mold that will eventually be used to make a real, flying Streetwing from carbon fiber, or fiberglass, or even aluminum. This plug, like all plugs, is simply a one-to-one scale model, a reference shape. But instead of rolling the plug into a factory, Molnár has kitted it out with two motors, two motor controllers, a battery pack, a steering wheel, three tires to roll on, and some lights. This Streetwing is a doppelgänger, a hack: the barest build that could just possibly, maybe, make it down the road, God willing.
“I’ve been cobbling it together for the past week,” says Molnár, proud of what he’s built. “How much do you think that motor mount cost me?” he asks, pointing to a steel bracket. “Twenty-four dollars,” he says triumphantly. The bracket holds a large electric motor situated directly behind the driver’s head. From there, it’s a straight shot to the propeller in the back. There’s another, smaller electric motor inside the hub of the rear wheel. Both motors and their associated motor controllers—the types used for electric motorcycles—are new, everything is connected via a rat’s nest of cables, and right in the middle of it all there’s a tiny plaque that makes it street legal. This one doesn’t scream. It quietly announces, “This vehicle conforms to all applicable U.S. federal motor vehicle safety standards in effect on the date of manufacture shown above.” On the back, only slightly obscured by the propeller, is a special California license plate, issued to motorcycle manufacturers.
Today marks the vehicle’s first voyage, for it has yet to travel on public roads. There is every indication that the Streetwing, once cast in a suitably lightweight material and given wings, will fly, since the airframe is based upon the well-regarded Quickie 2 airplanes. However, nothing like the Streetwing has ever hit the street. It’s longer than the average SUV, its body is narrower than some motorcycles, and its center of gravity is balanced high atop three wheels. In fact, Molnár has driven it only once before, last night, on New Year’s Eve, and then only for a quick lap around a parking lot before he loaded it onto his trailer for the journey out to El Mirage. Now he is buzzing, blowing off bystanders’ questions and barking orders at his crew, anxious to get going, for the sun is past its zenith, and his stated destination—Roy’s Motel & Café on Route 66, halfway between Barstow and Needles—lies 131 miles away. A sufficient distance to test the Streetwing’s road capabilities.
Yet before the Streetwing even leaves the trailer, Molnár realizes that there is a problem. The nut that keeps the left front wheel from spinning off its axle is missing, and he didn’t bring a spare. Again, it’s the Polish Air Force to the rescue. Udala doesn’t have the exact part Molnár needs, but no matter: he simply fabricates a fastener from a bit of scrap aluminum. “I never throw anything away,” says Udala as he hands over the custom part. “It’s the farmer way.”
With the wheel secured, Molnár climbs into the Streetwing’s cockpit. He sits on the carbon fiber saddle with his legs stretched out, in a kind of yoga pose: the touch-your-toes position. Then he flips the start switch, twists the throttle, and…the Streetwing moves! Those of us in Molnár’s entourage take our places in the parade. There’s a red Audi TT leading the way, a small RV acting as a support vehicle, and the photographer, who hangs out the bed of a pickup, snapping glamour shots of the Streetwing as it trundles down the desert byway. The drive to Roy’s begins on a high note.
The road out of El Mirage is so rutted that Molnár feels he can’t risk pushing his speed above 15 miles an hour. The Streetwing has no suspension at all—it simply drives on its landing gear, the front two wheels locked into place at the ends of two steel rods—and one bad pothole could crack the plug in half like an egg. Then the wind begins to pick up, which starts the prop spinning. In one sense, this is a blessing, because the propeller effectively becomes a windmill capable of charging the battery, thus increasing the Streetwing’s still-untested range. However, a spinning prop seems like the kind of thing that could bring unwanted attention: a giant red “kick me” sign on the back of an already outrageous vehicle. It needs to be secured. Molnár coasts to a pit stop by a lone Joshua tree standing among the tumbleweeds. As we help him climb out of the cockpit, he says, “Get some duct tape. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed with cardboard and duct tape.”
While Molnár lashes the prop down tight with the tape, using scrap cardboard to protect the painted surface of his pride and joy, he outlines his theory of innovation. “There are three levels of invention,” he says, ticking them off. “Stage one, the napkin phase—design. Stage two, the Sharpie phase—development. Stage three, the duct tape phase—operation.” With the prop newly immobilized, we restart the caravan, only to roll to another stop soon after. We are no longer on a dusty country road, but rather on the gritty outskirts of a sad High Desert town: Adelanto. There are fewer potholes, but it’s been an hour and a half since we left El Mirage, and we’ve gone a grand total of 11 miles. And now we’re lost: Mark Pierce, driving the red Audi TT, can’t find Route 66 on his phone. He’s the team’s designated navigator.
Molnár blows his top. “Of course the road exists! When they built the interstate, they didn’t rip up Route 66,” he shouts. “Put down your stupid iPhone and use your head!” Bernardo Herzer, the driver of the chase vehicle (the RV), comes to the rescue, finding Route 66 on his map. Then Herzer, the only member of Molnár’s entourage with any mechanical skills, uses the opportunity to check the charge on the Streetwing’s battery with a voltmeter and finds that it’s low. The battery is fully charged at 114 volts; at or below 85 volts, it no longer has enough juice to turn the motors in the car, and Herzer is getting a reading of 97 volts. In other words, the Streetwing’s gas tank is already more than half empty. Molnár will need to fill ’er up sooner than anticipated. Redeeming himself, Pierce spots a power outlet on the side of a one-story cinder block building near the center of the otherwise-empty city block where we’ve stopped. The outlet is half busted, one of its two sockets reduced to exposed wires.
Herzer checks the extant socket with the voltmeter. “It’s hot!” he exclaims.
It’s an opportunity not to be missed. The team pushes the Streetwing across the weed-pocked parking lot and plugs it in.
While the vehicle is charging, we have a look around. The building we’ve pulled up to is a church. There’s a large red cross painted on the side door, and nearby there’s a rock (presumably the doorstop) emblazoned with the phrase “Yo Soy El Que Soy—Exodo 3:14.”
“Jesus juice,” exclaims Molnár. “It’s literally watts from God!”
The mood lightens as the sun starts to set. We wait for the Streetwing to charge and fill our bellies with grub from Carl’s Jr., the best of Adelanto’s meager options. Molnár waxes philosophical. “Every new machine is an expedition,” he says. “And you don’t remember the expeditions for what went right.” As we settle in, we begin to meet the local homeless population and learn that we’re at a place known to them as “the people’s plug.”
Linda Lozano, a short, stout woman of 55, is especially friendly. She approaches us, pushing a baby carriage filled with her worldly possessions, to ask the obvious: “Does it fly?”
Molnár and his team are kind to Lozano. They explain: No, it does not. It’s just the plug for the mold, which has been Frankensteined into a rolling, driving, proof-of-concept prototype. However, once it’s cast in carbon fiber and its wings are attached, it will fly.
Soon enough, Lozano gets to the “why” question.
“Well, I want to travel, and I hate traffic,” Molnár says. “And sometimes you just have to build what you need yourself.”
Lozano beams a smile of delight. “It’s not every day in Adelanto that you see a flying car pull up and charge at the church,” she tells me later. “He’s got to be a genius. I want him to build me a spaceship!”
At 6 p.m., the voltmeter reads 106.3 volts. We’ve been charging at the people’s plug for two hours, but the Streetwing’s battery is only three-quarters full and it’s gotten dark, very dark, and very cold, desert-at-night cold. Molnár decides it’s time to go and makes a few strategic decisions. He instructs Pierce, in the pace car, not to go above 45 miles per hour, even if the roads remain pothole-free. The speed limit does not reflect any limitation in the Streetwing’s hub motor—Molnár has plenty of twist left in the throttle and says that he would feel safe driving at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. Forty-five is simply a best-guess compromise, designed to limit energy losses due to drag and thus increase the distance Molnár can go between charging stops. More radically, but in the same spirit, Molnár decides to save power by driving through the night without turning on the Streetwing’s headlight. Instead, he will illuminate the road by holding a flashlight overhead, his hand sticking out of the canopy.
Even so, we’re going to have to stop and slowly charge at least a few more times, because we have 120 miles to go before we get to Roy’s, in the town of Amboy. News of the situation provokes some murmured dissent among Molnár’s all-volunteer pit crew. They were expecting to enjoy themselves for an afternoon, not drive through the night. Molnár is unmoved: “I said we are going to Amboy. We are going to Amboy. This is the adventure!”
With the Streetwing tucked between Pierce’s pace car and Herzer’s chase vehicle, we again take to the road. On the cruise out of town, we pass the Southern California Logistics Airport, a former air force training facility that closed in 1993, dooming the economy of Victorville. The air base is now an airplane graveyard where the planes grounded by COVID are parked: one of the busiest boneyards in the nation.
Fifteen minutes later, we find the turnoff that leads to Route 66. As we wait for the light to turn green, a California Highway Patrol cruiser rolls by. Molnár flicks on the Streetwing’s headlight so we look to be in full compliance with the law. We hold our breath, wondering if the officer is going to pull us over. Fortunately, it’s getting to be late on New Year’s Day, and it seems that the CHP has better things to do.
After we cross the narrow Mojave River Bridge and merge onto Route 66 proper, things really start to look up. We’re flying along at 40 miles per hour, aloft on a potent speedball of hope and nostalgia. Highway heraldry—Route 66 shields stenciled onto the pavement—flies beneath our wheels. We pace the double-decker freight trains traveling beside us on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. Route 66’s many roadside attractions come at us, fast and furious. All Aboard Antiques & Uniques offers “roadside relics.” Cross Eyed Cow Pizza sports a rainbow-colored heifer on its roof. We pass a cement plant that’s lit up like the Clavius Crater moon base from 2001.
And then, just when the road trip couldn’t get much better, the Streetwing’s rear taillight goes dark, and Molnár glides to a halt. Herzer stops the RV behind him and jumps out to ask what’s going on. “I don’t know,” Molnár says. “I smelled something burning, and then bbbrrrrzzz—it powered down.”
Molnár has broken down on a blind curve. There is no shoulder. It is 7 p.m. Pierce does some reconnaissance and finds that just ahead and across the street there is a wide spot in the dirt. We push. There’s no pretense of my objectivity anymore as I put down my notepad and help shoulder the Streetwing toward safety. I’m now working as part of the team.
As we turn into a dirt parking lot, a hand-painted billboard on the side of a box truck comes into view. It says “Highway to Heaven… Hwy 66 Motorcycle Memorial at the Iron Hog Saloon.” Just beyond the billboard is a makeshift shrine to Evel Knievel featuring a chopper flying off a ramp pointed toward the sky and an inscription: “The people don’t come to see me die. They come to see me defy death.” Behind that is the boarded-up saloon itself, another bar felled by COVID.
Across the dirt lot is an offshore race boat of monstrous size, orange with yellow flames down the side and emblazoned with the word “Eliminator” in a scratchy all-caps font. It turns out that Molnár knows the designer of the Eliminator, Rob King. He relates a hard-luck story about how King was contracted to build the plug for Molnár’s first flying car, the GT. It was all going well until the plug toppled over and fell directly on top of a brand-new Ferrari. The damage caused was just one bad episode in a star-crossed project.
Exploring further, we discover a Bradley GT II rotting away behind the Eliminator. The GT II—not to be confused with either of Molnár’s two prior flying-car projects, the GT and the G2—was a 1970s kit car that featured gull wing doors and an optional all-electric drivetrain. We’ve stumbled on a graveyard of sorts, one filled with ghosts. The omens pass unremarked. The task at hand is to get the Streetwing to wink back to life.
Herzer takes a reading with his voltmeter. To everyone’s astonishment, the problem isn’t that the Streetwing’s battery has run out of juice. Likewise, the motor driving the rear wheel is hot to the touch—but not that hot. Something unexpected has felled the Streetwing.
Molnár retreats to Herzer’s RV and starts working the phone. He reaches out to the loose confederation of people who have helped him with the build. He calls Richard Hatfield, the founder and CEO of Lightning Motorcycles; Craig Calfee, the inventor of the carbon fiber bicycle frame; Luke Workman, the electric car industry’s battery guru; and Ryan Biffard, a well-respected specialist in electric-motor controllers.
Biffard confirms what the others suspected: there’s a blown transistor in the controller connected to the motor driving the Streetwing’s back wheel. The single LED on the bum controller is flashing a sort of Morse code that, we learn when we pull up the blinky-light decoder document, means “return to base.” Molnár is not having any of it. “Yesterday we went 300 feet; today we’ve gone 20 miles,” he says. “I’m not giving up yet.”
The obvious solution is to fire up the prop and have it blow the car down the road. There is no question that it will work: the motor that powers the prop is twice as powerful as the one that drives the wheel. It’s also likely to be an efficient mode of propulsion owing to the Streetwing’s ultra-aerodynamic shape. The problem, of course, is that a propeller-driven car is patently illegal.
Even so, Molnár doesn’t reject the solution out of hand. After having a think, he says that “the better part of valor is not to get arrested” and starts looking for a plan B. The next-best option is a side-of-the-road brain transplant: swapping the Streetwing’s two motor controllers. It’s basically a wiring job. The controller that’s normally connected to the motor that drives the propeller needs to be disconnected and then connected to the motor that drives the rear wheel.
Molnár leans into the cockpit holding the cables that funneled into the blown controller, but before he connects them to the good controller, he wants to make sure that he doesn’t accidentally miswire anything. He calls for a Sharpie to label them. “We’ve regressed to the development phase,” he quips.
After swapping controllers, the next step is convincing the larger, propeller controller that it’s actually the smaller, wheel controller. That requires getting a laptop out and hooking it up to both controllers to replace one’s configuration file with the other’s. In other words, the propeller controller has to be reprogrammed. We’re in the realm of software now.
There are two problems with this plan. The first: Software is not Molnár’s strong suit. In fact, he sometimes needs help using standard apps on his own phone. The second: Molnár doesn’t have anything to connect the laptop to the blown controller in order to extract its configuration file.
Biffard has a hopeful suggestion. It’s possible, he says, to jury-rig a tiny set of jumper cables out of paper clips and extract the file with them—except we don’t have paper clips. In fact, as the night wears on, simply finding a wrench in the dark or a flashlight that actually works is becoming challenging. The expedition is starting to devolve. We are now at the napkin phase.
Still, Molnár decides to press on, even though it’s nearly midnight and freezing outside. When the drive began, it was 54 degrees, and we were dressed accordingly. We’re now shivering, and we’re all in various stages of sleep deprivation, but none worse than Molnár. He hasn’t had a day off in months. He logged 14 hours of work on the Streetwing on Christmas Day. The way forward is to just keep the motor controllers swapped without reprogramming them. “This is the biggest Hail Mary I’ve ever heard of,” he says, fastening tight the terminal connectors that fix the wheel-motor wires to the replacement controller.
With the good, big controller wired to the small motor, Molnár flips a switch. The LED on the controller shines a steady green light—ready to go, no error code. As a test, he gives the throttle the barest turn, thereby sending the tiniest crack of juice to the hub motor in the Streetwing’s rear wheel. He’s got one hand on the kill switch in case the Streetwing decides to take off unexpectedly. But when he blips the throttle, there is no movement from the car—just a loud beep from the back wheel. It sounds like the chirp of a smoke detector, except there is no alarm, no speaker of any kind, anywhere in the car. We all freeze, shocked by what we may have done.
“That’s it,” says Molnár. “We’re stopping before we burn up the motor.”
In the dark, we know what needs to happen. We push the Streetwing into position behind the RV and carefully load it onto its trailer. The vehicle embodies Molnár’s hopes and dreams, and we treat it with the respect we’d give the corpse of a family member. We tie it down and drive back onto 66.
Three hours later, with the Streetwing in tow, Herzer pulls into L.A.’s Whiteman Airport, where Molnár has a hangar. We all feel like failures, but none more so than Molnár. Herzer tries to lighten the mood a bit: “It’s further than the Kitty Hawk went the first time.” I’m unclear whether Herzer is talking about the Wright brothers’ first Flyer or Kitty Hawk, the flying-car startup. Either way, Molnár is unmoved.
Molnár’s hangar here is also his personal headquarters. The space is 50 feet long and 40 feet deep, with a triple-height ceiling. At the push of a button, the entire front wall folds in half like an accordion and crawls up two I beams. Molnár hits the interior lights to reveal a full shop, as well as an elevated stage. Molnár has not lost touch with his rock and roll past. “I still have a lot of friends who are musicians,” he says by way of explanation. “And when they play here, no one complains about the noise.”
There, beneath the stage, sit Molnár’s two previous flying-car concepts: the Molnár GT, last flown in 2005, and the Molnár G2, which has yet to fly. We wheel the Streetwing inside, where it takes its place beside the other two. As the wall folds back down, I’m reminded of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where a government employee pushes a crate containing the precious, magical Ark into a vast, crowded warehouse. Is this hangar a similar storeroom, full of mothballed engineering treasures doomed to never again see the light of day?
Molnár is in a gallows mood, bitterly dismissing the vehicles below the stage as “the greatest collection of not-flying flying cars in all of Southern California.” Then, after noticing me jotting his words down in my notebook, he says, in a louder voice but to no one in particular, “That’s what we did during COVID. What did you do?”
The next morning, I find myself sitting with Molnár on a park bench in Burbank and sipping a cup of take-out coffee. We’re near the airport, and he’s helping me kill some time before my flight home. Los Angeles is a ghost town owing to a pandemic surge that has overwhelmed the region’s hospitals. Yet to Molnár, everything looks better in the bright light of the new day.
The Streetwing didn’t get within a hundred miles of its destination, but even so, says Molnár, he woke up feeling great. He had done what he’d told me he was going to do at the very beginning of the pandemic. “I feel free,” he says, “like I’ve just been through an exorcism.” He’s gotten the Streetwing out of his system, for now. “Last night was amazing,” he reminisces, even the breakdown—especially the breakdown, because the late-night support and advice he received from some of the most accomplished engineering minds on the West Coast proved, ostensibly to me but perhaps really to himself, that he was no Don Quixote, tilting at a windmill: “It was like having Ringo Starr give you drumming advice.”
Molnár smiles from ear to ear, buoyed by the memory. He calls Richard Hatfield, the Lightning Motorcycles CEO, to fill him in on the loud chirp that sounded after he hooked the good controller to the rear motor—a Lightning motor.
“That sound was likely caused by some sort of high frequency in the lamination,” says Hatfield. The mystery is solved—and the motor may have even survived. Molnár wanders off, distracted by a maroon Jaguar XK 150 idling in a nearby parking lot.
With the opportunity to talk privately with Hatfield, I ask him for his perspective on Molnár’s high-wire act. Hatfield shrugs off the failure to make it to Roy’s. “Everybody just needed to pull one or two more all-nighters,” he says, “and do some more testing.” Hatfield turns out to be a Streetwing fan and is seriously impressed by what Molnár was able to accomplish.
Hatfield is no wild-eyed inventor. He’s a businessman who decided to turn a passion for racing into a business. The electric motorcycle company he founded now makes the fastest production motorcycle, gas or electric, that money can buy. Hatfield did what he set out to do: he conquered the motorcycle-racing world.
I continue to quiz Hatfield, asking him what he thinks of Molnár’s vision of building a stripped-down race vehicle that is capable—in the right hands—of both terrestrial travel and flight. He tells me that “it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of who and when.” His answer gets me wondering. Is Lightning going to make the Streetwing fly? I ask Hatfield flat out whether he is prepared to help Molnár bring his Streetwing to market: “We would love to be that company.”
Later, I report back to Molnár. To my surprise, Molnár is unmoved, even blasé, about the interest from Lightning. It’s never been his intention to start a flying-car company, he says. All he ever wanted was one for himself. Being an entrepreneur has no appeal, and the potential for wealth has none either. The dream, he says, is to travel the world in a Streetwing, win flying-car races, and be the face of the flying-car future.
“Barnstorming,” says Molnár, savoring the sound of it, “that’s the word.” •