Robert E. Fulton Jr., 95; Adventurer, Inventor

Times Staff Writer

Robert E. Fulton Jr., an adventurer who circumnavigated the globe by motorcycle in 1932, invented a flying car in 1945, and spent the rest of his life turning his observations from land and air into photographic and sculptural art, has died. He was 95.

Fulton, who also concocted gadgets to teach and rescue fliers, died Friday at his home in Newtown, Conn., of unspecified causes.

“What I really like to do is make things. With a name like Robert Edison Fulton, how can you help but try to be something like an inventor?” he told the Hartford Courant in 1991. He was not, he added, related either to lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison or steamboat creator Robert Fulton.


A couple of the things Fulton made proved highly useful to the military: the Gunairstructor, a visual simulator that trained World War II fighter plane gunners and served as precursor to modern flight simulators, and the Fulton Skyhook, used to extract downed pilots or intelligence operatives and was featured in the 1965 James Bond film “Thunderball.”

Fulton’s most enduring legacy may have been his daring solo trip around the world between the world wars, but he also gained fame from his post-World War II invention of a flying car he called the Airphibian. Time, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science waxed enthusiastic, and newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times paid attention when the oddity flew/rolled into town.

The Airphibian was licensed to fly on Dec. 21, 1950, by the Civil Aeronautics Administration, a predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration. Fulton, who taught himself to fly as he had taught himself to ride a motorcycle, flew his “roadable plane” to Washington National -- now Ronald Reagan -- Airport and drove to Civil Aeronautics Administration headquarters at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue to receive the certificate personally from the agency’s administrator, Donald W. Nyrop.

The inventive pilot eventually flew his Airphibian from Maine to Florida, and west to Los Angeles. He also flew it in England. He could drive the car as fast as 90 mph, get 20 miles to the gallon, and fly the plane 125 mph for 400 miles without refueling. He built eight of the vehicles, but financial backing evaporated and commercial production never materialized.

Only one complete model still exists. Currently on loan to Canada’s National Aviation Museum in Ottawa, the Airphibian will become a featured exhibit this fall at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum facility at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C.

Robert Fulton Jr. was born to a wealthy father, the president of Mack Trucks, who financed and encouraged his son’s wanderlust and dreams. Young Fulton traveled widely with his family and was aboard the first commercial flight from Miami to Havana in 1921 and visited Tutankhamen’s newly discovered tomb in Egypt in 1923.


After graduating from Harvard and earning a master’s degree in architecture from the Bauhaus school at the University of Vienna, young Fulton decided to return home to New York by going east instead of sailing west. He couldn’t photograph much architecture, he and his father agreed, through a ship’s porthole.

Given a Douglas two-cylinder motorcycle, he added an auxiliary four-gallon gas tank, a hidden compartment for his .32-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, a sidecar and extra luggage racks to hold his books, sleeping bag, pots and pans, extra walking shoes, tuxedo, sketchy maps from the Royal Automotive Club in London, a Leica camera and a hand-wound 35-millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera.

Fulton set off from London in May 1932 on an 18-month odyssey that would take him 40,000 miles through some 32 countries, crossing Europe, the Balkans, Greece and Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, French Indochina, Java, China and Japan, and the United States from San Francisco to New York.

Learning fast, he dumped the books in Paris, gave away the sleeping bag, pots and pans and shoes in Italy, and ditched the sidecar and tuxedo in the Balkans. The only use he found for his pistol was as a hammer when making repairs.

The motorcyclist ran out of gas once, had six flat tires, was hospitalized for jaundice in Baghdad and knocked himself out in Turkey when his bike plunged 12 feet into a culvert during the night.

Fulton the would-be architect realized his camera was not pointing at buildings.

“I soon discovered,” he said in a CNN interview in 2000, “that instead of taking pictures of the architecture, it was the people that were more important. So that became what I did on the whole trip.”


At journey’s end, his remarkable film reels, screened for the Harvard Club of New York, landed him a job as promotional filmmaker with Pan American Airlines. And in 1937, Fulton published his account of the extraordinary trip and the people he met along the way in his book “One Man Caravan.” The book was republished by Whitehorse Press in 1996.

In 2000, his two movie-making sons -- Rawn and the late Academy Award-winning aerial cinematographer Robert Fulton III who died in a plane crash in 2002 -- turned some of their father’s 1932 footage into an hourlong documentary. Their work was incorporated into the CNN feature on Fulton.

Also in 2000, many still photos taken from Fulton’s 1932 film were compiled into the book, “The Long Journey Home: The 1932 Motorcycle Voyage of Robert E. Fulton Jr.”

Another millennium milestone for Fulton was an exhibition of stills from the journey, abstract landscape photographs he made in the 1970s while flying his P-51 Mustang upside-down, and examples of the steel and plexiglass sculptures he created over the decades, inspired by the clouds he flew over and the world he traveled. The exhibit at New York’s Exhibit A gallery was titled “Hero: The Art and Life of Robert Edison Fulton Jr.”

Smack in the middle of the exhibition, which a New York Daily News reviewer pronounced “a gem of a show,” stood the Douglas ’32 motorcycle that had carried Fulton seven decades earlier.

Twice widowed, Fulton is survived by sons Travis and Rawn, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.