September 26, 2022
The Air-Car Ferries of the 1960s
AvGeek History

The Air-Car Ferries of the 1960s

DALLAS – To cross over a sea or a channel with our cars, we use ferry boats, but back in the 1950s, it was done through the air.

The story of Silver City Airways makes for an interesting one, as it was the first to launch such a service between the UK and mainland Europe. Here’s a brief on the rise and fall of the ‘air-car ferry’ period.

Taffy Powell, who was then chief of Silver City Airways’ regular operations, was the man behind the idea. Frustrated about getting his car onto mainland Europe, he thought to himself, “Why not load my car onboard one of the Bristol 170 Freighters?” There was the spark to the beginning of the aircar ferry.

The first Silver City car ferry operation took place on June 15, 1948, as a proving flight from Lympne (near Hythe) in Kent to Le Touquet on the French coast, using the same aircraft – G-AGVC – and with just one vehicle (Powell’s Armstrong Siddeley) and a set of loading ramps on board.

The airfields had been chosen as being the two closest cross-Channel civil airports – just 47 miles apart, that lasted 20 minutes. Initially, it was a charter service.

The Bristol 170s nose door would open wide like that of a whale and could take in two large cars with room for some cargo and passengers too.

Bristol Freighter. Image:

A Successful Run

Was the newly launched air car ferry a success? It was a hit. Some 200 cars were flown back and forth during the very first season of Silver City Airways.

The following season the demand was much that it had to be established as a scheduled service and by this time there was a 2- Bristol aircraft fleet hauling cars across the channel. By the end of that season, the planes were making 8 daily return trips and carried 2700 cars along with their passengers. 

A portable ramp was part of the aircraft that served as the bridge to get the two cars onboard. The passenger section was a separate compartment itself.

So how much did it cost? Prices were based on the size of the car – small, medium or large, at about £18, £22, and £27 respectively.

A Silver City Bristol Freighter at Berlin Tempelhof during 1954. Phto: By Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F001297-0011 / Brodde / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0

Competition and Downfall

In 1954, Air Charter Limited, one of the most famous charters in the UK, made its way. It was run by Freddie Laker and it operated on the route connecting Southend, UK, to Calais, France. It took just 45 mins even then and the process of getting on board was also quick, lasting less than an hour.

During the early 1960s, the Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvairs replaced the Bristols which could transport five average-sized cars rather than just two.

Sturdy and robust, these aircraft really wanted to haul goods and sacrificed their speed and range. The nose was similar – clam-shaped, that would open sideways to allow cars to be driven into the cargo hold. The cockpit was raised to maximize cargo capacity on the main deck.

Air Charter charged between £7 and £18 depending on the size of the car. They were the then low-cost provider. You can say that also severely hampered Silver City Airways’ operations, given their competitive pricing.

The British United Air Ferries Superfreighter Valiant pictured in 1966. Photo: Ralf Manteufel, GFDL 1.2

British United Air Ferries

British United Air Ferries was formed from a merger in 1962, and five years later, it was offering a wide range of services from several UK airports to destinations in Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, as well as to France.

However, by 1968, cross channel services were offered by hovercraft, and that in just thirty minutes and at a fraction of what the air carriers charged – the start of the collapse of air car ferries. In the following decade, boats and hovercraft dominated the cross channel shuttling of cars.

At approximately £40 for a car and four passengers, the air ferry service was almost exactly twice the price at around £80 -In today’s money, these fares would have been £400 and £800, respectively.

Featured image: cars being loaded onto the super freighters in Lydd. Photo::

Commercial pilot | Flight Instructor | Aviation Journalist & writer.

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