The Air-Car Ferries of the 1960s – Airways Magazine

DALLAS – To cross a sea or a canal with our cars, we use ferryboats, but in the 1950s it was done by air.

The history of Silver City Airways is interesting, as it was the first to launch such a service between the UK and mainland Europe. Here is a brief overview of the rise and fall of the “air-car ferry” period.

Taffy Powell, who was then head of regular operations for Silver City Airways, was the man behind the idea. Frustrated with bringing his car to the European continent, he thought to himself: “Why not load my car on board one of the Bristol 170 Freighters? There was the spark at the start of the aircar ferry.

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

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

The nose door of the Bristol 170 would open wide like a whale’s and could accommodate two large cars with room for cargo and passengers as well.

Bristol Freighter. Image:

A successful race

Was the brand new aerial car ferry a success? It was a success. Some 200 cars flew back and forth during Silver City Airways’ first-ever season.

The following season the demand was such that it had to be established as a regular service and by then there was a fleet of 2 Bristol aircraft ferrying cars across the channel. At the end of this season, the planes made 8 daily round trips and transported 2700 cars with their passengers.

A portable ramp was part of the aircraft that served as a bridge to board the two cars. 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 around £18, £22 and £27 respectively.

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

Competition and Fall

In 1954, Air Charter Limited, one of the UK’s most famous charters, came into its own. It was run by Freddie Laker and operated on the route from Southend, UK to Calais, France. It only took 45 minutes at the time and the boarding process was also quick, lasting less than an hour.

In the early 1960s, Aviation Traders ATL-98 Carvairs replaced Bristols which could carry five mid-size cars instead of just two.

Tough and tough, these planes really wanted to carry cargo and sacrifice speed and range. The nose was similar – clam-shaped, which opened to the side to allow cars to be driven into the hold. The cockpit has been raised to maximize cargo capacity on the main deck.

Air Charter charged between £7 and £18 depending on car size. They were then the low cost supplier. You can say this has also severely hampered the operations of Silver City Airways, given their competitive prices.

British United Air Ferries supercargo Valiant photographed in 1966. Photo: Ralf Manteufel, GFDL 1.2

British United Air Ferries

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

However, by 1968 cross-Channel services were offered by hovercraft, and that in just thirty minutes and at a fraction of what air carriers charged – the start of the air car ferry collapse. Over the next decade, boats and hovercraft dominated cross-Channel car commuting.

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

Featured Image: Loading cars onto super freighters at Lydd. Photo::

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