A car among airplanes at the San Diego Air & Space Museum
You might think you'd find it in the San Diego Automotive Museum, but instead one very special car is found in the Air & Space Museum.
It's the Avion Car, and it looks like it came straight out of the future.
“It’s so streamlined. It’s built much along the same way that airplanes are built. We use a lot of, actually, Boeing surplus components in it," said Craig Henderson, the builder of the Avion Car.
Henderson started working on the car in the early 80s.
“I was working as an engineer out of college and in college we were building cars at the Vehicle Research Institute," Henderson said.
Henderson made the molds and the chassis himself. He’d work on it in the evenings after work, and after three years, he was finished.
As to the name, a colleague who designed the car came up with that. "Avion" means "airplane" in French.
"It’s built kind of like a race car and airplane, and the streamlining is very important and the light weight is important too," Henderson said.
Important because the main goal here was getting eye-popping fuel economy. On that, Henderson succeeded, to put it mildly.
“We started at Dodger Stadium, drove down to the Tijuana border, turned around and went back up to the Canadian border, and we averaged 103.7 miles per gallon in 1986," he said.
There’s something else about the Avion Car that Henderson was not thinking about when he built it. He calls it the “grin factor,” and it was clear what he meant when we took the Avion for a drive around Balboa Park. There were lots of smiles as everyone, from little children to adults, wanted to take pictures of the car
When it comes to children, Henderson hopes his Avion Car inspires them to pursue a career in engineering and science.
“People smile, little kids love it and maybe with that, they’ll be motivated to go into science and technology and engineering and do what I did — think out of the box," he said.
The first engine to power the Avion was out of a '67 VW Beetle. Henderson has since swapped that out for a newer engine, and with that, he was able to get even better mileage.
“That’s the thing about the Avion. It’s really handsome and it’s a bonus that it gets 120 miles per gallon. When we drove from Canada in 2010, I had to stop for my support vehicle all the time because they were filling up with fuel, and we only used 12.4 gallons to go from Bellingham (Washington) to San Diego," Henderson said with a laugh.
And San Diego is where it will stay for the foreseeable future. It’s on long-term loan to the Air and Space Museum, right there amidst all the airplanes.