Robert Fulton

Adventurer, writer and inventor of the Airphibian flying car
Click to follow

The motorcycle odyssey has become a staple of the counter-culture, but far more engaging than Easy Rider or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Robert Fulton's One Man Caravan, published in 1937 and illustrated with 200 of his own photographs, maps and drawings.

Robert Edison Fulton, traveller, inventor, writer and artist: born New York 15 April 1909; married first 1935 Florence Coburn (died 1996; two sons, and one son deceased), second Anne Boireau Smith (died 2002); died Newtown, Connecticut 7 May 2004.

The motorcycle odyssey has become a staple of the counter-culture, but far more engaging than Easy Rider or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is Robert Fulton's One Man Caravan, published in 1937 and illustrated with 200 of his own photographs, maps and drawings.

His 17-month ride around the world, eastwards from London, was begun on a whim which could have strayed from the pages of Wodehouse or Waugh and Fulton's telling is one to which either would have been happy to put his name, such is Fulton's ability to capture an incident in a phrase that has one chortling. This journey, which Fulton undertook at the age of 23, was but a small part of a diverse life which, beginning in well-heeled Manhattan circles in 1909, never lost its polish. The spirit of adventure and invention was with him to the end.

Part of a family which had included stagecoach and Greyhound bus entrepreneurs, Fulton's father began in the motor-cycle industry and became president of the Mack Truck Company. Fulton junior, schooled in Switzerland, went to Harvard to study Architecture. At first he appeared to lack the family genes, for, having bought a motorcycle for $25, he fell off it, and sold on the offending vehicle. Graduate work took him to Vienna for a year. A visit to London in 1932 was intended as a halt before New York and gainful employment of some sort.

Things changed, at dinner in London. Perhaps subconsciously aware that life needed gingering up, he replied, without thinking, when asked for his plans by a pretty girl, "I'm going round the world on a motorcycle!" If his host was startled, Fulton himself was immediately to "receive , in return, what can only be described as a jolt", for at the table was Kenton Redgrave, whose company Douglas, he said, would happily supply the motorcycle.

Registration number GY 1616 - by chance, two lucky sevens - was soon in Fulton's possession. Among its equipment was a gun hidden in oily rags and thousands of feet of movie film. So began this six horse-power, two-cylinder odyssey.

For all Fulton's studying of maps, anticipation of rainy seasons and visas, there was trouble ahead. He sold off his books in Paris, and his evening clothes had become an encumbrance by Athens. "Frontier officials are notoriously bad linguists - many of them having trouble at times with their native tongue." A nightmare, "which I defy anyone to top, is the problem of explaining in a language you don't know to an official who doesn't want to understand, that you are not a Communist". A score of times he spent a night in jail.

Turks "idle away the hours of sunlight in a semi-doze". Baghdad finds him holed up for two months with jaundice. In India, he is asked to pose as a Major and inspect a camel-parade. Time and again he is in forbidden territory. On the Khyber Pass is one who "would kill anyone who tried to steal his rifle, and many who would kill him to get it"; in Sumatra, a coconut is dropped on his head by a monkey trained in such harvesting techniques; in China, after Malaya's rubber roads, he wilts from a rice-only diet. After Vietnam, he is cleaned up in Japan, which greets him with a cycle-cade. Ironically, on his return to America the motorcycle is stolen, although it is found in Texas, and ridden to New York, from where he returns to London on the Queen Mary (so the odyssey ends where it began).

This masterpiece ends reflectively, with a fitting metaphor:

The gears of the world are being thrown into mesh. Naturally the grinding is loud

and long, a grinding in the medium of economic depressions, dictatorships, strikes, and readjustments. Not until we get to understand the other fellow's point of view, his picture, and his problems, will the grinding cease.

As a result of the films he made on the way, Fulton was taken on by Pan Am as a promotional film-maker. He went on to learn to fly and during the Second World War created a flight- simulator. His balloon-driven Fulton Skyhook (one of which featured in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball), to winch the fallen from enemy territory, was followed by the Seasled to recover frogmen for the Navy.

The Airphibian, a flying car, or "roadable plane", was demonstrated by him on both sides of the Atlantic; it used the same controls for flying and driving, travelled at 50mph on land and 110mph in the air, and got 25 miles to the gallon. Three years after its first flight in 1947, it became the first flying car to be certified by the US Civil Aeronautics Administration, but proved financially unviable. Of the eight models Fulton built, the last surviving example, from the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, was exhibited at the Louis Vuitton classic car show in London in 1998.

From documentary photography, in later years Fulton turned to more avowedly artistic forms, including poetry and sculpture. His was a restless, humane and humorous curiosity. He once said, "What I really like to do is make things. "

Christopher Hawtree