Buy Your Plane at Penney’s
For a few magical years, it looked like every family would own an airplane.
- By Paul Glenshaw
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
(Page 2 of 4)
The new retail flying experience—placing an order in the store, then taking delivery and soloing at the airport—was carefully developed well before the war ended, and in the Ercoupe’s case, brought together three brilliant pioneers of modern civilian aviation: Fred Weick, the designer; Henry Berliner, the manufacturer; and Oliver Parks, the salesman.
Weick, who was the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ authority on propellers, met Berliner at Langley Field in 1926, where they collaborated on a NACA project to improve propellers for the U.S. Navy airship USS Akron. Berliner, who founded his own airplane company that year, had been experimenting with balsa wood rotors in his helicopter flights at College Park, Maryland. The Berliner Aircraft Company was one of the first to adopt NACA’s cowling—a metal shroud that cooled the radial engine and reduced drag—an award-winning project Weick had led.
As an extracurricular project with his NACA colleagues in the mid-1930s, Weick developed the Ercoupe’s direct ancestor, the W-1. The wing was mounted high on the fuselage and had its propeller on the rear to push, rather than at the front to pull. The W-1 had two seats, steerable landing gear, and simplified controls, and it was nearly impossible to stall. Soon after Weick’s innovations with the W-1 proved successful, Berliner enticed his friend to partner with his new Engineering and Research Company—ERCO. With the goal of a safe, easy-to-fly, consumer-friendly aircraft, Weick built upon the W-1’s innovations, and the Ercoupe was born. The first production model rolled off the line in 1938, with a prized designation from the Civil Aeronautics Administration (the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor). The agency decreed the Ercoupe “characteristically incapable of spinning.” Just over 100 airplanes were sold before World War II halted production, and Berliner converted ERCO to work for the war effort.
Oliver Parks was an entire industry on his own. He started off selling candy bars, then moved on to Chevrolets. In 1926, he learned to fly. The following year, a few months after Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic success, and wary after his own close calls in the air, he entered the flight instruction business, opening Parks Air College in St. Louis, which was selected during World War II as one of eight civilian schools to help train Army Air Forces pilots. When the program was phased out in 1944, Parks—now a recognized authority not just on sales but also on safe flight operations and pilot instruction—joined ERCO. Berliner was planning ERCO’s postwar business, and the Ercoupe was first in line.
In 1944, Berliner held a sales strategy conference with all the Ercoupe’s soon-to-be distributors. As Weick recalled in the book From the Ground Up, which he co-wrote in 1988: “The real sales push was made by Oliver Parks, a very dynamic man, who was to be the airplane’s distributor in eight Midwestern states. Most everyone expected a big postwar boom, so spirits were high.” The innovation in Parks’ plan: department stores.
Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia and New York displayed Glenn Curtiss’ Rheims racer and a Blériot monoplane as far back as 1909. But Parks had in mind something far more ambitious. “Salesmen for refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, radios, houses, automobiles—to name only a few—are preparing to go after the postwar market with intensive campaigns,” he wrote in Flying magazine in 1944. “None [of the competition] that I have heard plan to sit on their fixed bases and wait for Joe to come and see them. And if aviation continues the pre-war, come-and-get-it attitude, aviation—not Joe—is going to suffer. We must go after him with the most intensive, streamlined, ultra-modern sales program in the nation’s history.”
His plan was extensive. Starting with the newly formed Parks Aircraft Sales and Service headquarters in East St. Louis, there would be four regional headquarters, supporting 32 dealerships. Each dealership, based at local airports, would place a single product line, the Ercoupe, in local department stores.
Park executed his plan in June 1945, signing his first deal with Marshall Field & Co. Ercoupes went on display in October at the flagship store in downtown Chicago: one on the main floor, and one on the fifth floor in the “Store for Men.” ERCO soon signed similar deals with Macy’s, Bamberger’s, and department stores throughout the Midwest.