Buy Your Plane at Penney’s

For a few magical years, it looked like every family would own an airplane.

“If you can drive a car, you can fly an airplane.” ERCO began selling the spin-proof Ercoupe from department stores in 1945 by marketing the vision that every family (represented in the publicity shot) could own one. (ERCO)
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When Macy’s department store opened its doors one October morning in 1945, its customers were treated to a vision of the future. In the center of a showroom display called “The Flight Deck” sat a gleaming ERCO Ercoupe airplane, resting on a patch of artificial turf. Salesmen Alec LaJole and Harold Chaplin were waiting. The two men were pilots, recently finished with military service, and ready to welcome their customers to the world of aviation, with conveniences that were arrayed around the airplane. There was a quasi-simulator that featured an Ercoupe cabin and windshield, through which one could see color footage of the view from the air and overhear conversations between the pilot, passenger, and air traffic controllers. There was a model “Esso Airpark,” a futuristic residential airport that featured hangars, airplanes, showrooms, runways, service stations, and working beacon lights.

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Crowds were drawn to Macy’s new offering by a full-page ad in the September 26 New York Times, which read “Macy’s makes news again! Within less than two months after V-J Day, you will be able to walk into Macy’s and buy—an airplane! And not only a plane, an Ercoupe… Macy’s chose Ercoupe for you [b]ecause it’s safe; and as easy to handle as your family car.”

With the crowds came journalists, from national magazines to local newspapers. Earle Griffith was an eager early customer, a 1945 article in the New York Post reported. Considering the travel time from his farm in Massachusetts, he said, “It takes me four and one-half hours to commute by train. With this baby I could make it in an hour and one half.” Elmer Ruark, a postal worker from Salisbury, Maryland, was more cautious. He told the salesmen he was just looking, but mentioned to his wife that with the post office’s flat roof available for landings and takeoffs, he “sure could use one of them [Ercoupes].” One Marine sergeant tried to trip Chaplin up, possibly thinking a mere showroom salesman wouldn’t understand how the Ercoupe could be spin-proof. But Chaplin, a veteran of 32 combat missions who came to Macy’s “via Saipan in a B-29,” calmly showed off the Ercoupe’s leading edge spoilers, which helped the airplane avoid the dreaded spin.

The salesmen had a mission, summed up in a published essay by R.E. “Duke” Iden of the aircraft manufacturer Taylorcraft: “In every successful sale, he is doing more than merely selling a plane or making a little cash for himself; he is helping build a better world, he is adding another man or woman to the growing army of air travelers; he is a missionary spreading a gospel for the progress of civilization.” The department store airplane was a bold experiment in retail: an exuberant leap into the postwar world, with private aviation leading the way. In a department store, anybody could check out the airplane as easily as he might try on a shirt.

Department stores all over the country dove into the market. At Bamberger’s in Newark, New Jersey, elevator operators hollered, “Sixth floor, airplanes!” Farmer J.W. Geer was one of the first to make a down payment, purchasing an Ercoupe as a surprise for his son, due home at any moment from duty with the Eighth Air Force. So did two mothers from Newark, each buying one for her military pilot son. Ernest Hawkins, an East Coast salesman for an Illinois company, bought one for his regular commute to the Midwest.

Over-the-counter airplane shoppers even had a small variety from which to choose. Piper Aircraft signed up with Mandel’s in Chicago and Wanamaker’s in New York, and had one-, two-, and three-seater models, retailing from around $1,000 to $3,000.

A major enticement was that getting your new airplane out of the store and into the air didn’t take much. A customer buying an Ercoupe at Macy’s, for example, paid a $998 deposit and put the balance on the store’s “Cash-Time” payment plan. Then arrangements were made for delivery of the airplane to a nearby airport. There, the customer got his first flying lesson from a contracted instructor, who would coach him through to the first solo. This is where the Ercoupe could sell itself: It actually performed as advertised.

Doyle Getter was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal who in August 1945 made his way out to the Anderson Air Activities facilities at Malden Air Base, Missouri. Waiting for him was Gwen Landry, who gave him a quick ground tour of an Ercoupe. “In less than an hour I was flying, taking off and landing unassisted: [Landry] just sat beside me,” Getter wrote. “After three hours and 50 minutes of instruction, I soloed. ‘Just me and the birds,’ I thought to myself, up there so soon all alone. But it was a grand feeling. And a new world had opened up, a thrilling, exciting world, and the transition had come swiftly and easily. It was even simpler, it seemed, than learning to drive a car.”

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.

About Paul Glenshaw

Paul Glenshaw is a frequent Air & Space contributor and writes from Silver Spring, Maryland.

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