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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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.

The initial response was everything Parks could have hoped for. Mandel’s in Chicago displayed both the Ercoupe and the Piper Cub, and reported crowds waiting when the doors opened. There were nine orders, 12 customers took introductory flights at a nearby airport, and the store anticipated 75,000 visitors over the next two weeks. Before the Ercoupe even went on display, Macy’s reportedly sold two by phone. It also had 284 inquiries (of which 82 said they planned to buy), and on the first day sold 20.

By May 1945, ERCO had taken 203 orders, and Parks’ plan continued to unfold in the Midwest. The William H. Block store in Indianapolis and St. Louis’ Famous-Barr store each reported more than 100,000 guests in attendance at a preview event. In November, the J.C. Penney in Denver became the first store in the west to offer the Ercoupe. The store sold nine the first week—one to a frozen foods businessman and another to an oilman, both seeking to ease their considerable travel time. Indeed, the retailers reported most sales were to businessmen between 40 and 50 years old, half of whom expected to use the airplane for pleasure, half for work.

The department store airplane spread to retailers all over the country and even to Canada: Gimbel’s in Philadelphia, Davison’s in Atlanta, May’s in Baltimore, Gambel’s in Ottawa, Joske’s in San Antonio, Miller & Rhodes in Richmond, Leh’s in Allentown. The boom was on and the future was bright. In late 1945, Parks filed common stock registration with the Securities and Exchange Commission to expand his operations; he was expecting sales of 1,800 Ercoupes per year. Berliner, aggressively optimistic, predicted orders of 10,000 Ercoupes for 1946. In late 1945, four Ercoupes were coming off the line every day. Berliner kept increasing the number of shifts, and by the spring of 1946, ERCO was producing 30 to 35 airplanes every day.

While newspapers covered the novelty of the department store sales, aviation journals sought out the pilots’ experiences, often coming up with amusing anecdotes about the novice flier. The Secretary of the Interior, Henry Wallace, soloed in an Ercoupe and mistakenly flew it to Baltimore instead of Washington, D.C. Entertainers Edgar Bergen and Dick Powell each purchased one, giving the Ercoupe cachet. Although not yet a celebrity, William F. Buckley Jr. bought one with his college friends (against his parents’ wishes), later landing on the lawn of his sister’s prep school and then nosing it over into a ditch.

About Paul Glenshaw

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

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