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Clyde Cessna: The flying farmer

July 1, 2006, by Bill Cawthon

Last time I said DaimlerChrysler had promised a decision before the end of June about bringing the Smart car to the United States. The decision was announced on June 28 and I'm happy to say Dr. Dieter Zetsche, CEO of DaimlerChrysler and Mercedes-Benz Car Group, said the tiny car would be coming to America in 2008, in time for the tenth anniversary of the Smart's introduction.

Dieter Zetsche takes Roger Penske for a spin in a Smart Cabriolet at the press briefing where it was announced UnitedAuto Group would distribute the Smart car line in the United States. Photo courtesy of DaimlerChrysler Media

However, true to its iconic form, it won't be coming over as a Mercedes or a Chrysler; it will be coming over as a Smart. Instead of a boutique brand to be sold by either of the DaimlerChrysler groups, Smarts will be distributed by Roger Penske's UnitedAuto Group. UnitedAuto will begin setting up dealers next year with a rollout of the new Smart Fortwo scheduled for late 2007. Prices are expected to start below $15,000.

The decision makes a lot of sense. For one thing, it protects Mercedes' luxury cachet and avoids a turf war as to which Chrysler brand would handle the line. For another, Penske's company has been selling Smarts in Great Britain since 2002, so the company has a track record with the brand.

The Smart that will come to the U.S. won't be the same as the car seen in movies like The Da Vinci Code, The Pink Panther and Legally Blonde II. It will be seven inches longer and include a number of changes that were required for the car to meet U.S. regulations. We'll get a sneak peek at the car when it goes on sale in Europe next year.

Smart is just one of many brands that are part of modern-day DaimlerChrysler. Over the years the company has acquired brands like Dodge, Western Star, Maybach, Rambler, Freightliner, Nash and Willys. One of the oldest brands is Overland which joined the family when Chrysler acquired American Motors.

Today, Overland is the name of a trim package on the Jeep Grand Cherokee but for a time it was an automotive brand second only to Ford in total production. Overland dealerships were found across the United States including one in Enid, Oklahoma, that was owned by a gentleman named Clyde V. Cessna.

Clyde Cessna was a farm boy from the heartland. Born on December 5, 1879 in Hawthorne, Iowa, he was only two years old when the family moved to Kingman County in southern Kansas, where they homesteaded near the Chikaskia River. Growing up on a farm back in the old American Wild West (Bat Masterson's brother, a marshal in Abilene, Kansas, had been killed just a year before Cessna was born and the Saloon War in Ford County, Kansas, occurred in 1883), Cessna developed the mechanical skills that not only helped on the family farm but would serve him well in later life.

As was true of a lot of young people back then, Cessna never made it past the fifth grade in school. As the family grew, his time was spent working the farm.

Clyde Cessna never finished grade school and never held a pilot's license but he was one of the founders of the modern American aircraft industry and the his company has built more airplanes than any other aircraft company in the world.

When the first automobiles appeared in the late nineteenth century, Cessna was immediately attracted to the new horseless carriage. As the American automobile industry grew he became a mechanic, then moved on to become a salesman and finally opened his own dealership in Enid in Northern Oklahoma.

On June 6, 1905, when he was 25, Clyde Cessna married Europa Dotzour.

While he made his living from the automobile, it was the airplane that really captured Cessna's imagination. Like most Americans, he had followed the aviation news since the Wright Brothers first flight but when French pilot Louis Blériot flew across the English Channel in 1909, he decided he had to have an airplane of his own. After a month-long trip to the Queen Airplane Company in New York, where he learned about the fundamentals of flight and aircraft design, he bought a copy of the Blériot monoplane and taught himself to fly.

Cessna became an exhibition pilot, traveling to shows throughout the Midwestern United States. His mechanical skills came in handy as he was able to make modifications to his plane to improve performance. Finally, in 1911, he built his first airplane.

Two years later, Cessna, who was now in his thirties, quit the automobile business, moved his family back to Kingman County and built a metal shop to construct airplanes of his own design. He continued to fly in exhibitions, traveling as far as Florida, towing his plane on a trailer. Though it was dangerous, exhibition flying was a good living considering all that was required was to stay aloft for a few minutes at each show. The Cessna Exhibition Company was successful but Clyde Cessna wanted more: he wanted to become an airplane manufacturer.

In 1916 he opened a shop in Wichita and built four new monoplanes. He also took on his first students with an eye toward having a real flying team for the 1917 exhibition season. His plans were preempted by America's entry into World War I in April 1917 and Cessna gave up flying and returned to farming for the duration of the war.

In 1924 Cessna joined Walter H. Beech and Lloyd C. Stearman to form the Travel Air Manufacturing Company. The company was successful with 19 sales in its first year and more growth followed, but the partners' differing visions of the future of aircraft design soon broke up the triumvirate. Lloyd Stearman left to form his own company in 1926 and Clyde Cessna followed suit in January 1927, selling his stock and joining forces with Victor Roos to form the Cessna-Roos Aircraft Company.

The first true Cessna was the Phantom, a three-place airplane with a full cantilever wing mounted over the cockpit. A full cantilever wing means there are no struts. The Phantom was powered by a 90-horsepower Anzani radial engine. Cessna had used Anzanis on earlier aircraft.

Herpa's new 019200 Cessna Skyhawk is the first Wings model in 1/87 scale.

By then, Cessna's son Eldon, a talented aircraft designer in his own right, had joined the company. The father-son team and other Cessna company engineers developed a series of monoplanes. The company was successful until the Great Depression when orders for new private airplanes dried up. In 1931, the company's board of directors ousted Clyde Cessna and shut the company down.

Determined to stay in the aircraft business, Clyde and Eldon Cessna turned to building specialized racing aircraft and a Cessna set a new international speed record in 1933.

1933 was to be the beginning of the end of Clyde Cessna's career in the airplane business. In September, at the Chicago International Air Races, Cessna saw his close friend Roy Liggett killed while flying a Cessna CR-3. Liggett's death took a heavy toll on Cessna; he lost his passion for airplanes and withdrew from his company. His nephew, Duane Wallace, who Clyde Cessna taught to fly, took over the company in January 1934. By 1936, Clyde Cessna had severed almost all ties with the company he had founded and gone back to his farm near Rago, Kansas.

With all his ventures into the world of the automobile and airplane, Clyde Cessna never really left the "family business." He was born a farmer and he was still a farmer when he died on November 20, 1954 just fifteen days shy of what would have been his seventy-fifth birthday. Even though he was one of the pioneers of aviation, he never held a pilot's license.

Duane Wallace, who had earned a degree in aeronautical engineering, reopened the Cessna Aircraft Company in 1934. Working with his brother, Dwight, and another engineer named Jerry Gerteis, Wallace designed a new airplane: the C-34 Airmaster, a four-passenger high-winged monoplane that was named the world's most efficient airplane in 1936. The Airmaster was the product that not only allowed Cessna to survive the Depression but positioned the company as one of America's leading aircraft manufacturers.

Cessna is still one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers. Now a part of Textron, Cessna has built more airplanes than any other manufacturer. And, more than seven decades after he introduced it, Clyde Cessna's cantilever wing is still in use on new Cessna planes like the 172R Skyhawk; the prototype for Herpa's first 1/87 scale aircraft model.

The Cessna 172 made its maiden flight in November 1955. Following testing and certification, Cessna began selling the plane in 1956 and found themselves with a hit on their hands. Over 1400 were sold in the first year and the 172 went on to become the best-selling commercial airplane of all time. By its golden anniversary earlier this year more than 40,000 had been sold.

The 172 was developed by adding tricycle landing gear to the popular Cessna 170. This made it easier to get in and out of the airplane and, even more important, improved pilot visibility for runway maneuvering. In 1960, Cessna introduced the 172A, the first in a series of improved models. By the end of 1960, the 172 had a swept-back tail and a new name: Skyhawk. Cessna later slimmed down the rear fuselage and added a wraparound rear window.

Two more views of the new Cessna showing the interior and crisp graphics. All three landing gear have free-rolling wheels.

Sky-high product liability and insurance costs drove American manufacturers out of the light airplane business in the mid-1980s and Cessna stopped producing all their single-engine planes in 1986. After President Clinton signed the General Aviation Revitalization Act in 1994, Cessna opened a new production facility in Independence, Kansas, and in 1995 a new Skyhawk took to the air for the first time.

The new 172R Skyhawk still uses Clyde Cessna's cantilever wing but there are now a couple of struts. Plus, there have been more than two hundred modifications since the first 172 was sold fifty years ago. The 172R is powered by a Textron Lycoming IO-360 L2A engine and can reach a maximum speed of 141 miles per hour. It has a range of 790 miles and can operate at a maximum altitude of 13,500 feet.

The Herpa 019200 Cessna Skyhawk is a detailed reproduction of the full-size plane. It scales out to within a few inches of exact 1/87 scale in wingspan and length and has an interior complete with dual control yokes. The Skyhawk's spring steel main landing gear are beautifully reproduced and have free-rolling wheels. There is a metal weight in the nose to allow the model to sit properly.

The model's fuselage number, N4058A, identifies the plane as a U.S.-registered aircraft but it is only a temporary number used for test, evaluation or promotional appearances. If you check out the real Cessna 172R at the Cessna website, you'll find the full-size version of the Herpa model in the product photos.

The Herpa Cessna Skyhawk is not just a nice model; it's a welcome entry into a new scale for aircraft replicas. I hope it will do well as success could inspire Herpa to make additional models. There are so many light aircraft that would look great in this scale and it's about time for model railroading's most popular scale to have first-rate small airplanes.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon


Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant working with the information technology and hobby industries. He is an associate editor for Model Railroad News and writes a monthly column on the U.S. light vehicle industry. He is a member of the 1/87 Vehicle Club and the Texas Auto Writers Association.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: July 03, 2006