The Flying Men of Marin

In 1929, Jacob Sellmer and son came up with a better way to get to San Francisco.

Great Depression
It flew, it worked as advertised, it was patented, but, during the Great Depression, J.P. Sellmer’s flivver just didn’t sell.

There he is up on the silver screen, wheeling his homebuilt flivver out of the garage for all theater-goers to see. In this 1930 newsreel story, Danish-born immigrant Jacob P. Sellmer shows a small airplane with a parasol wing positioned parallel to the fuselage. Sellmer extols his design as cheap to build and fly, and easily storable in a household’s garage. With the wing rotated 90 degrees into the flying position, the airplane takes off from a beach, flies low over the camera, and lands, engine chugging.

The flivver was Sellmer’s solution to his decade-long quest for frugal flight and an attempt to give folks in Marin County a better way to get to San Francisco. By car, the trip could take several hours, depending on the ferry schedule (the Golden Gate Bridge hadn’t yet been built); by air, the trip would take about 10 minutes.

Sellmer arrived in San Francisco in 1889, and in trying to build a new life and support his young family, spent the next two decades working as a carpet layer, upholsterer, drapery hanger, house builder, even chicken farmer. His aeronautical exploits began soon after his son, Walter, became a Marin County game warden in 1916 and told his father that if he had an airplane, he could “spoil the shot” of poachers. The senior Sellmer responded, “Son, I’ll build you one. Get me some blueprints or plans.”

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This story is a selection from the September issue of Air & Space magazine

After a year or so of trial and error, Sellmer finally got a single-seat tractor biplane to fly. It was “based on a widely known pattern used in overseas service” and powered by a 28-horsepower Lawrance engine. Walter started flying in early 1921 and used the airplane for several years in pursuit of fish and game violators.

In the course of testing Walter’s biplane, Sellmer decided to try designing his own aircraft.

The challenge was to design an airplane that fit easily inside the owner’s garage, next to the family car. After building a house in Stinson Beach, a small community just north of the Golden Gate with beaches of hard-packed sand perfect for taking off and landing an aircraft, Sellmer established Sellmer’s Sport Planes and Gliders. He completed his flivver during the final months of 1929.

The Sausalito News marveled at the low 20-mph landing speed, “something that has never before been accomplished except in a glider,” and how “aviation experts who have viewed it declare that the ‘Marvelous Marin’ man has achieved [a low landing speed] that aviation experts have been seeking since the outset of flying.”

On March 20, 1930, a Fox Movietone News crew visited Stinson Beach and shot footage of Sellmer, his son Walter, and the airplane. Fortunately, this newsreel survives today as part of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. A second reel contains outtakes and, among other unedited segments, a discussion between Walter and his dad. The scene ends with a telling statement made by the senior Sellmer: “…it takes a lot of money to do this thing, and it’s all gone. If I could get a few orders it will be all right….” Unfortunately, it was the beginning of the Great Depression, and orders didn’t materialize.

Sellmer spent the rest of his life tinkering in aviation (notably inventing what a local newspaper called a “corkscrew airplane for vertical flight”) with little success. He died in 1968, at the age of 98, with no record of ever having sold an airplane.

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