Convair Civil Aviation
Convair had been formed in 1943 from the merger of Consolidated Aircraft and Vultee Aircraft corporations. It formally became a division of General Dynamics in April 1954, with plants in San Diego and Pomona, California, and in Fort Worth, Texas, following a stock purchase of the year before by John Jay Hopkins, president and chief operating officer of General Dynamics. The Convair division would operate over the next half century primarily as an independent company under the General Dynamics corporate umbrella.
General Dynamics had been formed in 1952 from the Electric Boat Company. In the two years before it acquired Convair, General Dynamics' sole aircraft manufacturing unit had been Canadair, a Canadian company. But because U.S. law prevented American aerospace contracts from being fulfilled outside the United States, General Dynamics had not been involved in the U.S. aerospace market. With the acquisition of Convair, General Dynamics could now bid on U.S. aerospace contracts, perhaps the greatest benefit of the acquisition.
Convair's first large undertaking as part of General Dynamics was the Model 880 jetliner. In the mid-1950s, the jetliner age was fast approaching and Convair lagged behind. Boeing and Douglas companies had cornered the long-range jet market, but Convair believed that the medium-range jetliner market was yet untapped. After meeting with Howard Hughes of Trans World Airlines, Convair set out to build a medium-range jetliner to meet TWA's needs. The final design was the Model 880.
The 880 was racked with problems from the start, as much to do with Hughes' meddling as anything else, and turned out to be only a few feet shorter than the Douglas DC-8, lumbering along with four large engines. Despite the plane's shortcomings, Hughes ordered 30 in June 1956. Hughes also got Convair to sign a one-year exclusive contract that effectively prohibited sales of the Model 880 to other companies even though, at the time, Hughes did not have the money to pay for the planes. This contract allowed Boeing to launch the very successful 720, which United Airlines ordered, essentially killing the 880. Finally, in December 1960, after Hughes obtained financing to pay for the 880s, the planes were delivered to TWA.
Convair also developed a bigger, more advanced version of the 880, the 990. American Airlines ordered the 990, but because it fell a few miles-per-hour short of the speed requirement, American canceled the entire order. Eventually, American relented and ordered 15 planes.
In all, only 102 Model 880/990 airplanes were ordered, and Convair's losses from the series totaled $425 million. It turned out to be the largest loss by a company up to that time in United States history, surpassing the loss by Ford on the Edsel. The 880/990 series came to be known as "The Flying Edsel."
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