Traffic heading upstate from Silicon Valley can be fearsome. On a recent Friday night, a 100-mile drive to the university town of Davis, near Sacramento, took me four hours, often in six stationary lanes.

I can’t have been the only driver wishing I could soar skyward in a flying car like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with airbags and leave it all in my wake.

Apt in my case, though, as I was on my way to meet Paul Moller, a renowned aeronautical engineer on the brink of making flying cars a reality.

Lofty ambitions: Paul Moller with some of his designs, 2007.

Thing is, Moller, by his own account, has been on that brink since he formed his flying-car start-up, in 1967.

The Canadian with a Ph.D. from McGill, in Montreal, and a fine track record as an aeronautics professor at the local University of California, Davis, has received media exposure at various times over these past 53 years. But he’s 83 and, despite his continuing tech-start-up-guy optimism, has little to show beyond fading, framed magazine covers and fiberglass mock-ups of flying cars. This might all be so far, so quirky, except for a surprising positive turn that the decades-old dream of flying cars has lately taken.

One of the young engineers Moller hired in his quest, JoeBen Bevirt, has set up his own flying-car start-up, Joby Aviation, in Santa Cruz, and raised more than $700 million in funding, the latest tranche, just nine months ago, $394 million from Toyota.

I can’t have been the only driver wishing I could soar skyward in a flying car like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with airbags and leave it all in my wake.

Joby’s aircraft looks more like a manned drone than Moller’s more car-like concept does, but Bevirt has fully acknowledged Moller as his “totally crazy” mentor in Discover magazine.

Even this development might be seen as an outlier, but Joby is far from the only company pursuing the 1950s-science-fiction-comic dream, albeit more in the guise of a helicopter-like air taxi than a vertical-takeoff family plane you park in your driveway with wings folded.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times found 70 companies worldwide, from Boeing to Embraer and Airbus, working on something like Moller’s unfinished “Skycar.”

The Joby aircraft, which is currently undergoing testing.

The MIT Technology Review then ran an article listing 20 flying-car projects supposedly close to liftoff, including, surprisingly, Moller’s. Soon after that, the Volocopter, from a German company, made a two-minute manned flight in Singapore.

In August, a Japanese company, SkyDrive, performed a four-minute debut test flight of their electric-powered SD-03 vehicle. And the previous month, New Hampshire became the first U.S. state to make it legal to register a flying car or “roadable aircraft,” as they put it.

I find flying cars a textbook case of technologist obsession, an achievable idea, lovely, but child-like and devoid of common sense. It’s impossible to imagine any country allowing them, let alone finding more than a few daredevils prepared to ride in one.

Even the world’s premier transportation disrupter, Elon Musk, who would doubtless be into flying cars if he wanted to be, scorns the idea. “You want a flying car? O.K., but what about everyone around you has one, too? That doesn’t sound so good,” he has said. “That is not an anxiety-reducing situation.”

Paul Moller, a gruff, clearly intelligent, if heroically unrealistic, farmer’s son, dismisses such skepticism as we tour his sizable industrial-unit premises, which even have a full-scale wind tunnel.

On the surely nightmarish prospect of suburban dads, moms, and, God help us, teenagers simply crashing into one another hundreds of feet up, he talks about carefully organized layers of flying cars and regulated commuter routes along with algorithmic and radar measures to keep craft apart.

Like you’re riding on air: a test of the M200X Skycar in Davis, California, 1989.

“Put all the cars in America in the sky, they’ll still be two miles apart,” he says. “Unused air is an incredible natural resource. We already have driverless cars on the streets, and that’s an environment an order of magnitude more complicated than the sky.”

He is scornful of all-electric flying cars—he proposes electric motors for takeoff, then switching to tiny, methanol-fueled Wankel rotary engines, which he has built. (Wankel is an unusual German engine design from the 1950s that is occasionally used in cars; it offers an exceptional power-to-weight ratio.)

Moller regards most of his younger competitors, apart from his protégé Bevirt and Volocopter, as “completely stupid, bullshit. They’re idiots.”

But his confidence falters as I ask, as we are leaving, when he sees flying cars really happening. “Maybe … 2075,” he says, before roaring off in a sporty BMW almost fast enough to fly without wings.

I drive away regarding, sadly, the flying-car idea to be even less plausible than I did hours earlier.

Yet when I get back to New York, my seven-year-old granddaughter comes bounding up with a children’s magazine, Scholastic News. “Look at this cool car,” she says, eyes gleaming.

The cover story, “Life in 100 years,” is illustrated with a mock-up of the Moller Skycar. “This is a picture of a flying car that people are building,” reads the caption.

Moller’s aging design and concept are still embedded, it seems, as most people’s fantasy of the future.

Jonathan Margolis lives and drives in London