Convair began development of a medium-range commercial jet in April 1956, to compete with announced products from Boeing and Douglas. Initially the design was called the Skylark but the name was later changed to the Golden Arrow, then Convair 600 and then finally the 880, both numbers referring to its top speed (600 mph or 880 ft/s). It remains the fastest US built airliner, cruising at around Mach 0.87 powered by General Electric CJ-805-3 turbojets (a civilian version of the famous J79 turbojet). After production the FAA mandated additional instrumentation, which they added by placing a "raceway" on the top of the fuselage, rather than ripping apart the interiors over the wing area.
The first production version, the Model 22, first flew on January 27, 1959 – there was no prototype testing. The design entered service with Delta Airlines just over a year later, in May 1960, slightly modified as the 880-22m with newer version of the 805-3B engines. They were flown by Alaska, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Japan, KLM, Northeast, Swissair, TWA and VIASA. Elvis Presley's private jet was an 880. The last aircraft was withdrawn from commercial service in 1974.
As they left commercial service, many were purchased by American Jet Industries for various uses. One example was converted to freighter use in 1974, and flew until 1982 with various companies. Another was used to train FAA flight examiners until it was destroyed in a minor explosion in the cargo hold in 1995. Most of the remaining examples were scrapped in 2000.
The 880 was introduced too late to become a real player in the jetliner market, and the greater speed came at the cost of increased fuel use. The plane never became widely used and the production line shut down after only three years. General Dynamics lost around $185 million over the life-time of the project, although some sources estimate much higher losses. The aircraft was involved in 17 accidents and 5 hijackings.
A modified version of the 880 became the Convair 990 Coronado, produced in parallel between 1961 and 1963.