Who Invented the Rocket Car?
On March 15, 1928, Kurt Volkhart stepped into an Opel car for what would be a most unusual drive. The engine had been removed from the vehicle and replaced with solid-fuel rockets at the rear.
The rockets were lit, and the vehicle screamed down the track at a top speed of 47 miles per hour (75 km/h). Volkhart had made history by driving the first rocket car in history.
This vehicle was the first in a series of rocket cars produced by auto magnate Fritz von Opel during the late 1920s. Working with early rocket pioneers Max Valier and Friedrich Wilhelm Sander, he developed rocket-powered vehicles for use in a series of publicity stunts for the Opel automobile company.
Early rocket pioneer Max Valier in a rocket-powered car bearing his name
Valier was a leading expert in the emerging field of rocketry and one of the founders of the Society of Space Travel, a group that included Wernher von Braun. Sander was a producer of signal rockets whom Valier had approached.
The designers gradually increased the number of engines in their rocket cars from six to eight to 12 to 24. Opel was at the wheel of the Opel-RAK 2 on May 23, 1928, speeding down a track in Berlin at 143 mph (230 km/p). The vehicle was powered by 24 solid-fuel rockets and was fitted with short inverse wings that held it to the ground.
Opel didn't confine his rocket adventures to automobiles. The car magnate put rockets on rail vehicles and aircraft, with decidedly mixed success. Opel lost interest in these stunts after they had served their purpose of promoting the car company.
Valier continued on with the work. He led the development of a new liquid-fuel engine that had its first successful testing firing on January 25, 1930. Three months later, on April 19, 1930, Valier completed the first successful drive of the Valier-Heylandt Rak 7, the first rocket car powered by liquid propulsion.
Valier never got to continue his work; a month later, he was killed when a rocket he was testing exploded. The excitement over rocket cars began to die out. They were interesting to watch as stunts, but their high speeds and the rapid burnouts of the rockets meant they had few practical applications.
Rocket cars were left largely to hobbyists who used them in drag racing and to set ground speed records. On Oct. 23, 1970, Gary Gabelich set a world speed record in the Blue Flame rocket car, racing across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah at more than 631 mph (1,015 km/hr). His record would stand for 27 years.
In 1970, Gary Gabelich set a world speed record in the Blue Flame.
In 1977, stuntwoman Kitty O'Neil piloted a rocket dragster built by Ky Michaelson to the fastest quarter mile elapsed time in history, covering the distance in 3.22 seconds at a top speed of 396 mph (637 km/h).
The use of rocket cars in drag racing has ended in the United States due to the high cost of hydrogen propellants and safety concerns. However, rockets dragsters continued to be used in several locations in Europe.
Links for Rocket Cars