The Glorious Insanity of Turbonique
[ed. note: Brian Bounds over at the Garage Magazine site has posted my Garage #14 article on the legend of C. Eugene Middlebrooks and his Turbonique Company of Orlando, Florida, which I have reposted in its entirety below. For more automotive insanity drop by the Garage site and keep scrolling.]
Most of us have, at one time or another, heard the old urban legend about a friend of an uncle of a friend of a cousin of a guy who stole a JATO rocket motor from an Air Force base, strapped it atop a Chevy Impala, and torpedoed the contraption into an Arizona cliff side at 300 mph. There’s an intense primordial appeal in that story; the idea that somebody would have the unmitigated, glorious, throbbing balls to try something so foolhardy in the pursuit of momentary thrill. The anonymous guy behind the wheel of that Impala is our modern-day Icarus, the fabled Greek of old who fashioned wings of feathers and wax only to have them melt when he flew too close to the sun. Sure, we cringe at the thought of Icarus plummeting to the sea and the Impala pilot spackled across the rock facing. But we equally envy them for their courage and ingenuity and hubris, and the rush we imagine they felt in the seconds before final climactic catastrophe.
Sadly, like the ancient fable of Icarus, the JATO story isn’t exactly true. After a thorough investigation, the mythbusting website Snopes.com concluded that the events never actually happened: “the legend of the smoldering Chevy smashed into a cliff face is pure fabrication,” it sniffs. Maybe so. But like all good yarns the JATO legend has a grain of truth, and the unvarnished truth is this: men once did strap rocket motors to their cars, and they were cheerfully supplied by the Turbonique Company of Orlando, Florida.
Though the company no longer exists, mere mention of the name “Turbonique” still inspires shudders of awe among drag racing enthusiast, the company’s principle target market. Even in the Wild West atmosphere of 1960s drag racing, its products stood alone at the zenith of no-compromise, crazyass crazy: rocket motivation for strip or street, by mail order, no questions asked. Remember Acme, that mysterious purveyor of catapults and jet skates to cartoon coyotes? Pikers, compared to Turbonique.
The architect of Turbonique’s madness was Mr. C. E. “Gene” Middlebrooks Jr. A native of Jonesboro, Georgia, Gene Middlebrooks went on to study mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. “A damn fine ME,” recalls a former colleague who requested anonymity. “He had an innovative mind and could solve just about any mechanical problem.”
He was also in the right place at the right time. When Middlebrooks graduated college in the duck-and-cover days of the mid-‘50s, the Cold War was in full swing. He landed a job with aerospace contractor Martin-Marietta, working on the company’s propulsion system for the Pershing nuclear missile program. By 1957 the Soviets shocked the world with the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, sparking the Space Race and lending even more urgency to Middlebrooks’ work at Martin.