Once upon a time in the postwar, before the advent of EPA and OSHA and the Consumer Products Safety Commission and weenies in bike helmets and multilingual warning stickers on stepladders, crazy people walked this earth. Good, fun-loving Americans who knew that "instructions" were something you threw in the trash along with the empty Falstaff bottles. A halcyon era filled with manly men who savored the wholesome virtues of a rugged game of un-seatbelted automotive chicken.
Where did they all go? Perhaps it was the feminization of culture, or the rise of litigation, or the cumulative toll of various maimings. All I know is that entire industries were once devoted to sating their demand: tether lawn mowers. Home blowtorches and 110 electric welders. Oly party balls. And for the kids, Jarts and clackers and Thing Makers and M-80s. But there is one name that stands alone at the apex of the daredevilry supply industry: the Turbonique Company of Orlando, Florida.
Though the company no longer exists, mere mention of the name "Turbonique" still inspires a shudder of awe among drag racing enthusiast, the company's principle target market. Even in the Wild West atmosphere of 1960s drag racing, Its products represented the zenith of no-compromise, crazyass crazy. Recall Acme, that enigmatic mail order purveyor of catapults and jet skates to cartoon coyotes? Pikers, compared to Turbonique.
As best as I can determine, Turbonique Inc. was established in Orlando in 1962, reportedly an offshoot of a NASA space program subcontractor who was determined to establish a consumer market for rocket technology. Its founder was a Mr. Gene Middlebrooks, about whom I can find little information except a 1969 book reference. Turbonique's product line consisted of three items: "AP superchargers," "rocket drag axles," and the legendary "microturbo thrust engines." All employed the same basic rocket technology, albeit in stepped grades of insanity.
At the mild end of the Turbonique product line were its AP (for "Auxiliary Power") superchargers, so named because they had their own power supply. Unlike regular superchargers (driven by a crank pulley belt) or turbos (driven by exhaust pressure), Turbonique AP superchargers operated independently of the engine and scavenged no power from it. They appeared to be a spiral turbo with a spark plug, and were engaged with a dash-mounted switch - a sort of prehistoric Nitrous setup. When the driver threw the switch, the supercharger unit would receive liquid oxygen for ignition, and then it was fed a rocket fuel named Thermolene -Turbonique's trade name for N-propyl nitrate. The exhaust thrust from combustion would spin a turbine impeller up to 100,000 RPM, ramming the engine with such intense boost that it essentially turned it into a giant two-stroke. Turbonique dyno-tested an AP unit on new Chevy 409 in 1963, increasing horsepower from a stock 405 to 835 -- backing up their advertised guarantee to "double your horsepower" -- although it came with a recommendation not to run the unit for more than 5 minutes and only with forged cranks, pistons and connecting rods.
Here are a few photos of Turbonique AP blowers from the company's 1966 catalog. (note "safety" cord. Heh.)
"He's scorching Western dragstrips with his turbonique AP supercharger installations. He's Dr. Gerald R. Guest of Phoenix, Arizona, who turned 146 mph in 10.21 E.T. in his turbonique blown '63 Plymouth"
So whatever became of this enigmatic drag racing physician? I really would like to know, but I have absolutely no idea. But more about him soon.
For those interested in upgraded insanity there was the Turbonique Drag Axle, which appeared to be a center section for a quick change differential - but with a mutant spaceship tumor growing from its hinder. That tumor was, in fact, a rocket engine providing direct drive to the rear axle. When not in use, the car would drive under conventional power through the front drive shaft. When the driver hit the "panic button," the rear mounted rocket would immediately engage and begin channeling One Thousand Three Hundred Thermolene-addled rocket horsepower to the rear skins. All this despite weighing a scant 100 pounds. It was advised that the driver keep his thumb on the switch during operation since, having no clutch or fuel metering, the only way to control acceleration was by shutting off the fuel supply.
What kind of nutjob would put one on his car? Quite a few as it turns out. I previously mentioned Roy Drew, the African American racer who defeated Tommy Ivo's "Showboat" with his Turbonique-sponsored Black Widow drag axle Volkswagen. Here's the catalog shot of the showdown, with the Bug clocking 9.36 ET at 168 mph.
Okay, so rocket superchargers and drag axles are all well and good, but what if you really needed undiluted, industrial-grade insane? You'd be in luck, because also Turbonique provided microturbo thrust engines. Not rocket powered superchargers, or rocket powered axles, but rocket-powered rockets - pure thrust engines for horizontal speed.
Note the page caption, "AUTO JATO,'" and the following:
"The same type JATO (Jet Assisted Takeoff) kits that give aircraft short term, super performance is also applicable to automotive use."
Most of us have, at one time or another, heard the urban legend about the friend of a friend of a friend who stole a JATO motor from an Air Force base, strapped it on an Impala and ran it into a cliff side at 300 mph. If you've ever wondered where that story originally came from, here you go.
Still, even with a rocket there's a lot of weight and inertia involved in moving a large hunk of Detroit steel down a race track. That's why many discerning folks opted for the ne plus ultra of Turbonique insanity: ROCKET THRUST GO KARTS.
If you read closely in the left image you'll see quarter mile time slips in the mid-8.8s with speeds up to 160 mph. You will also see a small photo of our friend Dr. Gerald R. Guest piloting his Turbonique rocket kart, apparently to shake the empty ennui of too many 146 mph passes in a boring Plymouth. On the right, nota bene:
"TOO MUCH: The above cart, which is equipped with T-21-A engines, is considered unsafe for 1/4 mile competition as pictured. The thrust/weight ratio is such that speeds over 160 mph are reached within 4 seconds."
Turbonique, the company where safety comes first!. Such pleas for moderation fell on the deaf ears of "Captain Jack" McClurg, who eventually coaxed his Turbonique kart to over 240 mph in the early 1970s.
But hey, why stop at the drag strip? The fine folks at Turbonique provide all kinds of helpful application suggestions -- rocket propelled boats, snowmobiles, motorcycles, hovermobiles, and my favorite, the unshielded rocket turbine prop go kart:
Good for going fast, and for chopping that unsightly underbrush! Speaking of motorcycles, the '66 Turbonique catalog features this product endorsement story from an up-and-coming Montana daredevil:
"Motorcycle Daredevil Evel Knievel plans to soon jump the Grand Canyon with his Turbonique equipped, "Norton Atlas Scrambler." Many of you may have heard Evel outline his plans for the Canyon jump on the Joe Pine Radio/TV show. Evel is dead serious in his plans for the Canyon jump. He is sponsored by Goodyear Rubber Company and several other large firms. Arrangements must be made for the Canyon jump with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo Chief Raymond Hokai, and the U.S. Forestry Service. Knievel plans to make the jump next summer, and has both Montana's Senators Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf trying to clear the way for him. He's also contacting Arizona's Senators and Representatives."
Chew on that last piece and contrast with our current state of Federal Nannydom. Not only did people do crazy shit back then; actual U.S. Senators cheerfully pitched in to help them do crazy shit.
Those days are long gone. Turbonique seems to have ceased operation around 1969. Original Turbonique equipment is extremely difficult to find, in part due to their extreme heavy duty use, and possibly because of deliberate destruction to avoid liability judgments. Details are sketchy, but I've heard various stories that the company folded after a series of customer explosions/accidents/deaths and the subsequent lawsuits. Even more depressing: Turbonique's "Thermolene" trademark lapsed, and is now a brand of weight loss pill.
Evel Knievel never got permission to do the Grand Canyon jump; eight years and a hundred broken bones later, Evel Knievel made a disastrous jump attempt at the Snake River Canyon. Would he have made it on the Turbonique Norton Atlas Scrambler? We will never know. His ride that day was the "X-2 Skycycle" designed by NASA engineer Bob Truax, whom Knievel would later call "an egotistical little bastard who burned up Gus Grissom on the launch pad." But that's another story.
That 1974 failure at Snake River Canyon seemed to presage a new era in the American psychological zeitgeist; the rise of safety fetishism, that patronizing nerf-ication of anything sharp or dangerous or cool. Crazy guys eventually discovered an even more destructive device than rocket powered go karts: class action attorneys. In my mind, it was the single event that ushered in the long cold Carter winter.
Will it ever get back to the way it was? I don't know, but I'm an optimistic sort. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon this:
That there is a complete vintage Turbonique C-2-A rocket supercharger. It's out in my shop now, where I am beginning a careful restoration, and keeping my eye open for a worthy car project to use it on.
Does anybody know where I can get a canister of N-propyl nitrate?