The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car




One aspect of the Rocket Car legend that always tickles me is that no matter how much the story varies, the make, model and year of the car is always specified. Sure this is a nice detail to have on hand, but considering the details left out of the description, it looks… sorta silly. In the Darwin Award version, there’s no mention of which highway the car was on, or even whereabouts in Arizona the story took place. And Arizona is a pretty big place. There’s also no mention of any investigation that took place afterwards. But despite all these oversights, the story did specify that the car was a 1967 Chevy Impala. I think the reason this detail is always supplied is because it’s critical to make the listener think the test pilot at least looked cool when he flew into the cliff. You’ll never hear someone tell a story about a guy in a rocket-powered K-car or a Volkswagen Beetle. It has to be a car that deserves to have a rocket attached to it.

In the case of our Rocket Car, we gave some serious thought to not even using a car body. As soon as we got back to the scrapyard, Beck wanted to weld one of the JATO’s to a bucket car, stick the car on a track, and light the rocket. He was doubtless the craziest member of Team Rocket Car, and if I’d been willing to go along with his idea, I have no doubt he’d have climbed in and lit the fuse himself. Fortunately, they were my JATOs, so I had veto power over all the dumb ideas. Or at least the real dumb ones. Of course sticking a JATO on a bucket car was out of the question, but building a simple platform on a bucket-car base with a car seat bolted onto it sounded like the easiest way to build a rocket sled. Actually, this is pretty much what the NASA rocket sleds looked like. But this arrangement would mean that each run would be limited to a single passenger, and I only had four JATO’s. When Jimmy and I discussed the details of the project, he seemed pretty confident that the thrust from the rocket would be enough to push a four-passenger car at a reasonable speed. And if we used a car body, we’d have a windshield, doors, and some degree of protection if anything went wrong. Granted, a car body wouldn’t do us much good if we hit something (like a canyon wall) at jet-fighter speed, but it was better than wiping out in a director’s chair at 300 miles per hour.

Despite Beck’s impatience, I got started building the Rocket Car the next day.

Our car wasn’t a 1967 Chevy Impala, but a 1959 Chevy Impala. A bone-white Impala, with a red interior. I know how bizarre that sounds, but once a story starts to mutate into a legend, there’s no telling which parts of the truth will stick. Obviously the Chevy Impala part made the cut.

We didn’t choose the `59 Impala for its aerodynamics or structural qualities, but because one was available. My father happened to have one, resting on cinderblocks, in a forgotten corner of his lot. Engine, transmission and wheels were all missing, sold to Jimmy’s father at some point. The only reason this car was otherwise intact was that Chevrolet only used the 1959 style for a single year, which meant the body parts would only be usable on another 1959 Impala. This particular car was obscure enough so that once the mechanical parts were stripped, it was pretty much useless. And this is why what was left of my Dad’s `59 Impala was left to decay in a field.

Fortunately, the leftovers were all that we needed.

Cutting the bodies from the bucket cars was a chore, but not as bad as I expected. The thin metal of the buckets was rusted to tatters in spots, so burning through it was fairly easy. But despite this, I still used almost an entire tank of oxy getting the bodies cut away from the bases, and I knew my Dad would be suspicious when he found I’d used all the oxygen in an almost- full tank. Luckily, Jimmy was able to help out in that department. When I told him about my predicament the following weekend, he simply took my empty oxygen cylinder and swapped it with one of the dozen or so his Dad kept on hand at his body shop. My father might notice if a brand new tank of oxygen were suddenly empty, but Jimmy’s Dad’s shop used so much gas he’d never know the difference.

Attaching the cut-away rail car bases to the Chevy frame was pretty easy too. Jimmy stressed the importance of getting the two sets of wheels precisely aligned, but it wasn’t that hard. The old Chevy frame had plenty of places for bolts and welds, so picking spots where the wheels would line up was a snap. And since the Impala was already up on blocks, it was no problem to slide the wheel frames underneath and lift them into place with a floor jack, then weld away. I’m sure that these days my students would laugh like hell at the thought of me laying underneath a car with an oxyacetylene torch in my hand, but the fact is, I learned how to draw a bead and cut metal when I was 14 or 15 years old. Growing up around a scrapyard did have certain advantages, and learning how to work with a torch was one of them. So aligning the wheel frames and welding them to the car was a fairly straightforward process.

The propulsion unit (hah!) consisted of a five-foot length of steel water pipe, welded to both the rear bucket car and the Chevy’s frame. This might sound like overkill, but at the time I had no idea how much thrust to expect from the JATO bottle, so it seemed best to err on the side of caution. I plugged the end of the pipe facing the front of the car with a slug of scrap steel and welded it into place, and even cut the center out of a threaded cap to screw onto the exhaust end to hold the JATO bottle securely once it was installed. The end-cap seemed like a good idea while I was doing it, but Jimmy laughed like hell when he came in the following weekend and saw my handiwork. He pointed at the steel cap, and said “That rocket is gonna be pushing against the car hard enough to make it fly like a bullet, and you’re afraid it’ll fall out the BACK end?”

What can I say? This is one of the reasons Jimmy was doing all the brainwork.

Unfortunately, his critique wasn’t only limited to the job I did on the “propulsion unit”. He also asked how I planned to stop the thing once the ride was over, and I had to admit that I didn’t have the slightest idea.

Next: “Tough Brakes”

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