The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car

By CARINTHECLIFF 12/23/1998-#363 version 11/7/06


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: If you have any questions or feedback about this whole thing (or if you just want to compliment me on my fine drafting skills), please leave a comment at the end of the story. I only ask that you be gentle. If you piss me off, I’ll end up taking it out on my wife, kids or students, and I know you don’t want that on your conscience.




The first thing you should know about the legend of the Rocket Car (especially if you got the story via E-mail or the Web) is that it’s been around a lot longer than most people think. It started years ago, as a vague rumor passed from one guy to the next by word of mouth, usually in bars or during lunch-break bullshit sessions. The kind of story someone hears from a friend who read it in a magazine, or a half-remembered newspaper story that someone read a long time ago. It’s a story that comes out of nowhere, gets passed around for awhile, then dies out, like one of those weird strains of flu that keep coming back every few years. The period of dormancy varies, but whenever the story springs back to life, it seems to spread like a grass fire. I used to think it was funny how the legend of the Rocket Car managed to spread so far (and fast) purely by word-of-mouth, but now that it’s become a subject of Internet interest, its popularity has become downright spooky.

If you’ve never heard the legend before (in which case I can’t imagine why you’d be reading this), here’s the bare bones of it: Once upon a time, in some out-of-the way part of the country (take your pick of locations) a maniac took a rocket of some sort, and mounted it on the back of a car (make and model depend on automotive trends when the story is told). The maniac then sped down a deserted stretch of highway, and when he reached an appropriate spot, he lit the rocket. Unfortunately, the rocket (which was either a JATO bottle, a surplus ICBM engine, or an experimental Shuttle booster) proved to be far more powerful than the maniac anticipated. The car reached an incredible speed in a matter of seconds (somewhere between 150 miles per hour and Warp 9) at which point the car’s brakes and steering became… ineffective. This development would’ve been bad enough on a straightaway, but through some error in planning or navigation, the maniac found himself hurtling down a road that curved sharply, not far from where he ignited the rocket. When the car arrived at the curve, it went straight ahead instead of negotiating the turn. Pilot and car then flew like an arrow (for a distance only limited by the imagination of the person telling the story), before crashing into an inconveniently-placed mountainside.


I’m sure this sounds pretty ridiculous if it’s the first time you’ve heard the Legend of the Rocket Car, but that’s because I didn’t go out of my way to make it sound good. Most people do try to make it sound convincing, embellishing the story with all sorts of little facts and details to make it easier to swallow. I’ve personally heard a dozen versions of this story over the past 20 years, and I’m constantly amazed at how the story grows, shrinks, and generally mutates with each retelling. Maybe I notice these changes more than most people because I’ve always paid close attention to this particular rumor. Oh, I’m not a car expert or an aerospace engineer or anything, and I really don’t have much interest in urban legends. Even if I did, from an intellectual point of view, this story isn’t as entertaining as some of the others that have come and gone. The one about McDonalds shoveling worms into the grinders that produce Big Macs, for instance, beats it by a mile. I only pay attention to the Rocket Car legend because I’m 99% sure that I started the whole thing in the spring of 1978.

Not intentionally, of course.

Now, before you draw any conclusions, I don’t want you to get the impression that I, myself, claim to be the maniac who drove the Rocket Car into the wild blue yonder. I said I was probably responsible for the rumor, not that I actually performed the test flight. As far as I know, the flight in question never happened. Like all legends, the root of the story might be true (or partially true), but once the tale started circulating, the root was lost in the embellishments. If the Legend of the Rocket Car survives, my great-grandchildren will probably end up talking about a guy from Lunartown who nailed an anti-matter pod onto an old Apollo moon-rover and flew into the side of Tycho Crater.

That’s how it goes with legends.

Like I said, I’m not a rocket scientist or motorhead. I don’t even KNOW any rocket scientists or motorheads. I’m a high-school biology teacher. I know, this must sound like I’m the most unqualified person in the world to give opinions about things like jet-propelled cars, but I wasn’t always a biology teacher. The fact that I’m a biology teacher today is only relevant to the extent that it’s responsible for my writing this story down.

2 Responses to The Legend of The JATO-Powered Rocket Car

  1. Chris says:

    fantastic! as a former small town boy with energy to burn i can relate 100%.

    if you’re ever bored i can send you a story not as involved but equally amusing in its underlying theme of ‘boys will be boys’

    enjoy life!

  2. dave donovan says:

    Sure, feel free to post it.

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