PAN-AM'S ROCKET CAR
Part 2 of two articles on faux "rocket cars" of the 1930s. For Part 1, click here.
You'd catch 'em surfin' at Del Mar
Ventura County line
Santa Cruz and Trestle
All over Manhattan
And down Doheny Way
Everybody's gone surfin'
The Doheny name is part of L.A. lore. Doheny State Beach was the first state beach, given to the state by old Edward Doheny, the oil baron. Upton Sinclair novelized him in Oil!, after he got implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal that ruined Warren G. Harding's presidency. A little something called There Will Be Blood, nominated for a mere eight Academy Awards, was made from the book. Doheny Drive, the western end of the Sunset Strip, is lined by million dollar houses in Beverly Hills.
Only historians remember than Doheny's company was called Pan American Petroleum, mostly because after he started the oil boom in L.A. he found an even bigger strike in Mexico. Doheny's Pan-Am gas stations could be found across the southern half of the country all the way to the east coast. (A later merger brought some to the northeast as well.) Doheny's oil company came first, even if the name became overshadowed by Pan American World Airways.
As with all businesses, Pan-Am struggled during the Depression and sought gimmicks to bring in customers, with parades and personal appearances a guaranteed crowd-pleaser when cheap entertainment was a hugely prized commodity. In May 1934, towns in the South starting seeing teaser ads for something new, spectacular, and above all futuristic.
The Murfreesboro [TN] Daily News-Journal printed a press release on the Pan-Am Rocket Car on the front page. Hate to disillusion those of you who think that newspapers print only their own stuff or that standards were much higher in the past than they are today, but a gigantic percentage of what passed for news were press releases in disguise. Same for most of the photos printed. Pan-Am was kind enough to pass along a suitably mysterious image of the bomb-shaped vehicle.
A 1960 automobile built on revolutionary lines will parade the streets of Murfreesboro on May 21, it was announced yesterday by T. J. Dement, agent for Pan American Petroleum Corporation in this territory.
Details of the car are so amazing that they are yet shrouded in mystery, according to Mr. Dement, who said: "The Pan-Am 1960 Rocket Car has been named the "Mars Express" and follows the extreme streamlining style of the cars that will travel on land or through the air at unbelievable speeds."
With the Pan-Am car there will be the sensational "Man from Mars" depicting the type of visitor we may expect when similar rocket cars travel between the planets.
Pan-Am didn't wait long to dispel its shroud of mystery. The next day's paper printed another obvious press release that detailed the wonders of the car. The text is riddled with dropped words, added letters, and typos. Drop in as many sic's as you feel are necessary.
"This Rocket car known as the 'Mars Express' follows scientific forecasts of 50 years in the future. It is educational, it is entertaining. The immense crowds that have gathered to see it everywhere have unanimously claimed it as one of the most sensational features in many a year.
"The car's complete streamline effect will help to make possible the unbelievable speeds of the future - speed of 1000 and more miles and hour.
"To eliminate useless weight, while having essential strength, the car has an aluminum body, painted copper. Its over-all length is 20 feet, width 7 feet, height 6 feet.
"The Rocket car has powerful radio, two loudspeakers and microphone. On the dashboard, ahead of the driver's seat is a planetary map ... a well-known artists fanciful idea of the heavens.
"The cabin is beautifully finished in fine tan leather. Here you see the control board, with strange instruments predicted for Rocket car tours - switches for humidimeter, velocimeter, disintegrator ray and oxygen tanks.
"Pan-Am is the first to build an actual practical car following Rocket car lines. Look to Pan-Am for leadership always! Pan-Am plans now for the highly advanced motors of the future. And when you drive a Rocket car Pan-Am will lead with the right gasoline. Just as today, the right gasoline is orange Pan-Am."
After you retrieve your jaw from the floor at the thought that the car of 1960 will carry a disintegrator ray as standard equipment, other questions might food your brain. Like, what's a humidimeter? I don't know. Orange gasoline? That I can answer: another gimmick. Many gas pumps of the day had clear compartments through which the buyer could see the product. Pan-Am colored its gas with orange dye to make it stand out. The big promotional feature was the anti-knock additive ethyl. Ethyl was short for tetraethyl lead. In the future, cars would run on leaded gasoline! In truth, leaded gas wasn't anything new; it just cost more as premium does today. Pan-Am's ad campaign hammered home the distinction that its orange gasoline wouldn't cost even a penny extra over its older purple or green gasolines. Although these pumps are for motor oil rather than for gas, they give a good idea of a Pan-Am filling station of the day.
Pan-Am immediately began a promotional campaign in 1933 to associate its new, wonderful, futuristic gas with the car of the future. It's first stab was a "bullet-car" of 1940, built on a teardrop design that was all the current rage in streamline designs.
1940 must not have seemed sufficiently futuristic because Pan-Am quickly rolled out the "Amazing Car of 1962," a fabulous tri-beast, a car, a plane, and a boat.
Unlike the bullet car, this future car was real, or at least real enough to drive in a parade.
I wouldn't drive that auto-boat-plane into a lake, and it certainly wouldn't lift in to the air "extreme" streamlining or not, but it did its job of getting attention - especially when DeSoto introduced its Airflow streamlined car only a few days later. Pairing this car with a 1902 Cadillac was a nice touch. Anybody could see the incredible development of the automobile over a mere thirty years, making feasible virtually any conception of the auto of thirty years hence.
Pan-Am preceded and followed its car of 1962 with a series of ads imaginatively playing with the future of transportation. Oddly, the ads never ranged out as far as 1962, but each was striking and considerably more eye-catching than virtually any other ad in the papers, so much so that it's a shame they were run only in a few, mostly smaller, southern towns.
The Dymaxion car was Buckminster Fuller's latest brainstorm. Its streamlined, teardrop shape undoubtedly influenced the Mars Express and other "rocket cars" in 1933 and 1934, like the one below seen in restored condition. Indy car builder "Pop" Dryer created it for Chicago Ford dealer Don Hulbert, hence the name, although it qualified only as an alternate in the 1934 Indianapolis 500 and didn't make the race. A dead ringer for the Mars Express, the two cars are so close together in time that, given the lengthy construction period, they must have been drawing upon the same earlier design.
And here it is. Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes' Model Car #9 of 1933. Called the father of streamlining, he put streamlined designs on everything from tanks to toasters. In parallel with Raymond Loewy, he also played a large role at the 1939 New York World's Fair, creating the famed Futurama display.
After those glimpses into 1940 and 1948, the Pan-Am ads moved to 1950 and then 1960, not stopping until the Mars Express campaign began.
Circular airfields were seriously proposed in the 1930s to enable planes to land in the middle of cities, on the model of train stations sited at the centers of populations. Since the era's small airplanes needed little more than a couple of driveways' length to land, the proposal made marginally more sense at the time than it does today. Some of the fanciful collection of aircraft on the spiral seem intended to have vertical takeoff a la helicopters, which required even smaller landing fields.
The future of 1960, full of the streamlined cars forecast in the 1930s.
Does an electric eye and those right-packed bullet cars streaking at more than 100 mph imply that they are self-driving? Probably. That's a fine extrapolation for 1934.
The campaign ended with a real rocket - or a 1934 approximation of one - "touring in the stratosphere." Rockets were the ultimate future. In the meantime, Pam-Am's promotional department must have realized the future could be brought literally to earth with a rocket car.
Ads and artistic speculation tantalized without gratification. Seeing, touching, breathing the orange gasoline fumes from a real car of the future not only affected more senses but made the future tangible. The clunky auto-boat-plane of 1933 gave way to the sleek Mars Express of 1934.
The rocket ad above ran in the Shreveport, LA, Times the same day that the first ad inviting locals to come out and see the Pan-Am Rocket Car ran in the Anniston, AL, Star, May 5, 1934, the two campaigns overlapping in time but not in space, since those two towns were 500 miles apart. The Mars Express appeared next in Nashville, TN, the site of the only press, rather than publicity, photo I can find.
While the Rocket Car visited dozens of cities and towns and got their local newspapers to print the press releases and advance photos, the parade itself must have been a terrible anticlimax. Not a single paper ever bothered to run a follow-up article. We don't know what kind of motor the Mars Express had or what speeds it was capable of in actuality. Nobody asked how a car from 1960 could follow scientific principles 50 years in the future from 1934. No paper ever printed that picture of the unique control board. or answered how the driver worked the disintegrator ray. Who or what was the "Man from Mars"? A guy in a costume? A puppet? A robot? No picture ever ran. The closest we got was this cartoon.
Even the "Inter-Planetary Road Map," sometimes called the "Road Map to Mars" would have made a great picture and an even greater collectible. No contemporary paper bothered with it.
Ah, but sometimes newspapers look back at the past. The Murfreesboro Daily News-Journal was still being printed in 2006 when it resurrected that magnificent day in 1934.
There's the "Inter-Planetary Road Map" in the lower right corner. A nice astronomical, but it's not clear whether the driver needs to turn right or left at the moon.
The Mars Express spent the summer in the south, with the last mention of it I can find putting it in Shreveport in August. Pan-Am treated Shreveport in late July to the last of its cars of 1960 ads, filled with a bevy of assorted flying cars in all their glory.
No explanation ever appeared for retiring the Mars Express. Maybe the Man from Mars got homesick and left. The car disappeared from ads and small town parades. Tying Pan-Am gas to the future must have worked better, for another set of ads appeared in February 1935 in the same small southern towns.
All of them had the title "Science is bringing us AMAZING IMPROVEMENTS". Science had an aura around it during the Depression that apotheosized it as the coming savoir of Americans from their lowest point. The motto of the 1933-34 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition was "Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms," science as the new, albeit somewhat fascistic, religion. The science, meaning technology, that had gifted Americans with electricity, radio, telephones, automobiles and airplanes, and leaded gasoline held out a promise of riches in the afterlife, i.e. the future after the Depression was conquered. Tying Orange Pan-Am gasoline to the miraculous scientific future as a whole should have been a step up from touting mere streamlined cars.
Unfortunately the new series of ads came across as far less imaginative and enticing as the earlier ones. Each struck the same note of near-future streamlined transportation and were so alike they appeared to be the same template with boats swapped out for cars, a Mr. Potato Head of ads. They ran for only two months.
Pan-Am gave up its themed ad campaigns after that and almost all the gimmick cars, except for one that made a brief appearance in 1938.
Three hidden loudspeakers broadcast a recorded spiel on a hidden five-minute phonograph record, telling motorists how to get the most out of their cars - by using Pan-Am gas, oil, and lubrication, of course.
Pan-Am probably gave up its visions of glitzy futures because its present was so dismal. Remember Doheny? The government did. After more than a decade in court, the Feds levied an incredible $5,000,000 (think of $500,000,000 today) claim against the Doheny estate for its part in the Teapot Dome scandal. Pan-Am, already in receivership, had to merge with the Richfield Oil Company in 1936 to survive. In 1954, that company merged with Standard Oil of Indiana to form the American Oil Company, or Amoco, which in 1998 merged with British Petroleum. Pan-Am as a brand vanished a long time ago.
Here's the weird thing. The Mars Express had a second act, independent of Pan-Am. What's truly weird is that somebody claimed to have built it himself. (The original car was credited to automobile body builders the Briggs Brothers.)
The "new" Mars Express pops up in 1936 at - I'm not making this up - "The Frolic of the Rabbits" in Petaluma CA (where it was called the Golden Glow "rocket" car because Golden West Brewery hired the car to promote its Golden Glow Stout beer) and the Donkey Ball competition in Twin Falls, ID.
(Donkey ball was played all over the country, usually for charity, as a variant on softball but with all the players riding donkeys. Essentially, the goofier the players looked the louder the audience laughed and the more they emptied their pockets.)
According to a press release, the donkey ball events were to be graced by "Peter A. Vacca, French and English World war ace, with his car "Mars Express," said to have been used in the movie production of H. G. Wells' 'Things to Come'."
Two weeks later, Vacca was in Utah for Ogden's Pioneer Days. The Mars Express' achievements had grown in that time. It set a speed record of 150 mph at the Bonneville salt flats. Vacca didn't pick up the car in some junkyard. "The automobile was constructed for Mr. Vacca in Detroit at a reported cost of $10,538..."
Two years later he was still exhibiting the car. Sure enough, it's Pan-Am's Mars Express to the last porthole.
Some of the claims have changed. It's top speed had been reduced to a mere 115 mph, but its cost zoomed up to $16,000. Perhaps Vacca couldn't remember what lies he told in 1936. (Spelling his name Vacco instead of Vacca is probably the wireservice's error.) Vacca's last moment of glory came in the February 1939 Popular Science magazine, where the bullet car now sprouted a radio mast and booster rockets.
And that still wasn't the end. On Hemmings.com/Blog, dedicated to old car enthusiasts, several buffs provided pictures and information on the Mars Express, including the Golden Glow image above. Automotive historian Bob Cunningham reported that the car was made part of the Russell Brothers circus from 1939 to 1942. The Russell Brothers were headquartered in Missouri and this picture from 1940 shows what looks like a Missouri license plate, say commenters there. Oddly, the picture was taken in Falls River, MA, a long trip for a local circus.
A 1941 article in the Alexandria, LA, Town Talk, a paper that ran all the Pan-Am future car ads, mentions "the distinctive Russell Brothers rocket car, used for uptown bally, has been turned out of the paint show [sic] with a flashy new color scheme." It had been bronze-colored under Vacca's reign.
(You're going to ask what "uptown bally" is, aren't you? My best guess, after finding it in several period Billboard magazines, is that it's a term used for a parade wagon or other vehicle driven through town to publicize the circus' arrival, bally a shortening for ballyhoo, a between-wars word for publicity and hype.)
1942 probably does mark the true end of the Mars Express. Without any practical value, such a show vehicle would have been turned in to the war effort for scrap. It had a good run, a wonderful example of the multiple ways the future was made to feel close to hand in that era.
December 3, 2018