The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE NEW ROCKET MOTOR CAR
Arthur Ferrier made a name for himself starting in the 1930s by drawing leggy cartoon pin-up girls for strips with provocative titles like "Our Dumb Blonde," "Eve," and "Film Fannie." Born in 1891, he'd already had a long career as an all-purpose cartoonist, illustrating articles, caricaturing celebrities, and commenting on the news.
I found the cartoon shown here in Ron Miller's monumental The Dream Machines: A Pictorial History of the Spaceship in Art, Science and Literature. Though no source is listed, as is true of most of the other images - the only real flaw in an otherwise astounding book - it appears in the coverage for the year 1928. I haven't found the original, probably from a London newspaper, possibly from a magazine: he worked for the News of the World as well as London Opinion, The Humorist, Razzle, Passing Show, Strand, and Blighty. The mention of the car being a 1929 model is ambiguous. That might indicate a 1929 publication date, or that the strip in taking place in the "near future," or merely referencing the common trend of car companies starting their model year in the previous calendar year.
Like the cartoon "That Synthetic Food of the Future," though, we can be sure that a cartoon about rocket motor-cars wasn't simply a wild invention by the artist. Rocket cars must have been in the news in 1928, weird as that might seem today. Sure enough, a little digging produces a gusher of articles that pinpoint exactly what Ferrier was satirizing.
That's the RAK 1, made by the Opel car company, the largest in Germany, at the Opel Works in Rüsselsheim, Bavaria, with the financial backing of the glamorous Fritz von Opel. Having the apparatus of a corporate public relations staff whose press releases were snapped up by every newspaper, a unique advantage over every other rocket enthusiast of the day, von Opel saw to it that the RAK 1 made worldwide headlines from the results of a test on April 11, 1928, with the foolhardy driver Kurt Volkhart at the wheel. The car, thirty years ahead of its time, went from zero to sixty in eight seconds - equal to the performance of the fabled 1956 Mercedes-Benz 300SL sports car.
On April 13, the Dundee Courier of Angus, Scotland, gushed at the announcement:
[The car] was not driven by a petrol engine but by a so-called rocket about which details cannot be disclosed, but it can be said it was constructed in accordance with the plan of the German Max Valier, known as the "Fantastic Cosmos Flier" because of his idea of building a rocket which could be sent out into space. ...
"We are convinced [said Opel's statement] that the "Opel Sander Aggregate, as the new machine is called, will achieve a speed hitherto considered impossible on the surface of the earth, and it will prove to be only a step toward the construction of a rocket air machine and to a cosmos airship on the lines of the Valier project."
The sky literally was no longer the limit, the Hull Daily Mail thought:
Is the navigation of the upper regions beyond the earth’s atmosphere already within the range of practical possibility? That this is not a fantastic as it sounds is to be inferred from an official statement made by the Opel motor firm to-day [April 12 press release, printed in the paper on April 13].
They confidently expect (states the “Morning Post” correspondent) to be able in the present year to send beyond the bounds of the terrestrial atmosphere a machine driven on the “rocket” principle. …
The "rocket" principle of propulsion consists of driving into the open, out of pipes at terrific speed, gases whose recoil drives the machine forward. The "Opel rocket car," constructed by Herr Sander, uses a specially prepared powder, which is pumped into a combustion chamber, whence it passes out through numerous pipes in gas form with enormous energy.
It is the first successful attempt of its kind that has ever been made, and promises to rank among the most notable achievements in science in the present century.
Less than two weeks after that, von Opel gave a public demonstration on a track in Berlin, an article easily seen everywhere in Britain through the wire services, as in this article appearing in the May 24, 1928, Hartlepool Mail:
There was a loud hissing sound and then a deafening roar. Some of the more nervous spectators made a dive for safety, and the craning heads were quickly withdrawn as a black object with a flaming tale several feet long hurtled past. A thick pall of smoke descended, in which at first one could scarcely see one's neighbour. As it cleared ... there was a momentary glimpse of the driver with his hair streaming straight out behind him, and then the flaming tail, and then the smoke-cloud descended again. ...
It is stated that the maximum speed attained on this short run - the limits of the Avus track do not allow of a "full out" test - was about 180 kilometres (112 miles) an hour.
Since he drew the RAK 1, my guess is that Ferrier produced the cartoon some time between April 13 and May 24. Like the best cartoonists, Ferrier cut through the technicalities to hone in on the readers' secret wishes: speed so fast that cops couldn't catch you! have the fun of Guy Fawkes day every day! fly over traffic jams! I was sorely tempted to put this under the Flying Cars tab because of that image. The rocket part of rocket car won out, because rockets were its raison d'être.
Rockets were the obsession of Max Valier, who wasn't known as the "Fantastic Cosmos Flier" by anyone outside of this press release but who wouldn't have minded being thought of this way. For the full story of Max Valier and his rocket cars, see Max Valier: Rocket Man, which will lead you to the ebook I've written about Valier's astounding and unfortunately-forgotten career.