Few things light our collective fire — no pun intended — like rocket-powered motorcycles. Spot Motorcycles recently took this lighthearted look at the jet/missile/firecracker/flame-bike's fiery origins. —Ed.
You had to be a little nuts to strap a rocket to your bike back in the 1920s. Or 1970s. Or even today, come to think of it. But behind every crazy idea is a man just bold enough to reach for glory — that, or a rich kid with too much time on his hands and a buddy standing next to him saying "Dude, I dare you."
Our glorious rocket cycle-deprived ancestors had their fair share of both.
When Adam Opel founded the Opel Company in 1863 to make sewing machines and bicycles, he had no idea that grandson Fritz would inherit his entrepenerial spirit. He was probably rolling over in his grave, though, when 21-year old Fritz decided to marry rockets with Opel's motor vehicles.
Lucky for us, though, that's exactly what Fritz von Opel did. Fritz planned to set a land-speed record by bolting six booster rockets to his 22-hp one-stroke, a vehicle that was subsequently dubbed the Monster.
Fritz and his cronies at the Opel Motorcycle Club managed to squeeze in a few trial runs in 1928, one of which is pictured here. But once President Paul von Hindenburg got wind of his plan, he shut Fritz down in the name of safety. Strange then, that Hindenburg would have no problem with Opel switching gears and focusing on cars. The latter then enjoyed spectacular success with his rocket-powered cars.
No doubt emboldened by these triumphs of transportation engineering, the Germans green-lighted a giant Zeppelin bearing Hindenburg's name just a few years later. Let's not blame that one on Fritz, though.
When the German government put the kibosh Opel's cycle, they should've known that someone else would pick up the ball and run with it. But let me ask you this: When your government tells you that rocket-powered motorcycles are too dangerous, does it make any sense to attach your rockets to a bicycle instead?
I guess it does if you're a bike racer. Racers Oskar Tietz and Max Hahn, pictured below, took on the challenge in 1929 in Berlin.
Not to be outdone, an engineer by the name of Richter took his shot two years later, in 1931. Richter's ride didn't go so well, but at least he had the presence of mind to abandon ship before reaching maximum velocity. This is before:
...and the image below is after. Note the man crawling out of the nearby ditch.
Archibald Low was one of those guys who could never stop inventing stuff. And his list of inventions is quite impressive:
Among other things, Archie invented a precursor to the automatic transmission, a radio-guided missile system, and a whistling egg timer. He also demonstrated an early version of what would later become television, nearly thirteen years before it was "invented."
All this brainpower nearly got him killed, though, as pre-WWI Germans saw him as a quite a threat. After two failed assassination attempts, the Germans wised up and realized that they could put Archie's inventions to good use in their own war effort. They pretty much left him alone after that.
Archie was something of an eccentric. Although he'd never held an academic position, he liked to be called "professor," and he took it upon himself to boost interest in British road racing by showing off a rocket-powered motorcycle. Ninety thousand fans at Wembley Speedway witnessed Archibald's rocket-powered cycle scream around the track in 1946. Champion rider Bill Kitchen gave the bike rave reviews, praising its smooth acceleration.
Rick Rojatt, a.k.a. the Human Fly, had a colorful backstory to explain his cloaked appearance. I'll give you a hint: It very closely resembled the backstory of a certain Marvel Comics superhero of the day, one also named the Human Fly. Something about breaking every bone in his body and then retraining himself to crawl, walk, climb and run with the super-human strength of a scaled-up fly.
Mr. Fly made his name by wing-walking on a low-flying DC-8 at 250 mph, but the stunt that interests us is his 1977 rocket-powered bike leap over 27 buses. His motorcycle boasted 6000 hp of thrust and was capable of hitting 300 mph in the quarter mile.
Rick was pretty tight-lipped about his exploits, and he disappeared into obscurity shortly after his rocket jump. But the designer of that bike has spilled all. Read more about that here. Lots of great anecdotes in that piece, but here's a teaser: "I stood there, witnessing the crash of all crash landings right before my eyes, and a hush fell over the crowd, as we all feared the worst. It looked like nobody could have possibly survived such a crash landing."
Evel Knievel — is there any name more synonomous with the words "rocket cycle"? I don't think so. Is there also any name more synonomous with the phrase "perform outrageous stunt, crash to the delight and horror of thousands of onlookers, sustain major injuries, then do it all over again"? Certainly not.
Knievel became the greatest daredevil of all time by refining that formula to perfection. He figured it was okay to mix in a few failures with some spectacular successes, provided he had the cojones to survive and do it all over again.
Evel's 1974 rocket-cycle jump over the Snake River Canyon certainly fit that description. The stunt took several years to orchestrate, and Evel pushed forward even in the face of likely disaster. His rocket cycle failed all of its pre-flight tests and his landing plan consisted mostly of crossing his fingers. When the jump took place, the force of the thrust knocked Evel out cold, releasing his hand from the emergency parachute deployment lever. That stopped the cycle dead in its tracks. Amazingly, had the mishap not occurred, the cycle probably would havee made it across the canyon. Evel's eject mechanism also failed, trapping him inside the machine he called his "sky-cycle." He landed just a few feet from the raging river at the floor of the canyon.
Evel walked away with minor injuries and, true to form, began working on his next stunt shortly after. Ever heard the pop-culture term "jump the shark"? Evel invented that one by — you guessed it — jumping over a shark.
Want to read more on Evel's incredible career? Check out our comprehensive interactive infographic.
Australian Rosco McGlashan surived the 70s without catching the bug to jump over things on his motorcycle. Strange, when you consider that the road to fame and fortune for thrill-seeking young bikers of that era was clearly marked: hurtle your body successfully (or unsuccessfully) over trucks, cars or sharks, and the the riches will follow.
But Rosco just wanted to go fast, and go fast he did. His early career consisted of competition on clutchless V-8 monsters, rocket-powered screamers, and 250 mph karts. That rocket-powered screamer, pictured here, was banned by the Australian government in the name of safety before it ever got a chance to hit top speed.
Rosco graduated to pursuing land-speed records in high-tech rocket cars, and in the mid-1990s, he almost accomplished his dream. He's still at it today, nearly forty years removed from his original V-8. Good luck, Rosco — let us know how it works out!
These days, rocket cycle enthusiasts have broadened their horizons to experiment with many different types of jet engines. Relatively speaking, today's jet-powered bikes are safer, more affordable, more fuel-efficient, and generate less heat than yesterday's rocket monsters. Yeah, that's not saying much — the early rockets were dangerous, expensive, gas-guzzling firebombs. Don't worry, we'll show off updated models of those as well.
Some of the fastest motorcycles on the planet, drag bikes burn pure rocket fuel and produce incredible results. Nitromethane, a.k.a. "top" fuel, is the propellant of choice for these 1300-hp monsters.
Eric Teboul broke the Dragbike World Record in 2009, covering a quarter mile in 5.27 seconds. If you don't feel like doing the math, that's 251 mph. See Eric's record-breaking run below.
Larry McBride, pictured below, is another top racer and former world record holder. He's got a sense of humor about it, too, donning a spiderman suit for his runs. Might that be an homage to the Human Fly, mentioned above? Nah, probably not.
Juan Manuel Lozano Gallegos has lived, breathed, and dreamed rockets since his teens. He built a jet-powered kart in 1974 at the age of 19 but went back to rockets when he found jets to be lacking in power. That's my kind of guy!
To call Juan a do-it-yourselfer would be a bit of an understatement. He's happy to show you exactly how he produces his rocket gear, but don't get any ideas of copying his technique — his results are too awe-inspiring to even approach.
In addition to providing the technology behind Eric Teboul's world-record-holding drag bike, Juan also built the world's fastest bicycle. Naturally, it was rocket-powered.
These days, Juan will put a rocket in just about anything, but his top-priority is building a commercially viable jetpack. Can't say I blame him.
Leading the charge in the all-important Smoke & Fire Division, we have the Mad V-8 Jet Bike. Boasting a 3800-hp jet engine, this baby can light up the night sky. Last time I checked, it had never actually been ridden anywhere, so I guess we'll have to wait on top-speed specs.
Australian owner Ron Laycock knows he's got a good thing going, and he's not afraid to share. Ron's also got a healthy respect for the traditions of his sport, here showing off his ride in the name of some old-fashioned T&A.
Proving just how mainstream these types of reaction engines have become, MTT has made a jet engine-powered, production model bike called the Y2K Turbine Superbike for about a decade.
Theirs was the first street-legal, turbine-driven bike, and its 320-hp engine topped out at about 225 mph. At the time, Guinness called it the most powerful production motorcycle ever made. Unfortunately, they also called it the most expensive production motorcycle ever made.
This is the Streetfighter, a more current model from MTT, which can be yours for a mere $175k. Somewhere in Germany, Fritz von Opel is rolling over in his grave.
So who would buy one of these puppies? Jay Leno is a self-proclaimed member of the more money than brains club, so it's no surprise to find footage of him testing one on the 'tubes:
So what is an aspiring jet-biker to do if he's got more time than money? Easy: study the DIYers. They build their own jet engines from scratch and then document it all meticulously so that others can join in the fun. A bunch of them hang out at the DIYTurbines Yahoo Group, so that's a great place to start. Barring that, there are other low-buck approaches: Pictured at right is a late-model Honda Magna modded to fit a Boeing T-50 jet engine. It recently sold on eBay for less than ten grand. The video below is of a homebuilt gas turbine engine from Australian DIY master John Wallis.
Finally, in the skinny-tire division, we have Bob Maddox carrying on the age-old German tradition of strapping jet engines to bicycles. Bob has gotten quite good at attaching pulse-jet engines to two-wheelers and then polishing 'em up to look like production models. He even sells his engines to hobbyists, so you can get a quick start on your new obsession. Bob reckons one of these will take your bike up to 75 mph, but to date, he's been too chicken to open it up all the way.
OK, I was kidding about the "chicken" comment. In fact, Bob once had the crazy idea to strap one of those pulse-jet engines to himself! Yes, you read that correctly. Here's a picture to prove it.
That brings us up to date with the rocket motorcycle and its major players. Want more? Check out Spot Motorcycles' tongue-in-cheek look at the future of the rocket-powered two-wheeler. If you get a wild hair and build one, be sure and let us know.