In 1960 You Could Buy a Mail-Order, 1,300HP Rocket Engine!

The Insane Turbonique Tale of Magic Bullet Madness

There once was a magic bullet for extra speed. It was a bolt-on device. Bolt it onto your rear axle and you instantly had 1,300 hp at the press of a button. Magic, right? The 130-pound device was called the Turbonique Drag Axle, and the Florida company that manufactured this and essentially a variety of other small rocket engines for racing conveniently sold them mail order. Hassle-free horsepower! We aren’t making this up.

When you’re a rocket scientist in the 1950s, the dreams of rockets for all humankind must have been overwhelming, especially for C.E. “Gene” Middlebrooks Jr. He was working for a Florida-based defense contractor developing Pershing ballistic missiles using solid-propellant rockets. This is all good, except when you add Middlebrooks’ interest in racing. Then a slew of both horrifying and phantasmagorical combinations come to mind mashing the need for speed and rockets.

Middlebrooks had the knowledge and means to test his rocket racing ideas for the masses—and to sell them, too. Sometimes just because you can doesn’t mean you should. In the 1950s Middlebrooks patented and then marketed an electrically powered supercharger for racing. The added weight from extra batteries needed to power the device, lackluster results, and indictment but ultimately acquittal for mail fraud kept him searching for another, better nonparasitic form of instant power. By 1962 he was satisfied enough with his experiments in self-powered superchargers to start a company called Turbonique to provide instant, excessive, and frightening speed for racers wanting a sharp whack in the back.

Three different types of devices were manufactured to “establish a market for rocket technology,” according to Middlebrooks. In no particular insanity order, they were AP (Auxiliary Power) superchargers, “Microturbo” Thrust engines, and Rocket Drag Axles. Ignited by Turbonique’s own “Thermolene” fuel, some of these docile-looking Inconel 713C alloy contraptions were able to spin more than 100,000 rpm.

For instance, Turbonique’s “Huffer” model, available in both vertical and horizontal applications, was a carbureted centrifugal supercharger the catalog waxed on about generating “enough compressed air to start a jet or turboprop airliner.” Yikes!

With the press of a button, the supercharger received a blast of liquid oxygen and a shot of Thermolene, mainlining the engine into a Godzilla two-stroke. It seemed that in spite of the obvious death wish aspects of Turbonique applications, snowmobiles, hovercraft, and boats also joined in on the flashpoint of Huffer histrionics.

Thermolene fuel was in reality N-propyl nitrate. It’s a monopropellant, meaning its chemical composition releases energy through exothermic chemical decomposition. In other words, it creates its own oxygen. So you’ve got the fuel and oxygen—what’s the third component needed? A catalyst to kick off the desired thrust; in this case, a button triggering a spark. Voilà!

Stable under certain conditions, Thermolene could quickly decompose, producing an exponentially uncontrollable hurricane of hot gases surely launching an unimaginable catastrophe from what looked like a can of mouthwash. Oh, and even in stable form it’s extremely toxic. Able to melt both plastic and rubber, it would react to mild steel in the presence of water. Yeow! Now, an extremely stable monopropellant you might be familiar with is nitrous oxide.

For the wilder Microturbo Thrust unit, advertising claimed for the model T-16-A Formula J Thrust Engine an additional 1,980 hp was at your fingertips. In reality a small rocket-thrust engine, once ignited, hot gases were instantaneously unleashed, spinning small turbine blades in the housing, with an optional turbine wheel available to create “spectacular flaming night runs,” according to Turbonique hype. This option was for those needing more sensorial input than the shockwave of 600-psi ignited rocket fuel slammed into a 100,000-rpm Inconel orb—all taking place right behind your head, as you glide an inch or two off the ground.

The snail-looking device, with what looked like a child’s bicycle horn protruding from one end, came with “easy to follow installation and operating instructions.” We assume the operating instructions were basically, “Don’t do it!” As for the bicycle horns, those were aluminum nozzles used by NASA in space. They were just for publicity, and in actual use would have melted in seconds.

Finding their way onto go-karts, which were quite popular at the time, a number of deaths were reported by this innocent mixture of instant 1,980 hp to just a steering wheel and four tires. Some of these incidents involved explosions caused by the Thermolene pooling in the combustion chamber as drivers decelerated quickly. Or should we say, too quickly. But why use only one Model T-16-A? It was suggested using two would propel your kart to more than 150 mph. Speeds were estimated to reach 160 mph within 4 seconds.

Advertising announced alluring features that included:

Guaranteed minimum thrust levels.

  • Eight standard models available.
  • Cost as low as 11 cents per jet horsepower.
  • Designed by a propulsion specialist (as opposed to, what, a tinkerer?).
  • Only one liquid required to make run.
  • Requires a simple fuel-supply system.
  • Moderate 2,000-degree Fahrenheit exhaust temperature (we don’t know whether this was a feature or warning).

In the midst of this speed haze of monopropellants and decomposition of unimaginable consequences, one surely used extreme caution before creating anything beyond this small, basic rocket engine, but that’s not how hot rodders think. If small is great, then bigger is orgasmic. Middlebrooks increased the size and composition of his little rocket motor to create the larger and more powerful “Drag Axle.” The assembled model DS-28-A Drag Axle would set you back $4,695, almost twice the price of a new Mustang. At 1,300 hp, the “rocket drag axle” could also set you back into and through your seat. This latest creation from the ever-escalating delusions of a speed-crazed inventor was bolted to the back of a Halibrand or larger Frankland Champ quick-change rear end housing. Sometimes speed lust overtakes reason. Rather than creating thrust power like a typical jet engine, the power was transferred instead through the quick-change gears to reduce the turbine’s 60,000 rpm directly to the axles.

The fuel delivery and consumption was both simple and fairly lightweight. Besides the bottle of Thermolene fuel, a bottle of nitrogen gas kept the Thermolene under pressure, feeding the combustion chamber at 1/4 gallon per second. A third bottle with oxygen was used for the initial hit as ambient air temperature does not promote Thermolene’s ignition. Once ignited, pressure from the activation causes the Oxygen valve to automatically close, as the Thermolene lights up like a grass fire from a blowtorch. Otherwise, feeding oxygen to the volatile cocktail would result in a bomb, as the Inconel chamber would be unable to contain the force from the blast. Buyers, but more astonishingly drivers, were actually found for this experiment in explosives.

Few cars were hosts to the Drag Axle, and virtually none survived the ordeal, including the Z16 Chevelle seen here, and the company’s own “Black Widow” Volkswagen, both destroyed in uncontrollable tire-smoking performances of your worst nightmares. Driving the Chevelle, “Captain” Jack McClure would start the car in Third gear. In spite of this, he said it would smoke the tires at least to half-track and still do more than 150 mph in the quarter-mile. The Achilles’ heel was the rear end not staying together. In fact, on its final run the Chevelle’s rear end locked up, causing a violent barrel roll through the traps 12 to 13 times. Captain Jack survived, only to shift over to a twin-Microturbo Thrust–equipped go-kart. Talk about a death wish!

On a blitz down Tampa’s quarter-mile, the Volkswagen went airborne at over 180 mph, tumbling through the top end. Driver Roy Drew survived, even posing with the crumpled remains of the Widow for Turbonique advertising. Maybe this was to show that as crazy as your dreams may be, you can come out alive with Turbonique.

All good things must end, and it seems that in 1970 what liability lawsuits couldn’t take down, a 21-count federal indictment for mail-order fraud did. It was not pretty. Middlebrooks waived council and defended himself. From a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion by one of the presiding judges, “Middlebrooks argued with witnesses, interjected scandalous and inflammatory remarks, and violated miscellaneous procedural rules during his conduct of the trial.” One can only imagine. He continued, “The district court judge showed commendable moderation in keeping the trial on the tracks, and not prejudicing the jury against the defendant (Middlebrooks), in spite of provocatory conduct on the part of the defendant.”

There were other problems for Middlebrooks besides conduct. For the amount of claims against Turbonique, Middlebrooks did not counter with a single customer witness having received a refund. A ledger he presented to the court indicating refunds paid out was deemed “a hodgepodge of unauthenticated records with no basis in fact.” Also, prosecutors revealed Middlebrooks had been indicted and acquitted of mail fraud in 1965, making this the third trial for fraud in less than 10 years. This third time would not be the charm, either.

The jury concluded that while Turbonique kits were simple to execute for a rocket scientist like Middlebrooks, they were much more involved for teenage kids, and thus advertising claims became their undoing. Also, distributorships were offered with moneymaking claims to those inquiring about kits, which is one form of a Ponzi scheme. Middlebrooks was found guilty on 16 counts, sentenced to two years in prison, and fined $4,000.

Rumors had him running a Florida resort after his release, suggesting he picked something completely removed from his past enterprise and expertise to live out his final years. In some ways, Middlebrooks saved us from ourselves.

Gene Middlebrooks died at Lake Mary, Florida, on August 4, 2005.

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The Rauth and Venetti “Pegasus” Drag Axle–equipped Mustang on a hot pass at the 1967 AHRA Winternationals. Entered in the FX/T Factory Experimental Turbine class, it made several complete passes at more than 160 mph, winning the class. Gene Canham out of Chicago also challenged the quarter-mile for part of a season with his “Turbine Dart” sporting a Drag Axle, also back in 1967. Naturally, it crashed.

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“Captain” Jack McClure piloted this Drag Axle–equipped Z16 Chevelle numerous times in the quarter-mile. Here he explains the safety and speed aspects of the device in August 1965, before surviving a barrel roll through the traps in this car 12 to 13 times, according to witnesses. He would move on to Turbonique-powered go-karts.

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A Frankland Champ quick-change rear receives a jolt of rocket power through the back section of the aluminum housing. The removable finned plate that unbolts for accessing the stacked gear set originally to facilitate gear changes, now accepts an output shaft that reduces via a pinion shaft the 60,000 rpm of the turbine 8.3:1 for a more manageable 7,250 rpm. Still, the few examples that ran spun the tires most of the quarter-mile.

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Here’s another shot of the Pegasus Mustang at Bee Line Dragway in Phoenix at the 1967 AHRA Winternationals. Rumors have the car still in existence, minus the Drag Axle, which is probably why it still exists.

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Separate oxygen bottles for the initial combustion feed the twin–Microturbo Thrust engines toward the front of the chamber on this minibike. A single tank of N-propyl nitrate is fed via the large elbow fitting to the chamber actuated by an electric valve release, both of which are visible here. The spark plug on top of the chamber fires off the whole volatile mixture in one-twentieth of a second.

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The channel iron helps to support the Drag Axle hanging rather precariously off of the rear of the Frankland Champ quick-change rear, but regardless, the violent surge of thrust usually caused the rear end to fail. On the last pass of this rare Z16 Chevelle, the rear end locked up and caused driver McClure to barrel roll through the eyes, which he survived. The car did not.

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From our safe and sane 2017 perspective, it is incredible that you could order this jug of “monofuel for gas-generating units” or N-propyl nitrate, back in the 1960s. The mail-order feature of Turbonique’s business model was also responsible for ending Turbonique’s rocket-engines-for-all retail racing enterprise.

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Here’s a handy HOT ROD diagram for those who think in more visual terms.


 

Let’s Fire This Sucker Up!

The procedure for starting a Turbonique Microturbo Thrust–equipped go-kart.

Flip the toggle switch for the spark plug or plugs.

Press down on the pedal attached to an electric switch to open the pressurized tanks.

The electrically actuated valves are now opened, releasing oxygen into the rocket chambers. Nitrogen liquid fuel pressurized at 600 psi is also forced from the fuel tank to the rocket chambers.

The Thermolene ethylene oxide now mixes with the oxygen-rich atmosphere inside of the chambers. Hit the ignition button and the spark ignites the mixture, causing the oxygen flow to stop from the pressure. Remember, ethylene oxide creates its own oxygen.

Hold on for dear life.

Do not try to reignite at any time, as the mixture will pool with the spark off, causing a massive explosion upon re-ignition.

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