Before the advent of the Internet, there were stories so outlandish, so improbable, and just so utterly nutty that they were relegated to mere myths. The story of the Turbonique company and the “Tobacco King” Rocket Car they helped to bring to life fall into such a category.
In the years subsequent to World War II, the American public’s fascination with jets and rocket power grew alongside a growing hunger for high performance. While the brass at the Big Three were willing to explore the idea of melding the two together – resulting in the General Motors Firebird prototypes and the Chrysler Turbine experiment a few years later – no one was really willing to put the technology into the hands of the general public and let them run wild with it.
At first glance, Reynold’s Galaxie appears to be a fairly typical mi-’60s A/FX Thunderbolt racer – albeit with a supercharged big block under the hood. But once folks got a chance to look at the back end, it was clear that this was no ordinary drag car. Image: Mecum
But in the era before over-regulation and the avalanche of safety measures we enjoy today, one ill-fated but visionary entrepreneur had the expertise and general lack of concern required to bring turbine power to the masses.
Turbonique’s radical approach to performance would catch the eye of Zachary Taylor Reynolds. An heir to the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco fortune, Zach was a notorious playboy with a penchant for things that went fast. And while this big block-powered Galaxie would have been quick enough for most right out of the box, Reynolds wanted more. A lot more.
Turbonique And The Rocket Drag Axle
Turbonique was strictly a mail order business. They advertised their wares in the enthusiast automotive magazines of the day, hoping to attract thrill-seeking drag racers who wanted to do something dramatically different with their cars. Among Turbonique’s three main product offerings – superchargers, rocket thrust engines, and rocket thrust drag axles – the latter proved to be the most ideally suited for drag strip applications. Their independently driven superchargers were a compelling option as well, particularly with Turbonique’s guarantee to “double your horsepower”. However, it also came with a warning not to run the unit for more than 5 minutes at time and only on engines with forged internals.
Born in Jonesboro, Georgia, on August 3rd, 1931, Clarence Eugene “Gene” Middlebrooks got his degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, and went on to help develop the propulsion system used on the Pershing missile program for aerospace contractor Martin-Marietta thereafter.
Unwilling to let his talents go to waste on a mere solid-fueled two-stage ballistic missile, the rocket scientist struck out on his own and founded Turbonique in Orlando, Florida, in 1962. Middlebrooks was determined to use his expertise in turbine technology to bring rocket propulsion to the consumer market.
But rather than designing products for the average Joe and moving up the food chain as the tech caught on, Middlebrooks took the opposite approach, building absurdly potent power adders for use in existing vehicles which could be purchased by mail order, and appealing directly to power-hungry enthusiasts through outlandish advertising claims posted in various automotive publications.
Although their heyday was brief, Turbonique-powered vehicles were sights to be behold. The Chevelle pictured here was featured prominently in the company's advertising - until the rear end failed during a high speed pass, causing the wheels to lock up and the car to roll roughly a dozen times. The driver, “Captain” Jack McClure, was unfazed though, and moved on to a twin rocket-powered go-kart afterward. Images: Bangshift, Captain Jack McClure
Turbonique’s core product line consisted of three components. AP, or Auxiliary Power superchargers served as the company’s entry level item. Unlike conventional superchargers, which are belt driven and therefore pull some power from the motor simply by virtue of their operation, Turbonique’s design functioned independently of the engine, feeding on a steady supply of “Thermolene” (an isopropyl nitrate monopropellant rocket fuel) to a micro-turbine that powered the supercharger.
Through dyno testing, Turbonique backed up their claim of “double your horsepower” when they bolted up an AP supercharger system to a new 405 hp Chevy 409 and netted 835 horsepower.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were Turbonique’s T-16, T-21, T-22, and T-32 rocket thrust engines, which could be had in varying levels of power and were used to propel cars, motorcycles and go karts to insane speeds. The kart above, equipped with two T-21-A engines, was said to be able to reach speeds in excess of 160 mph in under four seconds according to Turbonique’s literature.
But for those who still had a vestige of sanity, Turbonique’s mid-range offering was the sweet spot – the rocket powered drag axle.
Stand clear indeed: Turbonique’s literature claimed a “moderate 2,000-degree Fahrenheit exhaust temperature.” Also, without a clutch or a way to adjust fuel metering, using the rocket powered drag axles proved to be a bit of a handful, since the only way to shut off the boost was to simply cut off the fuel supply.
Weighing in at a mere 100 pounds or so, this was a rocket engine providing direct drive to the rear axle, which would work in tandem with the traditional internal combustion engine of the vehicle – making these Turbonique-modded vehicles some of the first high performance hybrids ever. The power output was adjustable, but could easily make well north of 1,000 horsepower, which would be in addition to whatever power the conventional motor made.
This was the route that Reynolds opted to take when he decided to build what many would consider to be the ultimate Ford Galaxie 500, one which generated more than 1,200 horsepower with all systems firing while looking more or less like a garden variety 1960s gasser drag racer – provided you didn’t look under the rear end of the car.
The Tobacco King Rocket Car
For most enthusiasts of the day, a Ford Galaxie 500 with a warmed over 427ci FE block V8 swapped in in place of the original 390 V8 would have been enough. That wasn’t the case for Reynolds. With the financial means to do so, Reynolds set about making an absolutely brutal Galaxie drag car – and that was before the Turbonique Rocket Drag Axle was added to the mix.
While it was a formidable sight to behold and a stout runner with its supercharged 427 big block, the true capability of Reynold's big block Galaxie wasn't evident until he fired up the Turbonique drag axle, which added an additional 850 horsepower to the mix. The combination was likely well over 1,300 horsepower. After Reynolds' death in 1979 the car sat in storage until 1995, when it was sold to a family friend. That buyer decided to part ways with the car in 2008, but reconsidered after receiving some rather sage advice from his nine year old son. Images: Mecum
Bolted atop the 427 was a rare Latham axial flow supercharger and four Carter one-barrel sidedraft carburetors, laughably underrated at 425 horsepower. But that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the Tobacco King’s performance.
Out back, Reynolds had a Turbonique axle outfitted to the car, which made 850 horsepower that was wholly independent of the beefed up 427 at the front of the car, though they would work in tandem to propel the car forward when the rocket axle was fired up.
Reynolds' Galaxie would have been noteworthy simply for the Latham-supercharged 427 that lived where a 390ci V8 had formerly held residence. But Reynolds was a genuine thrill seeker with the means to pursue his passion, and he opted to have one of Turbonique's 850 hp rocket drag axles installed on the car as well. Along with significant frame and suspension modifications, a parachute was installed to help slow the car down from speed. Images: Mecum
To make everything work together, the Galaxie’s frame and suspension needed to be extensively modified, not only to allow the car to handle the incredible amount of horsepower, but to provide enough ground clearance for the turbine’s giant acetylene torch-like flame to avoid damaging components when in operation. Given its performance potential, it comes as little surprise that Reynolds also had a parachute installed to help get the car stopped after its rocket-powered drag strip passes.
Reynolds put just 3,611 miles on the Galaxie between 1967 and his untimely death in 1979, when he died in a plane crash. The Reynolds family left the Galaxie parked for years and eventually sold the car to a family friend in 1995. In a “moment of weakness” according to the cosigner, he decided to put the car up for bid at Mecum’s Indianapolis auction in 2008. But longer after signing over the vehicle to be auctioned off, the seller had a change of heart.
“What finally did it for me was when I was loading the car to bring it here, my nine-year-old son, who was very agitated, asked why I was selling it. I told him that we didn’t use the car, and that we had other collector cars. He said ‘Dad, you can replace any one of those. This one is unique, you can’t.’ That did it.”
Imagine lining up next to this Galaxie and, after hearing the supercharger whine and cackling idle, thinking you might have your work cut out for you – and then rocket flames start shooting out of the back of it. While no record of official time slips exists for Reynolds’ Galaxie, estimates put this relatively mild-looking coupe deep into the 9s in the quarter mile. Image: Mecum
But with the agreement already set in stone with Mecum, the car was on its way to the auction anyway, where the consigner planned to buy back his own car. To his surprise, another bidder met the opening price of $375,000, but quickly got the hint when the seller outbid him by $1,000, allowing him to “win” back his vehicle (after some substantial auction fees).
As for Turbonique, perhaps it’s not surprising that the story doesn’t end on a positive note. Due to the numerous safety issues faced with rocket fuel and turbines as a form of locomotion in general, the NHRA effectively banned the use of Turbonique setups for drag racing in 1967 after a string of incidents.
It’s difficult to imagine a company like Turbonique existing for any amount of time today. The bug pictured here, named the Black Widow, also appeared frequently in the company’s advertising – until it crashed after becoming airborne at 183 mph. That crash was also advertised, with Turbonique stating that “we forgot our strength for a split second.” Image: Boing Boing
Things didn’t get better for Turbonique and its founder after that. In 1968, Middlebrooks was accused and convicted of mail fraud based largely on complaints that the products delivered to his customers would arrive unfinished, requiring substantial machining to actually be put into use, and it didn’t help matters when a cantankerous Middlebrooks opted to waive his right to counsel and represent himself in court.
The company closed up shop shortly after the case. An appeal made in 1972, where Middlebrooks claimed to be suffering from hypomania (apparently during most of the 1960s) was predictably rejected (though if you look up the definition of hypomania and disinhibition, it sounds like a pretty accurate diagnosis).
In the decades since, most of Turbonique’s performance hardware has been lost to the sands of time. Ordering rocket fuel through the mail would likely get you put on a government watch list today, and one of the only things more dangerous than strapping a rocket to your car is strapping a fifty year old rocket to your car. Still, we certainly wouldn’t mind getting to see one of Middlebrooks’ creations in action today, and with his handiwork being rediscovered in recent years, you never know what the future may hold.