In the early 1960s, you could purchase through mail-order several rocket-powered kits. The Florida company was called Turbonique. If it sounds benign, it was far from it. Drag racers, go-kart enthusiasts, boat racers, and motorcyclists were all recipients of Turbonique’s insanity. The most potent of Turbonique’s kits was the bolt-on Drag Axle, with an instant 1,300 hp. It was just an order away.
The 1,300 Turbonique Drag Axle was only a postage stamp away
And kids could order one too. Maybe not the Drag Axle, but definitely the kits aimed at go-karts and motorcycles or mini-bikes. Yes, free horsepower without the hassles. And it was the brainchild of a real rocket scientist with the best of intentions. But a court proceeding proved that not to be the case, and Middlebrooks was sentenced to time in prison.
CE “Gene” Middlebrooks Jr was the real deal. He was a rocket scientist developing ballistic missiles for the US government by day but loved racing. He felt sure that combining racing and rockets was the best marriage of the jet-age, and he could consummate it.
Turbonique offered science fiction speed
Playing with self-powered superchargers in the beginning, he then created Turbonique to step up to the next plateau. Who wouldn’t want instant face numbing, frightening speed coming on so quick the human mind couldn’t process it? Kids would love it!
Three products were offered; auxiliary superchargers, “Microturbo” thrust engines, and Rocket Drag Axles. Each was fired off by what Middlebrooks called “Thermoline” fuel. The fuel could crank the turbocharger-like devices to over 100,000 rpm. What could possibly go wrong?
Turbonique’s supercharger could generate “enough compressed air to start a jet or turboprop airliner.” And this was one of the tamer offerings from Turbonique. This kit involved a shot of liquid oxygen combined with Turbonique’s Thermolene. Today, only bath salts mainlined come to mind as similar. Snowmobiles, hovercraft, and especially boats could handle the hyper-strangulation of expanding oxygen. And rocket fuel.
What powered the Turbonique rocket engines?
So what was this Thermoline fuel? It was N-propyl nitrate. . It is a monopropellant. Rather than get into the technical aspects, in essence, it creates its own oxygen. As you know from campsite fires and barbecuing in the backyard, the more oxygen you introduce, with the added strike of a match, the bigger the flame. Or in Thermoline’s case, the bigger the bang. And it could be sent through the US Post Office in the early 1960s.
The problem with Thermolene was that it degraded rapidly. So, in time, what looks like a small jar of ginger ale could become an out-of-control tsunami of fire. Another problem was that the slightest amount of moisture, combined with Thermolene, could eat steel.
With an instant 1,980 hp applied to go-karts, numerous deaths were reported. Sometimes the Thermoline would pool during deceleration, creating a mini-atomic bomb explosion. But if one Model T-16-A kit applying 2,000 hp to a go-kart was good, why not put two of them on your little ride? Reported estimates of 160 mph in under four seconds with dual rockets attest to the mayhem.
The Drag Axle generated 60,000 rpm of mayhem
But let’s look at the Model DS-28-A Drag Axle. The 1,300 hp Rocket Axle could be screwed to your car’s rear axle for $4,695. Nearly 60,000 rpm was reduced to the car’s axles through a hot rod quick-change rear end. While a number of Drag Axles were tried in quarter-mile contests, none survived. One Volkswagen sedan went airborne at 180 mph, spinning and endo-ing through the traps. Driver Roy Drew survived.
Soon, lawsuits brought against Turbonique and Middlebrooks mounted. In 1970, a 21-count federal indictment for fraud killed Turbonique. With Middlebrooks defending himself, the court proceedings were as chaotic, and spectacular, as was Turbonique’s products. Having been indicted and acquitted in two previous suits, the third time was not the charm. Middlebrooks was sentenced to two years in federal prison and fined $4,000.
We can’t thank Middlebrooks and Turbonique enough for taking an insane idea to deranged lengths and then selling it mail-order. It shows that the pursuit of speed, thrills, and freedom, have boundaries. If you ever lament the laws, regulations, and government oversight, keep Turbonique in mind. The US government is trying to protect us from ourselves.