In 1928, the motorcycle speed record stood at 124.5 mph, just a little over 200kph. The founder of the Opel Motor company’s grandson, Fritz Opel, was in charge of testing and publicity. A canny showman, he recognized the bang he would get out of attaching explosive propulsion to a motorcycle. He hatched a plan to literally rocket into the history books with a new land speed record. Before he could set a record, the authorities got wind of his crazy plan. They banned the rocket powered motorcycle before he could make it official. But he did get off a few test runs. He also applied the idea to rocket cars, rocket trains, and rocket planes. Read on to learn more about this bold pioneer of the vintage motorcycle era.
Fritz Von Opel’s Rocket Powered Motorcycle
Opel was principally a car manufacturing company, but they had also begun producing stock motorcycles. Fritz Von Opel chose the Neander Super Sport model as the base for his “Raketen Motorrad.” Opel manufactured the Neander SS with a 22 hp overhead valve one cylinder motor. That motor would only take the bike up to around 75 mph, or 120 kph. That speed was well short of the current speed record.
To reach the record – and draw attention to the family business with his wild stunt – Fritz planned to fire six solid-fuel rockets attached to the rear of the bike and ignited with a foot pedal. With the rockets attached, the 500 cc rocket propelled motorcycle weighed almost 400 lbs (180 kg).
First, the rider would accelerate to the single cylinder engine’s maximum speed. Then the rider would activate the rockets, lighting up the powder with the foot pedal. Together, the rockets would produce 66 lbs (or 30 kg) of thrust. That force would theoretically accelerate the rocket powered motorcycle to 132 mph, setting a new record.
Hindenburg Steps in to Keep Things Safe
The Opel team built the bike and ran a few test runs. Historians believe he may have broken the land speed record in those tests, but only unofficially. Before Opel could set an official speed record, the government got wind of the plan and nixed the idea. Paul Von Hindenburg, second president of Germany, was beset by irony. A self-professed monarchist, he ended up in charge of a constitutional democracy. Being safety minded, he banned all rocket power motorcycles. Several years later, the Hindenburg hydrogen blimp bore his name. Oh the ironic humanity! Meanwhile Hindenburg was busy trying to keep Hitler from taking over the government. That did not work out so great either.
And Fritz? Fritz just blew up on outta there with his family in 1929, perhaps sensing things were not going so well in the government. He immigrated to the United States. There, he fathered Formula One race car driver Frederick “Rikky” Von Opel. Before he left Germany, he managed to get a few other rocket powered projects off the ground.
They Called Him “Rocket Fritz”
In March 1928, Fritz build and test a rocket powered car. He called it the RAK 1. The Rak 1 reached top speed of 47 mph. The achievement proved, for the first time, the feasibility of rocket powered land transportation. After a quick return to the drawing board, Fritz came out with the RAK 2, powered by 24 rockets. With the RAK 2, Fritz reached 143 mph! By this time, Henry Seagrave had set a record at 231 mph in the conventional Golden Arrow car. So Fritz’s time was not a record, but still quite an accomplishment.
Fritz also bought a sailplane – an un-powered glider plane – and attached a rocket to it, thus creating the first rocket propelled plane. It blew up while someone else was piloting it, before he had a chance to try it himself. Undaunted, Fritz created a second rocket powered plane and flew it himself. Meanwhile, his new rocket powered railway car exploded at 157 mph.
Pioneers of Vintage Motorcycle History
The vintage motorcycle period is filled with interesting characters, iconoclasts, risk-takers, speed demons, and innovators. Our Gentleman’s Lounge is filled with articles on these fascinating gals and fellas who dared to take on all manner of adventures and challenges. You can read about Burt Munro, who tinkered with a 1920s Indian for 40 years to eventually set a land speed record. On a grander scale, Hercules Hell Rider Glen Curtiss set a land speed record by attaching a blimp engine to a motorcycle, and, arguably, invented the modern airplane. Then there are the explorers – Carl Clancy Stearns, first person to ride around the world and Bessie Stringfield, an African American woman who rode across the United States and through the American South, and the Van Buren sisters, suffragettes who rode for the right to vote and serve in the military. Gentleman’s lounge also has interesting articles on vintage motorcycle engines and more. Enjoy!