It’s summertime, and a young man’s fancy turns to… attaching rockets to his motorcycle! Except, in each of these cases, a middle-aged man is actually behind the project, which lends a Freudian question mark to their motives…

Fritz von Opel, the grandson of the Opel company founder, with his amazing rocket-boosted Opel Motoclub in 1930, which was a Neander built under license. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Fritz von Opel was the grandson of Adam Opel, the founder in 1862 of the Opel bicycle and sewing machine factory, which moved into automobile production in 1899.  In the 1920s, the factory adopted Fordian mass-production techniques, and sold an early ‘people’s car’, the Tree Frog (Laubfrosch), sold in any color you liked as long as it was green lacquer. By 1928 Opel had a 37.5% share of the German auto market, and was the largest exporter, which attracted investment from General Motors, who were looking for a foothold in Europe.  In 1919 GM bought 80% of the company, and 100% of it in 1931.  The Opel family took in $33.3Million from the sale of the factory, making them among the wealthiest families in Germany.

If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention. The Motoclub in its original six-rocket form.  The Opel looks fairly standard, but we can’t see the gearing behind the rocket mounts. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Wealthy families tend to produce cavalier offspring, and the 1920s was a heyday of Gatsbian conspicuous consumption, with a newly created international press corps to spread their antics far and wide.  And Fritz von Opel (the family gained a title in 1917 for services to Germany) was a risk-taking, dashing, and flamboyant extrovert in the finest 1920s style.  With his slicked-back hair, owlish glasses, love for adventure, and access to amazing vehicles, he appeared to be a unique mix of a dashing Jazz Age playboy and Teutonic rocket scientist, which in fact describes him perfectly.  Fritz leveraged the family fortune into a personal campaign of well-publicized adventures using cars, motorcycles, boats, and airplanes.

Looking like a character in an Expressionist film, Fritz von Opel was certainly an intense figure. [Wikipedia]
In 1928 he began attaching rockets to racing cars, a special high-speed train car, an airplane, and a Neander/Opel motorcycle. The bike in question was an Opel MotoClub 500SS to which 6 solid-propellant rockets (with a thrust capacity of 66lbs combined) were attached. The rider activated the rockets with a foot pedal, after using the motorcycle’s engine to reach 75mph; Opel calculated that 220km/h (132mph) was then possible. The World Motorcycle Speed Record in 1928 was held by O.M. Baldwin on his 996cc Zenith- JAP, at 124.5mph (taken at Arpajon, France): theoretically, the World Record was within reach!

Making a lot of smoke in front of a crowd of 7000, with 12 rockets. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
On May 19, 1928, the rocket-boosted Motoclub (dubbed ‘the Monster’, for obvious reasons) was demonstrated at the Hamborner Radrennbahn, with much smoky drama, before a crowd of 7000. In early testing, it was clear six rockets didn’t give enough boost, so Opel doubled down on the concept, adding 12 rockets for the demonstration.   He seriously considered an attempt at the absolute World Motorcycle Speed Record, but simply strapping on rockets isn’t a guarantee of success even in a straight line.  In truth the boost was unpredictable and frightening, and the ordinary roadster motorcycle chassis, even if if was a fine specimen like the Neander design, was asking for stability issues.  The German racing authorities thought so as well, and forbade the use of the rocket-cycle for a speed attempt, on the grounds of safety.

And you thought the bike was trouble: the racing car was far more dramatic: this is his second iteration of the concept, the Ope RAK-2, which reached 143mph. Look at those skinny 1928 tires! [Opel Archives]
Fritz von Opel attached rockets to cars: the RAK-1 and RAK-2, as well as two aircraft (also RAK-1 and 2), and a rocket train that reached 157mph, but crashed.  He also raced boats in this intense period of activity, 1928 and ’29, but left Germany by 1930, spending his time in Italy, the USA (in 1940 even) and Switzerland, where he died in 1971.  Fritz von Opel was the original Rocket Man.

The Opel RAK-2 car in profile, with a very innovative set of wings to keep it all on the ground. [Opel Archives]
The world’s first rocket-propelled aircraft, the RAK-1, which was destroyed in a crash before Opel could fly it. [Opel Archives]
Smoke and speed. Had he persevered, no doubt von Opel would have taken the World Record, but not in Germany. The concept was sound, and many speed records have been taken by rocket-boosted cars. [Opel Archive]
For our Road Test of a 1930 Neander (without rockets!) take a look here.

 

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