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Rocket Man

By February 14, 2019 No Comments
Rocket Man

Like many people who grace the pages of motoring magazines, Max Valier died a fiery death at a young age doing what he loved … but it’s not exactly how you’re imagining.

I first learned about Max in a long-forgotten magazine called Motor Life. He never lived to become a household name, but I think his limited fame deserves recognition beyond his native Austria. You see, Max can teach us about a prerequisite for changing the world: bravado.

Max was a space enthusiast first and foremost. Some of his pioneering rocket experiments from the 1930s inspired the next generation of brilliant scientists and engineers. I’m sure more than a few mid-century innovators tipped their slide rules in deference to Max as they figured out how to put boots on the moon and launch satellites over our heads.

But he also inspired people to think differently about mobility here on planet Earth. In the early 20th century, while everybody was thinking spark plugs and gears, Max was working on rocket-powered travel.

Max was a colorful physicist, garage inventor, author and visionary — not necessarily in that order. Judging by his public antics, I imagine him to have been a suave fellow, a macho intellect who might have shown up at an art deco salon in Berlin and tossed back schnapps as he talked about his then-popular book, A Daring Trip to Mars, charming an admirer with a sly “It’s not rocket science, you know.”

My copy of Motor Life was published in April 1930. Back then, in the golden age of Ford and Mercedes-Benz, Max was thinking of how to power vehicles in ways other than the already-entrenched internal combustion engine. Noted for his “many rocket experiments” and for having an imagination larger than the Austrian Alps, he must have stripped the mental gears of his peers with proposals like “Why not strap a rocket engine to four wheels, gas it up with liquid oxygen and light the burner?”

Max can teach us about a prerequisite for changing the world: bravado.

Max Valier’s liquid-fuel rocket car married his two passions — space propulsion and cars — and his vision helped usher in the age of space travel.

Max championed several sleek rocket-car designs, many of which were showcased to curious Europeans eager for novelties. I wish I could have been at one of the carnival-like demonstrations of his controlled explosions on wheels — with him in the driver’s seat.

Smiling at the photos of Max’s crazy, heroic stunts, I cast myself back to an April day in 1930, when a crowd of excited men, women and children had gathered at a village racetrack in Germany.

“Stand clear!” Max shouts to his pit crew as he hunches forward and turns valves under the steering wheel.

Unbeknownst to his audience, he breaks into a mild sweat as he hears liquid oxygen swish through the pipes leading to the engine behind him. Max knows that any leak and spark combination will turn the entire car into a giant match, with him at the tip.

Sitting up, Max takes a deep breath as he releases the safety brake. The wheels move a few centimeters. The technicians scramble away. Max sucks in another deep breath and, with a twist of his wrist, flips the ignition switch on the thin dashboard. Eyes instinctively closed, he waits only a split second before the rocket burner lights up behind him, vibrating his body back to front.

Roaring heat, light and smoke spew out of the engine’s raucous exhaust pipes. In the bleachers, the tension strains every human sense. Dogs start barking uncontrollably, though nobody notices above the roar of the crowd and rocket engine.

Sitting up front in the stands, pencil and notepad in hand, the Motor Life reporter scribbles a quick understatement: “The car is set in motion by the force of escaping gas from three steel tubes attached to the rear of the driver’s seat.”

The car is now beginning to creep, restraining itself from the surges of the flaming force. A few seconds go by before Max turns the wheels down the straightaway, releases the brake and opens the fuel valves a full turn. Gaining momentum, the rocket car suddenly bursts down the track, to the crowd’s delight. Collectively, they snap their heads and follow the trail of white smoke into the distance.

Max lives up to his hero reputation, again.

Swagger trumps safety.


It’s safe to say that anyone who witnessed Max searing a racetrack knew that his bonfire on wheels wasn’t a practical mode of public transport. The spectacle was undoubtedly thrilling to watch, but no sane person was going to fire up one of these things to run chores or drive down a village Hauptstraße to get pretzels from the corner grocer.

But there was method to Max’s madness. I don’t think he was expecting his unrealistic cars to replace the luxurious ride of a Mercedes-Benz roadster. He was selling dreams to his audience, showing them the possibilities — in a sense, pre-ordering the future.

Max’s antics were similar to those of other charismatic techno-celebrities who changed the course of history. Big-minded titans of innovation like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla and Steve Jobs were all masters of showcasing — if not showboating — their fantastical inventions to the public.

Among the living tech visionaries, it strikes me that Elon Musk, the legendary founder of future-looking companies like SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is an uncanny double-take of Max Valier. Both share a love of invention, space travel and new-age mobility. Both share a love of public theatrics too.

Musk’s bravado in pitching things like electric vehicles, trips to Mars and hyperloops tickles the imaginations of investors, engineers and tech-hungry consumers. His self-confidence, onstage flair and closely followed social media posts allowed him to raise billions to finance history-bending ventures.

Here’s the thing: much of what Musk began pitching circa 2010 — his dreams about electric cars and space adventures — was nothing new.

Much of what Elon Musk began pitching circa 2010 — his dreams about electric cars and space adventures — was nothing new.

Related Vignettes


To corroborate my déjà vu, I pull out my February 1971 issue of Popular Science. Page 51 pitches readers on “How We’ll Search for Life on Mars.” Flip to page 54, and the cover story tries to convince us that “New Electrics Make Performance Breakthroughs.” (Funny how visions of space travel to Mars and futuristic cars seem to appear in pairs.)

The article claims the sleek-looking 1971 Voltair, the magazine’s cover darling, delivered good range and speed. Yet, despite its supposed breakthroughs, this all-electric vehicle was never adopted into mainstream markets. Why? I’m pretty certain the high cost of the Voltair’s “tri-Polar lead-cobalt batteries” had a lot to do with its dismal sales: in 10 years of production, only 60 were purchased. Maybe if Robert Aronson, CEO of the Voltair’s manufacturing company, had taken a page from Max’s playbook, he might have garnered more attention, and sales, for his car.

So electric vehicles have come and gone in the last century, but none gripped the imagination of the public until Elon Musk and his Tesla models came along.

There’s no question in my mind that panache, audacity, bravado — call it what you want — is a requirement for bringing disruptive products to market. And the scale of the bravado required goes up exponentially with the magnitude of the disruption. If you want to change out a billion gas-powered vehicles in the world, you’d better be able to sell full-color dreams, not just dull science experiments and spreadsheets.

What Max and other trailblazers teach us is that while technology inevitably changes the course of history, its champions’ passion, bravado and showmanship will bring on the change much sooner.

Sadly, Max’s trail was cut short prematurely. In May 1930, one month after the publication of my Motor Life, he died while running tests of an alcohol-based rocket fuel. Bolstered by two successful tests, he decided to run another. With that third attempt, Max became the first casualty of the modern space age. He was only 35.

Max may not be famous today, but his work was the foundation that others built on. For example, in 1927, he co-founded the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, or Society for Space Travel. Max’s dreams and experiments were inspirational to those who made spaceflight a reality in the 20th century.

I wonder where history would have taken us if Max Valier had lived longer. Maybe we’d all be driving rocket-powered cars.

You’d better be able to sell full-color dreams, not just dull science experiments and spreadsheets.