Fritz von Opel: The original rocket man

238kph is still pretty speedy today, but imagine achieving it 92 years ago. That's exactly what Fritz von Opel did, without a helmet even!

Rüsselsheim. 10 o’clock in the morning on May 23, 1928: A futuristic racing car with lateral wings storms along the Avus in Berlin while hissing sharply. 29-year-old Fritz von Opel, grandson of company founder Adam Opel, had successively fired the 24 solid fuel rockets in the rear of his RAK 2 and shot past the packed stands with a fire trail in his wake. The 3 000 spectators go crazy when the glossy black car with the Opel writing comes to a standstill: “Rocket Fritz” from Rüsselsheim has just set a new course speed record with 238 km/h. On top of that he has just proved to the general public that rocket propulsion is powerful and controllable. 

Carmaker as rocket pioneer

The history of the Opel RAK 2 dates back to the autumn of 1927 when Fritz von Opel decided to get actively involved in the rocket research project of publicist and astronomer Max Valier (1895-1930) after meeting the Austrian. The racing driver, entrepreneur and the qualified engineer brought to the project his own commitment along with the innovative and financial strength of Opel. His reasoning? On the one hand, he was personally fascinated by rocket technology and on the other, because he hoped that the visionary plan would have a positive impact on the Opel brand. Opel asked Friedrich Sander (1885-1938) to join the project for a fast implementation of the rocket motor as Sander’s company manufactured solid fuel signal rockets.

First drives in Rüsselsheim

The cooperation between Valier, Sander and von Opel started to bear fruits as early as March 1928. The first rocket-propelled prototypes are launched on the Opel test track in Rüsselsheim – obviously behind closed doors. On April 11, the Opel RAK 1 with Opel engineer and racing driver Kurt Volkhart behind the wheel reaches 100 km/h within eight seconds.

The vehicle, which already has small lateral wings, is based on an Opel 4/12. It is propelled by twelve Sander rockets with around 40 kg of explosives. The proof of the usability of rockets is done. The team agrees that tests with higher speeds should be conducted, not least based on the overwhelming response in the press. As the test track in Rüsselsheim was not suitable for such tests, the team chose the Avus in Berlin because it had two long straights.

Futuristic design with 24 rockets

The Opel RAK 2 was especially designed for the record-breaking attempt on the Avus. It was based on the chassis of an Opel 10/40 and was a significant enhancement of the RAK 1 in many areas. It was longer than its predecessor with a length of 4.88 metres, the aerodynamics had been fine-tuned, the lateral wings were larger and it had 24 solid fuel rockets that developed six tonnes of thrust. Elsewhere, the sequential electric ignition of the charges via a pedal in the footwell was maintained. The 560 kg, futuristic-looking race car neither had an engine nor a transmission.

The dream becomes reality

The flamboyant Fritz von Opel named himself as the pilot – and he planned his record-breaking show in Berlin meticulously both from a technical and from an organisational perspective.

Around 3 000 people including journalists, celebrities, athletes and politicians were invited. And the guests flocked to the event. Film stars Lilian Harvey and Thea von Harbou, Metropolis director Fritz Lang, popular racing drivers Hanni Köhler and Carl Jörns along with boxing legend Max Schmeling were all in attendance.

Prior to the start Professor Johann Schütte, Chairman of the Scientific Society of Aviation, and Fritz von Opel held prophetic speeches. Then the Opel team got ready. Mechanics August Becker and Karl Treber took the tarpaulin off the Opel RAK 2 and carefully pushed it to the start. Only then were the rockets installed and connected to the ignition mechanism. Police cleared the track and Fritz von Opel slipped in behind the large wooden steering wheel. A handshake pregnant with meaning with Friedrich Sander follows. The excited spectators suddenly fall silent. Then everything happens really fast. “I step on the ignition pedal and the rockets roar behind me, throwing me forward. … I step on the pedal again, then again and – it grips me like a rage – a fourth time. To my sides, everything disappears. ... The acceleration gives me a rush. I stop thinking. I’m acting on instinct alone, with uncontrollable forces raging behind me,” said “Rocket Fritz” when looking back.

The Rüsselsheim-born entrepreneur mastered the Nordkurve and successfully prevented the car from taking off – the wings did not quite deliver enough downforce for the breakneck speed. Everything is over after just three minutes. The RAK 2 slowly taxied to a standstill, the large white plume of smokes disappeared into the Berlin sky and were replaced by the thunderous applause from the spectators. Von Opel reached a speed of 238 kph and became a household name in Germany overnight. 

Innovative spirit and technical competence

Spurred by their success in Berlin, Fritz von Opel and Friedrich Sander continue their experiments. On June 23, 1928, they set a new record for rail vehicles when they reach 256 km/h with the Opel RAK 3 rocket handcar. After also conducting tests with a motorbike, the legendary Opel Motoclub, they turn their attention to aviation. And on September 30, 1929, they are responsible for yet another pioneering feat – the first ever public rocket-powered flight in the Opel-Sander RAK 1 high wing aircraft built by Julius Hatry.

Shortly after this, the Opel rocket experiments were brought to an end by the Great Depression and the company focused its development capacities on vehicle development.

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