The Rocket Car
by Rod Miner | Jan 15, 2014
The whole thing began, and the strangeness commenced, on a day that was probably much like any other. His bemused children have conjectured that the idea came to him during his regular workday commute to his rocket-building job, a commute that he valued for the time he gave him to think without interruption.
The rockets he had helped build were sleek and powerful. They were dangerous, too; he told stories of explosions on the launch pad at Vandenburg Air Force Base Missile Launch Facility, and of his acquaintances unfortunate enough to be standing too close when it happened. But, to him, rockets were things of a undeniable hard beauty. It would not be too much to say he loved rockets.
It may seem only natural then, that the cross pollination that is the hallmark of design would one day hybridize in his mind the rockets he built with the car in which he commuted. Designers like Earl Miner don’t spend a lot of time saying things like “naww” or “it probably won’t work”. A designer with inventiveness like Earl says “sure”, “why not?” and “how can I make it work?” Within moments of the spark of the idea, we can be sure that Earl was asking himself ‘how’, not ‘if’, he would build a rocket that he could drive.
The rocket body was not really the hard part; building them was something he had plenty of experience in doing. The engine and transmission wouldn’t be difficult for a man of his mechanical talents. Finding a place to put a person in or on the rocket would be the new challenge.
This was the 1970’s, before personal computers and before CAD. Earl worked with paper and squares and protractors. He designed as a sculptor does, as a boat-builder does, as Frank Lloyd Wright did, standing back and eyeing the line to make sure it was ‘fair’ and pleasing. The concept was first sketched on a pad, a shape was developed, then that shape was plotted against hard points necessary to the functioning of the machine. The shape was then squeezed and stretched to fit the hard points and, if the profile was no longer pleasing, he would see if the hard points could move.
This was Earl’s process. He sat in his chair by the window with a pad of paper, sketching and sketching, getting up now and then with tape measure in hand to confirm a relationship or critical clearance. His children would pause in their youthful scurryings to lean against the arm of his chair and ask “whatcha workin’ on Daddy?” They could watch the design become everyday more firm, with dark curved lines steadily replacing the first tentative pencil strokes.
Earl chose a steel tubing frame and a sheet aluminum covering; essentially this would be airplane/rocket construction methods. Well over a thousand rivets would be placed. The windshield would be safety glass and the side windows polycarbonate. There would be a standard rear car axle and a single front wheel. Details were worked out one by one.
The driver’s access and engine access was designed after the shape. In order to get the driver in the cockpit and the mechanic to the engine, Earl came up with an ingenious solution, a combination hood/door that lifted and moved forward on a pivot arm to provide driver access, then rotated up and back on its pivot point to provide engine access. Access to the Chevy engine was going to be easier than any car ever built. Access to the cockpit would require that one lift the lid, sit on the wing and then swing the legs over.
The Rocket Car took shape in the family’s garage-shaped shop. Every day when the kids came home from school they could see, in something like stop-motion photography, the increment of work that had been done the evening before. Sometimes they would seen things undone and then gradually redone, in a mechanically better or aesthetically more pleasing form.
When the Rocket Car was finally ready for the road, it immediately became the talk of the town. Everyone in Buffalo and Marshfield, Missouri learned who Earl Miner was. When it hit the highway, every highway patrol between Springfield and Rolla came to know Earl.
He almost always obeyed the speed limit, so when flashing red and blue lights signaled that he was being pulled over yet again, he knew he was in for one of several exchanges.
“Whatthehell?” was the most common opening. Sometimes it was just confused stammering. “What the heck is this thing?” “Are you legal?” At least once it was “I thought a plane had landed on the interstate.” Sometimes it was just “Hi, Earl, howyadoin; thought maybe you had a light out, but it looks okay up close. Howza wife and kids?
What’s new with the Rocket?” At least once Earl succumbed to the challenge of the driver of a hot sports car and was caught racing, but got off with a warning, which didn’t surprise us in the least; Earl thought it made the patrolman’s day.
The Miner children all learned to drive the Rocket Car. It wasn’t easy, especially for someone who had not long ago finished driver’s training. You sat at the very back of a very long vehicle, with a very, very long nose in front of you. Earl knew exactly where the point of that narrow nose was, and delighted in swinging the long javelin shape to within just a couple feet of the doors of startled drivers when turning right at intersections.
It was also more than a little challenging to get used to the controls. The steering wheel moved side to side and forward and back. There were no pedals. To accelerate you pulled back on the wheel. To brake, you pushed forward. When exiting the vehicle the wheel was pivoted off to the side. You could always tell a first time driver by the surging and weaving. Learning the wildly different controls while handling the horsepower of a vehicle that had power-to-weight stronger than a Ferrari humbled many a first timer. Earl said that it would do 150 mph, but didn’t say how he knew this was so. Nowadays we would call the Rocket Car a ‘delta’ geometry vehicle, and despite opinions that people might have against tricycles and deltas, it was rock solid.
The Rocket Car was Earl’s everyday commuter for six years and 90,000 miles and it performed flawlessly. He took it on road trips and even drove up Pike’s Peak. But eventually there came a day that the Rocket received a higher calling and Earl returned to using a normal car.
The Rocket Car was given new paint, a new name and a new job. The vehicle would become an ambassador for peace, and from this point forward be used by the organization Wings Of Hope for fundraising purposes. And the world, though it hardly knew what to do with it, had the “Peace Rocket”.