Fritz Von Opel and his Rocket Bike

It’s generally well known that German scientists and engineers were some of the earliest pioneers of rocket flight, but it’s less well known that Germany also pushed the boundaries for terrestrial rocket propulsion. One of the biggest proponents was Fritz von Opel, the grandson of the famous German carmaker Adam Opel.

Fritz Adam Hermann von Opel (nicknamed Raketen-Fritz = Rocket-Fritz) spent the late 1920’s trying to kill himself in a variety of rocket powered vehicles among them the Opel based RAK-1 and RAK-2. However, Fritz also build and tested a true rocket-bike based on a Neander/Opel MotoClub 500SS and powered by 6 solid-fuel rockets.

It’s not hard to imagine how this thrill-seeking millionaire Wiemar Republic playboy came upon the idea of making motorcycling even more dangerous, by mounting a rocket battery on the rear end. He was well known as a technology innovator and as a member of Verein für Raumschiffahrt (the “Spaceflight Society” that also counted pioneers like Wernher von Braun and Hermann Oberth as members) he had access to some of the best minds in rocketry. Besides, the 1920’s were a time where people with money simply did things for kicks and Fritz got his kicks from champagne, beautiful women and rockets (don’t we all).

In 1928 the world speed record for motorcycles was 200km/t – established by O. M. Baldwin on a 996ccm Zenith-JAP. Fritz reckoned his rocket-monster easily could break this record if he was able to find a rider brave enough to try. As an engineer he had already done the calculations and concluded the top speed would be just over 220km/. All he needed was a suitable racetrack.

Hamborner Radrennbahn suited his purpose perfectly and on a sunny summers day in 1928 he made a demonstration run before of a gaping crowd. His plan was to break the record later that summer. However, having a rocket powered motorcycle is no guarantee for setting a new World Record (even in 1928). The whole project really depended upon two main factors: keeping the bike going in a straight line and not killing the rider. It’s a dangerous sport and in fact it was deemed so dangerous that German authorities forbade Fritz von Opel’s record attempt – and rocket powered motorcycles in general. Von Opel was understandably pretty disappointed, but rather than sulk in his garage he quickly moved on to rocket powered cars, trains and gliders (one of which he personally flew in 1929).

The late 20’s was von Opels time to shine. He left Germany and the Opel company in 1929 and went to USA at the beginning of World War II. He must have been tired of the limelight as there is very little information about him for the next 42 years. At some stage he returned to Europe and he died in Switzerland in 1971.

Recently a German motorcycle enthusiast restored a beautiful old Neander/Opel MotoClub 500SS and in honor of von Opel he added optional solid-fuel rockets (although just replicas). Somehow my bike is just not going to feel the same anymore…