PUBLICATIONS :: NYSM RECORD :: Daniel & Floyd Hungerford

cover Daniel and Floyd Hungerford: Rocket Power, Interstellar Travel and Eternal Life

by Geoffrey N. Stein


While there is only one Hungerford rocket car, there were other rocket cars. The Hungerfords in the 1920s knew about developments of rocket-powered automobiles, sleds, and aircraft.  Daniel Hungerford told Marvin in the 1960s that, “rocket cars were being tested in Germany with some success and we couldn't see why it couldn't be tried here as well, so we decided to build a working model.” This was in the early fall of 1929.

      Our idea as we went along was to construct a second pilot model if the first one was as successful as we thought it would be, then we considered trying to build a rocket ship which might reach the Moon, but we never got any further on this than having a picture painted by a sign painter we knew. It was bout this time that we had our stationery printed and this is where ‘interstellar' fit in.
      Floyd and I then decided that if the rocket or rockets worked out as expected, we'd go into the business building cars with rocket engines. Our idea was to construct the first one in a sort of cigar shape...and then work the other one up as a conventional sort of design.
      We never drew any plans or diagrams for this because we never got as far as the second prototype. We simply spent all our time trying to promote the car we had.
      What I visualized was a car of about the Buick size with the rocket exhaust pipe or pipes running under the frame of the body and with the tail protrusions directly under the rear bumper. Of course, the gasoline tank would have had to be placed somewhere up front under the hood or under the seat to avoid any conflict with the exhaust mechanism at the rear.
      We'd call the car the Hungerford Rocket and if we built one or two of the conventional appearing cars and could interest some people around the area—Elmira, Horseheads or Binghamton—to back us, we'd look for a small factory and begin serious production.76


The Hungerford brothers learned from other inventors' work.  Igor Spajic (1998) notes the influence of Hermann Oberth's Rakete zu den Planetenraeumen (The Rocket into Interplanetary Space) published in Germany in 1923 and translated into English. Another Central European experimenter was the Austrian Max Valier (1895–1930). Author of several works on astronomy and space travel, including Auf kuehner Farht zum Mars (1928), Raketenfahrt (1930), and Der Vorstoss in den Weltenraum (1923).77 Valier worked with solid-fuel vehicles before turning to liquid fuel, an explosion of which took his life. Perhaps the Hungerfords encountered Valier's printed work. Certainly his name was prominent in the print media. In any case, they telegraphed Valier's widow after the death claiming, perhaps somewhat immodestly, “We are inspired by the vastness of his ambition and will carry on.”78 Marvin observed that the Hungerfords stuck to low octane gasoline rather than the “liquid oxygen” that proved fatal to Valier.


Marvin suggested that the first automobile owned by the Daniel and Floyd was a second-hand 1911 Cadillac, “update[ed] with a newer body”. Another Cadillac followed with the same treatment.79 In 1918 Daniel Hungerford's Overland touring car was destroyed by a train on the Erie tracks at First Street.80 Acquaintances recall a 1924(?) Model T Ford speedster and/or 1924 Model T Ford touring car, 1933 Plymouth, 1936 Nash, a 1930s Terraplane and, the last car operated by Hungerford, a 1935 Pontiac. 81 In short, the Hungerford rocket car was a special machine never intended to replace its more quotidian cars. 

For their one and only rocket car, the Hungerfords started in September 1929 with the acquisition of a 1921 Chevrolet 490 touring car. The brothers and their colleagues in the project eliminated the body but utilized the chassis and running gear. In brief, the vehicle could be operated using the original engine, transmission and rear-wheel drive. For rocket propulsion, the car was accelerated using the Chevrolet engine. Once underway the gasoline-fueled rocket was fired using a spark plug. Then, said Daniel Hungerford, “you would start: to go like hell.”82

In 1964 he wrote,

      It was October – 1929 – year of the great depression. We secured strips of wood and sheets of cardboard 1/8” thick – The chassis was a 1921 chevrolette [sic]– brought to us by our Ashman Mr. George Reeves  - from the late Mr. F. Brockway Blossom – local Banker – all disassembled. My brother Floyd S. and John Emery Botsford had reassembled the chassis and were going to mount a buzz saw on it – to saw wood. Instead we built the body and the Rocket motor and installed them.83

Marvin learned from Hungerford that construction of the car was rapid. The framing for the body required ten days. Completion of the whole in its initial guise took only four weeks in “a small, red wooden shop located at the rear of their neighbor's adjoining property.”84 Some 35 years after the fact Daniel Hungerford wrote that his then next door neighbor was “dumfounded [sic] yesterday to learn we built the Rocket Car body in his garage. I have no photo of that.”85 Marvin also noted that the builders in those four weeks worked non-stop, halting only to eat.86

Covering for the car's body was a “simple thick cardboard” selected so that “in the event of emergency” Hungerford could kick his way out, a process practiced twice in the early days of rocket-propelled experimentation with the machine.87

The rocket engine first utilized a fire-clay lined, iron cone. An undated newspaper clip described Hungerford's problem with the lining. He reportedly had been “working for months on the perfection of a rocket automobile. He thought he had the contraption almost ready for a demonstration this week, when he discovered a flaw.”  The “explosion block” operated “successfully” being fueled by a rotary pump. But,

            [k]eeping the expansion chamber cool is the problem Mr. Hungerford now faces. He procured a fire clay, which a molder said would withstand great heat, but after a trial the clay was reduced to a liquid and the metal cover of the expansion chamber badly burned.
            “I hope someone knows of a clay that will withstand heat of 4,000 or 6,000 degrees, Mr. Hungerford said. “I do not want to put a water jacket on the expansion chamber, but it may be necessary.”88

Figure 12:
Daniel and Floyd held their rocket engine, the
device installed in the rocket car. The image dates about 1930.

The three other cones at the rear of the car are dummy engines. Hungerford told Marvin the extra tubes served as a “snare and delusion” as did dummy smoke stacks on ocean liners. “Dummy stacks may have not done anything practical in moving the ship, but they certainly spelled prestige,” said Hungerford.

With the single rocket, the car broke seventy miles per hour. Hungerford said, “It nearly became airborne. I often wondered how fast I might have driven it had it been a Locomobile or Pierce-Arrow chassis and with all four pipes in action.”89

The rocket car evolved during the years of Hungerford ownership. George Mapes remembered a replacement radiator was installed so that the lower unit allowed the driver to have a better view to the front. Mapes did not remember the maker of the replacement radiator although he knew it was not a Waco.90 Marvin said the new engine radiator added greater capacity than the original Chevrolet part. Marvin also mentioned a carborundum lining for the rocket engine successfully replacing the previous fragile lining. Additional windows were added in the early 1930s. Larger rear wheels were added from a 1937 Chevrolet.91

The continuing development of the Hungerford rocket car also prompted components to be improved by companies supplying the Hungerfords. While an initial 300 R.P.M. pump injected gasoline into the rocket engine, later a high speed (ca. 1,750 R.P.M.) Gould pump improved performance for the Hungerfords. Hungerford wrote in 1964 that on a return visit with the rocket car to the Gould Pump Company in Seneca Falls, he had learned from the chief engineer that “since we rigged this Pump for you – we have developed a new High Speed Turner 1725 R.P.M.”92 Later, in pointing to the positive influence the rocket car had had (contrary to Marvin's suggestion that the overall effect on the world was a negative), Hungerford noted the “Gould Pump Co. built high speed pumps only as a result of the pump they built for us. Up to that time the pump they built...was turned by Hand Crank Speed about 200 RPM. Their new pump was a Herring bone – type Cam and was direct driven from the end of the motor shaft at 1725 R.P.M.”93

Marvin noted that “cams and gears” inside the rocket engine were “specially made of bronze after it was found that the cast iron would break. The carburetor was neatly connected with the bottom pump which carried the fuel, cutting into the main gas line.” He also recorded that the Hungerfords rigged the service and emergency brakes with a “series of pulleys” to operate together, assuring “dual braking power if and when needed.”94

While the first rocket car body consisted generally of a basswood frame covered with cardboard and perhaps linoleum, the single door on the right side was of sheet steel (remaining on the car in 2013). Marvin reported that the car at various times was painted black, white, and silver.95 Dummy tanks eventually were fitted along the sides of the body. Crossed, illuminated flags and even motorized toy tops on the roof gave a science fiction appearance in the 1940s. Marvin reported “two small portable seats”; there is only one such seat in the car at present (2013).

Hungerford told Marvin the time, labor, and parts probably made the cost of the rocket car about $50,000. Marvin noted that the vehicle “traveled thousands of miles, and as one year succeeded the other, the car that had begun as a 1921 Chevrolet took on an identity more and more its own.”96  

The rocket car was soon named as Shirley Lois “The Moon Girl” for Daniel Hungerford's daughter. With the Hungerfords' first run on Elmira streets, November 2, 1929, the Chevrolet engine—not the rocket—powered the vehicle.97 Daniel later observed that “License plates and insurance was [sic] not so difficult as now, so we used our car plates and without insurance for testing, etc., for a  time – being very careful not to get in trouble.”98 Marvin said the Hungerfords were “hoping we wouldn't be caught. And we never did, but we decided that it was bound to happen sooner or later...” What followed was a dilemma for the County Clerk's office, which after consulting with the state's licensing officials in Albany, issued a registration for a “rocket type” vehicle.99 In 1932, the license plate number was “4J-74-78.”100

In 1964, Hungerford described the operation of the Moon Girl to Marvin, who wrote:

a motorcycle sprocket was mounted ahead of the flywheel which, in turn, connected with a chain which was attached to a connecting apparatus. Once the chain was attached, the clutch of the car became inactive and the gearshift could be used without the clutch. As Daniel Hungerford explains, “Once the car is converted to a rocket vehicle, you shift your gears without clutching and it takes off much like a standard car. By the time you shift into high, a valve between the main gasoline line and the carburetor is activated by the driver who simply throws a switch, cutting in the spark coils. And then you really start moving as the rocket power takes over.”101

Hungerford said another time,

...we always used the clutch in the Shirley Lois – and shifted the gears regular, as you will see by a quick look at same – get in the Rocket – and check for your self [sic]. The sprocket head of the Fly Wheel is 3 times larger than the sprocket on the pump shaft. 2000 R.P.M of the engine gives 6,000 to the pump – peripheral speed of pump cams 5” diam. – 2- 70,000 [90,000?] ins. Per. minute once the chain is installed. The pump runs all the time the Engine - does102

Perhaps the earliest image of the rocket car, likely dating from late 1929 or early 1930, shows the names “Botsford” and “Albee” in addition to “Hungerford” painted on the side. “Albee” was John Albee. According to an undated note with no attribution attached in the files of the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum, John Albee of Freeport, Long Island, New York “worked with Dan Hungerford and owned our [the Curtiss Museum's Curtiss] Oriole [airplane]....Helped Dan build rocket car[.] Also Davis [sic] 2 cyl [sic] opposed was used in the Bleriot he bought in 1913...”103  

Figure 13:
This photograph of the Shirley Lois "The Moon Girl" rocket car probably dates from late 1929. In the photo Emory Botsford stands behind the car. The "Open to U.S.A." sign notes that Fritz von Opel, who had experimented with rockets in Germany, arrived to spend a period in the United States learning about General Motors automobile manufacturing. Notable is the dearth of windows on the side of the body. With the driver sitting adjacent to the single opening there, one can only imagine the difficulty one would have in recognizing any cross traffic at an intersection.
This figure is courtesy of J. Royce Hunt, Botsford's grandson.

The 1930 federal census listed a 20-year old John R. Albee as a chemist who worked at the local Dairymen's League Cooperative Association facility and resided with his parents in Elmira Heights (the father being League division superintendent). For the 1937 Elmira city directory (the last of his listings), John Albee was shown as employed by the Dairymen's League in New York (City) while maintaining an Elmira address. The 1955 and 1960 Nassau telephone directories listed a John R. Albee living at Freeport. The Social Security Death Index indicated Albee (1909–1984) last lived at Zephyrhills, Florida.

J. Emory Botsford, whom Hungerford identified as a colleague in the rocket car project, was listed in the 1916 city directory as an employee of the Willys-Morrow Company, an automobile manufacturing operation. After several intervening jobs, Botsford was shown for 1923 as an employee of the Hungerford Brothers, while boarding with his father on West Church Street. The following year, still associated with the Hungerford Brothers, Botsford had a home on Lovell Avenue. Next his profession was “salesman” with no place of employment given, although a year later he was the used car manager at the Blackstone Motor Company, dealers in Chrysler and Maxwell cars at 259-63 State Street. For 1927, he was an auto mechanic, and later directories continue to identify Botsford as an auto mechanic. Those for 1938 and 1940 show “auto rpg Lovell av h do” [auto repairing Lovell Avenue home ditto].  

Eva Taylor quotes Talitha Botsford about the latter's brother Emory, “also a mechanic, and that the Hungerford rocket car was sometimes parked in front of their [West Church Street] home. As a teenager, she was embarrassed by this. Now she says, ‘Wasn't that silly? Today I would be proud.' However she may feel about it now, the youthful reaction is interesting to us as an indication of the general attitude toward Dan Hungerford during his busiest years in Elmira.”104

Botsford's grandson in the J. Royce Hunt's website (2004) claimed his grandfather “modified the chassis and built the body” while the “four rocket engines”105 were built by Daniel Hungerford, a pioneering genius in the newly emerging ‘aeroplane' industry.” The rocket car body was “made of very heavy paper (like dense cardboard, and a material similar to linoleum.) Grandpa once told me that the reason for this type of covering was so that the occupants could ‘kick their way out' in case of fire or explosion.”

Of the lack of general recognition of Botsford's contribution to the rocket car, Hunt said his grandfather “was known as what was called a ‘rascal' in those days. He had alienated many in the area, perhaps, including the Hungerfords. He never really got much credit for his amazing mechanical and fabricating skills. He seemed to live in the shadow of his very creative father [perhaps Hunt had Emory Botsford's brother in mind, the architect Hull Botsford] and sister [artist and musician Talitha Botsford.]” Hunt also noted that his grandfather invented a means to allow Coleman gas lanterns burn bottled propane rather than liquid white gas. 106

George Mapes, who worked with the Hungerfords in the 1940s, has said Botsford was a good friend to him while Botsford and Hungerford “were like brothers.” Botsford was an excellent craftsman, and Mapes can “well imagine that he made the body for the rocket car.”107 A friendly exchange of letters between Botsford and Hungerford in the 1960s would suggest that the two men had remained cordial.

The banner on the rear of the body in the Botsford-Hungerford picture, “Welcome Opel to U.S.A.”, refers to Fritz von Opel (1899–1971), a German automobile manufacturer and, more importantly for the Hungerfords, experimented with rocket-power. Opel arrived in New York on December 23, 1929 with the expectation of spending “a year in the United States studying the motor industry.”108 While still in Germany, Opel had experimented with both rocket powered cars and aircraft. Thanks to his wealth and influence, Opel's efforts were well financed, combined efforts of others interested in rockets, and “slickly organized by the media savvy...Opel.”109 While dismissive of extra-terrestrial rocket-powered travel (“What would he [man] do when he got there [moon], and how would he get back to earth again?”), Opel saw high speed rocket-powered aircraft making flights from Berlin to New York in three hours.110 One wonders how the Hungerford brothers put aside their socialist interests (see chapter five) to honor the work of a member of one of the more successful capitalist families of Germany. Perhaps avoiding politics was an overwhelming desire to communicate with other rocket experimenters. Cliff Towner recalled Hungerford showing him in the early 1940s “letters from both Dr. Goddard and Willie Ley, with whom he had extensive correspondence.”111


Demonstrations and Promotions

For several years, the Hungerfords demonstrated their rocket car at venues such as race tracks and fairgrounds in New York and Pennsylvania; Plattsburgh, Syracuse and Buffalo were among the places where the car appeared. Three decades later Hungerford said they “went on the highway and at airplane meets and auto racing. We didn't enter the races – just demonstrated Rocket power and a new way of life.”112 Cliff Towner said Daniel “often drove his Rocket Car in local parades on the Fourth of July and on Armistice Day, but never under rocket power, of course.”

Figure 14:
Daniel Hungerford posed at the rear of the rocket car, 1934. A stop light had been located above the license plate.

The Hungerfords tried unsuccessfully to arrange for the display of their car at the Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago in 1933 as well as at the New York World's Fair in 1939. They did succeed in getting publicity nationally, although no payment, on January 15, 1934, on the daily Buck Rogers radio program. A Hungerford letter explained the Elmira rocket experiment and praised the radio program's sponsoring product, the Cocomalt drink (“just the ticket for weary scientists after a day's testing with their rocket car”). A reply purportedly signed by the fictional Buck Rogers told the Hungerfords that, “Because of your interest in rocket motors I feel that you are doing humanity a real service. Rocket airplanes, rocket automobiles, etc., will undoubtedly be the next great important development in transportation. They are on the way.”113

Figure 15:
In a letter addressed December 29, 1933 to Daniel Hungerford from "Buck Rogers," a writer complemented Hungerford "doing humanity a real service. Rocket airplanes, rocket automobiles, etc., will undoubtedly be the great important development in transportation."

Marvin asked Daniel Hungerford if he had ever tried Cocomalt. “I drank it once.” When Marvin asked how Hungerford had liked the drink, he replied “I threw up.”114 Hungerford in a letter alluded to efforts to find other “adv. jobs for the Rocket” beyond the Cocomalt Company (“no luck”). “We tried to get a job with the Spaulding Bakeries in Binghamton, N.Y. No luck. Etc. –etc.”115

Schuyler Lathers, an acquaintance in the later 1930s, remembered Daniel Hungerford describing the rocket car operation. “...he would start with conventional power and build up to about forty-five miles an hour. Then he would light his burners in what he called rockets and then he had enough thrust to disconnect his differential and go to higher speeds. He usually did this at fairs, with someone bellowing out with a loudspeaker as he went around the track.”

Perhaps the last documented demonstration use of the rocket engine was that photographed in 1934 at Colussy's Airport in Coudersport, Pennsylvania.116 Hungerford was accompanied by Charles A. Osman (? – before 1963) inside the rocket car with the temperature reaching 140 F inside the car as it rocketed along the landing field.117 An undated clip from an Elmira newspaper shows the rocket car in operation at the Colussy Airport. The caption says Osman, “kept one hand on a fire extinguisher, which he was ready to use if necessary. Mr. Hungerford is fitting his car with a larger vaporizing pump to increase the efficiency of his rocket apparatus.”118

Figure 16:
Photograph of the rocket car in operation, July 29, 1934, at the Colussy Brothers Airport, Coudersport, Pennsylvania.

Cliff Towner recalled a story told to him by Daniel Hungerford about being stopped on a return from Coudersport by a state trooper on a motorcycle.

He said the trooper didn't believe the car would actually run under rocket power and insisted on a demonstration. Reluctantly, Dan said he complied with the trooper's request and proceed to give him a demonstration on the highway. Unfortunately, the uneven roads of the time, combined with the thrust of the liquid fuel, caused considerable vibration resulting in a very large bolt flying through the side of the rocket car and narrowly missing the trooper, who was riding alongside on his cycle.119

The Potter County, Pennsylvania Enterprise in 1958 noted that the Hungerford rocket car had been the first car “to be licensed by the State of Pennsylvania to operate by rocket power.” It is possible the newspaper reporter confused New York and Pennsylvania registration for the vehicle. In any case, after interviewing Daniel Hungerford in 1958, the paper learned that the Hungerford brothers valued the vehicle at “easily a billion dollars” with the Smithsonian Institution having made bid for it. Twenty-fours years before the Potter Enterprise ran an advertisement indicating the rocket car exhibition was part of a larger “air circus” including stunts, parachute jumps and Cyclone Bill riding a motorcycle through a flaming board wall. The Enterprise itself more somberly had noted,

...Dan Hungerford, scientist and inventor, will be present and demonstrate his rocket car. He will explain his purpose in building the car and how it may be used. He has spent a large part of his life in the study of the planets and his machine will be particularly interesting.120


A July 2, 1935 article in the Elmira Star-Gazette announced a program of ten rockets “in simultaneous flight, rocket-propelled miniature cars, speeding model rocket plans, scientific estimation of rocket velocity and a test of the Hungerford rocket car” at the Caton Avenue airport on the Fourth of July. The affair was to be directed by Daniel Hungerford and it was “expected that a rocket club will be organized....”

       An illustrated lecture on powder and liquid fuel rockets will be given by Mr. Hungerford. He will outline the objectives of the club to be formed and preside at the enrollment of members and election of officers.
       Prizes to be awarded winners of several contests will include airplane rides.
       Youthful enthusiasts will be required to have parental consent to become club members. The age minimum is 12.121

Among the items Marvin received from Hungerford in 1964 was a July 10, 1935 letter to Hungerford from Hayes Schmick (1917–1987), who had “read in the ‘Grit' about the new club for rocket enthusiasts which you are starting....” Schmick wrote he was interested in rockets “ever since I can remember.” With his grandfather, “an inventor with about 250 patents”, he had worked on rocket projects but “lacked equipment to complete rocket motor.” Hungerford noted on the envelope in pencil, “I answered this letter – and – have among my papers designs of several rocket craft – look for them in the brief [?] cases & et. [sic]” In ink on the letter itself, Hungerford wrote, “June – 8 – 1964 This lad was disinherited by his father for his interest in rocketry. He has a laboratory with several others and they have developed several things not rockets. Our club did not materialize. Not enough interest. Daniel D. Hungerford.”

As noted above, Hungerford contemplated the construction of a second rocket car, a project perhaps started but certainly never finished; a newspaper story from 1936 reported that Hungerford was “developing a rocket-propelled automobile.”122 Whether this reference was to the extant car or a second vehicle is not made clear. Other individuals, of course, built rocket-powered automobiles. In 1939 Popular Science published photographs of a rocket-shaped automobile which, as the Hungerford car, was started on a reciprocating piston engine before a “booster rocket” was fired. The builder of the aluminum-bodied “Mars Express” reportedly was Peter Vacca of Buffalo.123


Shirley Hungerford Hyde observed that Arthur G. Hyde, Jr., the older brother of her husband Norman Hyde, was a “glider/airplane enthusiast, knew my dad also and ‘hung' out as a young kid at the garage on W. Second Street....”124 A Hyde family home (at 738 West First Street in 1944), only a few blocks from the Hungerford shop, facilitated Arthur's visits. In the mid-1930s, the Hyde family had lived on the same block as Shirley Hungerford, her mother and grandmother.125

Other young men who found life interesting at the Hungerford garage and machine shop included Cliff R. Towner (1929–1998). Among objects given to Marvin and subsequently donated by him to the New York State Museum was a mimeographed publication, Rockets New Trail to Empire, Review & Bibliography, by R. L. Farnsworth (copyrighted 1943 by the United States Rocket Society, Inc. in Glen Ellyn, Illinois). A handwritten notation was signed by Farnsworth in the book recording “Number 384” sold to Clifford R. Towner.126 A few entries in the Farnsworth bibliography have been highlighted. One wonders if that was done by Towner or even by Hungerford.

Towner noted that he first met Hungerford in the early 1940s “when I was in High School and started a combination Astronomy and Rocket Club. Our Class Advisor suggested Dan as a possible Sponsor....Dan didn't feel he could take the responsibility of Sponsoring our little club, but he extended a very warm and friendly invitation to visit his home and workshop any time and I was quick to accept his gracious invitation.”127

       Of course in those days, before “Buzz Bombs' and V-2's, Dan was considered by most Elmirans as a local, but harmless eccentric. Elmira College....was still a Women's College...and Dan was often invited to lecture there on his theories of Space Travel through Rocketry. In retrospect, I believe his lectures were intended by College officials to offer a “humerous” [sic] interlude to the serious courses....
       Our club members were experimenting with solid fuel rockets at the time, mainly using a formula of potassium nitrate, charcoal and sulphur [sic] and Dan's experiments with liquid oxygen as a propellant fascinated me.128


Clara McCann, a genealogy volunteer at the New York State Library, speaking to the author by telephone in 1994, said she accompanied her father, Newman Worden, in 1932 or 1933 on a trip from Hammondsport (where he built engines for the Curtiss aircraft operation) to visit the Hungerford brothers in Elmira. Worden was building a “strange car of his own. Sort of pointy at the front. He drove it to Elmira that time.” And, McCann added, he traveled to Elmira several other times without his daughter. What engine type powered Worden's car unfortunately is unknown here.129


A Hungerford friend to date only identified as “Ed”, although likely Erwin D. French (1890–1969)130 wrote to Daniel Hungerford in the mid-1960s the draft of a letter to the mayor of Elmira as well as to Elmira newspapers protesting the city's eviction of Hungerford from his home on West Second Street. In the course of delineating Hungerford's contributions to the world, Ed noted that “Dan Hungerford, who, in his entire life gave so much time to youth. Many youngsters hung around 823 W. Second St., Dan was their ideal and many went on to success.”

Among the youthful aides to the Hungerford brothers in the early 1940s was George
Mapes (born 1927). His uncle Rolla Dickson was a plumber with a home and shop on West First Street in Elmira on property abutting the Hungerfords land to the north on Second Street. Floyd Hungerford worked with Dickson as a plumber's assistant, and Mapes spent time with the Hungerfords in their house and shop. While most high school students “were chasing girls”, Mapes says he worked with the Hungerfords until late in the evenings repairing automobiles. Since he was interested in electricity and radio, Mapes once repaired the radio in Shirley Hungerford's car. With the work done for the night, the Hungerford crew sometimes would go to an Elmira restaurant for pie with ice cream with Mapes, even as a high school student, paying the check. He reports that he also lent the Hungerfords “a little money.”

Mapes' generosity was rewarded. After navy service at the end of World War II, Mapes enrolled at Champlain College in Plattsburgh and traveled in his freshman year via motorcycle. When the Hungerfords learned that Mapes had no car to drive to the college for his second year, they lent him Shirley Lois “The Moon Girl.” When Mapes was asked if he had ever tried rocket propulsion, Mapes replied that he did once on a rural road near Plattsburgh. The experience “scared him half to death.” But in spite of noise and flames, the rocket's push was minimal and on hills ineffectual. Mapes thinks the rocket car basically demonstrated the principle of rocket power. And he said Daniel Hungerford would have been more successful in his experiments with a better education.

The rocket car as Mapes recalls it had leather padding on a left-side window ledge so that the driver could rest his head there while looking out. While vision on the right side was limited, there was a rear-view mirror on each side of the car. Two twelve-volt motors turned inverted toy tops on the roof of the car. These tops hummed as they rotated. Crossed American flags on top of the car were illuminated.

When asked if he ever had passengers in the rocket car, Mapes recalled leaving Plattsburgh at the end of the academic year. A roommate from Long Island seated to the right and slightly behind Mapes in the interior of the car accompanied him to Elmira.

Mapes remained in Elmira after his second year at Champlain College. He was recalled for military service during the Korean War. Afterwards he worked for a period at the American LaFrance Foamite Corporation, supervising the experimental station. He left Elmira permanently in 1955, continuing his education in Oklahoma. A thirty-year career with the Atomic Energy Commission followed before retirement in Nevada.131 

Figure 17:
Following a period of military service, George Mapes went to Champlain College. The Hungerford brothers kindly lent Mapes the rocket car for travel to and around Plattsburgh. This photo shows Mapes and the "Moon Girl" near a Champlain College building, April 3, 1947.
Photograph courtesy of George Mapes.


Another regular young visitor to the Hungerford establishment was Robert M. Boyles (born 1930). He lived on First Street near the Hungerford property and bought a couple of cars from the Hungerfords, who helped keep those vehicles running. Boyles recalls a 1924 Ford and a 1936 Nash. The Ford, Boyles has written, was a touring car “used of late to pull out stumps on a farm. It no longer had a canvas top or side curtains, if it ever did have....Dan taught me how to drive and maintain it.”

Of the Nash, Boyles writes,

Dan must have felt remorse at selling me that car in such bad shape. Almost all of the window glass was shot and the oil rings were shot...So we pulled the Nash into my parents one car attached garage, unheated...[for] reboring the cylinders and putting in over-sized pistons. It was the dead of winter.
       I say “we worked”. Dan was the master machinist with the tools. I was the laborer.... The job done, Dad got his garage back and I had a good running fast car with overdrive...
       I left it home with my folks when I was recalled in the Reserves in September 1950...My folks sold it back to Dan as I recall for fifty dollars, probably about what I paid him for it.132

Boyles says Hungerford was “great guy”, who treated Boyles as a son. Speaking of Hungerford's socialist interests, Boyles says his friend was a member of the Communist Party, not a help to Boyles when he sought security clearance while serving in the military. But Boyles says he never discussed politics with Hungerford.

Boyles has said Hungerford, when finished shaving would wipe the razor blade clean to prevent rusting. He claimed that the razor blade industry could make a rustless blade but to preserve its market would not. Of plumber's helper Floyd Hungerford, Boyles says he was an alcoholic, “high all the time.” Of the Hungerford facility, Boyles observed one would walk through waist-high piles of newspaper to get to the machine shop in the back of the barn. “Dan never threw anything away.” Boyles also notes that George Mapes, three years his senior, was a “kind of mentor.”133

In the 1990s Boyles recalled riding in the rocket car. He told Star Gazette writer Tom Page he was pleased the rocket car had been preserved. “But I hope no one ever tries to take a test ride in it again....It provides a very hot and scary ride.”134


Shirley Hungerford Hyde wrote to the author in 1992, “Just before World War II, Dan was offered a very lucrative job with Bell Aircraft in Buffalo, NY – but he refused. He would never consider working for someone else and/or leaving Floyd. How sad he did not team up with a company which could have provided more sophisticated equipment and access to engineering libraries, etc. Or...backing from some affluent entrepreneur who could channel his talents more productively.”135

Spajic observed:

      When one considers the Bell Aircraft offer with hindsight, one is left staggered by the irony of this lost opportunity. Bell was not only in the forefront of rocket-propelled aircraft development after the War, but this culminated in the X-1, which broke the sound barrier for the first time. Daniel's refusal rates as a mistake of epic proportions. That symbiotic kinship with his brother that had served him so well, now utterly betrayed them both. For that was the unique talent and tragedy of the Hungerfords.136

One Hungerford acquaintance who did go to work in the aircraft industry in Buffalo was Joseph R. Farrell, Jr., who wrote to Daniel Hungerford in early 1942 he was working seven days a week at the factory. Still Farrell maintained an interest in rockets. Instead of constructing an operating model rocket ship, he planned to put a rocket into a small car. He asked if Hungerford could locate “a small Austin Roadster or a coup, or we can use a Crosly [sic]...We have looked every were [sic] up here and have had no success. So if you find one find out the price and let us know.” In 1964, Hungerford wrote to Marvin on the Farrell letter that “'Red' Farrell was a good boy – Easily taken advantage of. Floyd S. Hungerford – liked ‘Red' a lot. Red had a son.....'Red' had no home – was a victim of circumstances.”137 Another time Hungerford observed that “Mr. Farrell drove our rocket car on many occasions - and quite on his own [had innovational?] ideas.”138 Farrell and Mapes were the only drivers other than Daniel Hungerford of the rocket car.

In the late 1950s, the rocket car was exhibited “in a local museum – that failed.” The likely institution was the Strathmont Museum, which opened in 1958 and closed shortly thereafter.139 After having the car towed home, Daniel Hungerford became involved in his only rocket car motor vehicle accident. He wrote that he “jumped in drove 3 or 4 blocks to the gas station”. There he checked the tires and received gratis two gallons of gasoline. Then he

Swung out of the station – to the left – coming on my left a car – on my right a parked car – there's a fiber bushing in the steering column this had expanded to make steering difficult. I continued to turn the car stopped or slowed. I struck the left rear fender of the Parked car, a Ford – brushed a chrome strip of the Ford fender – knocked my Right front Hub cap off. Picked up the pieces –drove home (no Plates) was getting in my [other] car to go make amends – when the station manager drove in –said you better get down there. I did – that same night a –second car came of Walnut Street on to Second – swung wide –struck the same fender. Smashed it completely – the Station man – drove in about 10 ocl. – said you won't need to bother to fix the Ford. The second man will do it. I was greatly relieved but didn't do any shouting or clapping of Hands.140


76 Keith Marvin, “Misguided Missile”, Special Interest Autos, February 1980, pp 26–27. The “picture painted by a sign painter” likely was Daniel Hungerford's erstwhile brother-in-law, Robert N. Hopkins.

77 American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics website, “History–Austria” notes the last title was available until 1930. The Library of Congress catalogue lists nine different Valier titles.

78 Quoted by Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”.

79 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, manuscript version. Emory L. Johnson of Horseheads noted he had a photo of a 1911 Cadillac; the picture was forwarded by Daniel Hungerford “just before he passed away.” Emory L Johnson to Paul Garber, October 2, 1967.

80 The Sunday Telegram, September 8, 1918, reported Hungerford was driving the car with his wife, mother-in-law and brother-in-law (Robert Hopkins) on First Street across the Erie tracks. Hungerford told the police the car “was ‘drafting' along over the crossing when the train was approaching from the east....He said he became frightened and warned the others to get out of the car in a hurry to avoid being killed, fearing he could not get the car over the tracks in time.” The police said he thought he could have driven safely over the tracks before the train arrived. In any case, “Within a few minutes after the accident occurred the police heard a junk dealer was on hand ready to buy the remains of the wrecked automobile.” The 1912 Elmira city directory, p. 47, noted the city was the “Home of a large factory making Overland Automobile parts.”

81 H. Steven Sekella told the author in September 2008 that he purchased and retains the 1933 Plymouth. He also bought from Dan Hungerford a 1925 Henderson race car. The last was assembled, not by the Hungerfords, from Henderson motorcycle parts. Sekella recalls “Pete [Oakley], Dan and I tried to rebuild the engine in the Hungerford side yard.” Sekella in a November 2008 telephone conversation noted that short on money, Daniel periodically asked Sekella to buy things from him. A rifle was among the items Sekella purchased.

82 Quoted in Keith Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, Automobile Quarterly, vol. IV no. 2, Fall 1965.

83 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, April 7 (continued on April 28), 1964.

84 Keith Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”.

85 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, May 20, 1964.

86 Keith Marvin reading an expanded draft of his article in a tape recording made in 1974. The author made notes after listening to the tape on June 6, 1992.

87 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, p. 193.

88 Unidentified, undated newspaper clip, “Car Rocket Lining Can't Stand Heat – Inventor Hungerford of This City...”

89 Marvin, “Misguided Missile”.

90 George Mapes to Geoffrey Stein, October 25, 2009. Keith Marvin had recorded the replacement radiator as a Waco.

91 Keith Marvin, “Misguided Missile”, Special Interest Autos, February 1980.

92 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, April 7 (continued on April 28), 1964.

93 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, August 27, 1964

94 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, manuscript version p. 20. Marvin did not elaborate which “cams and gears” were replaced, but George Mapes has related the parts were for the Gould pump. George Mapes to Geoffrey Stein, October 25, 2009. 

95 Marvin, 1974 tape recording.

96 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, manuscript version p. 19.

97 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street” Tom Page in the Elmira Star-Gazette, June 26, 1994, quoted George Hodge of Horseheads, who said, “I believe it was first tested on Westlake Street in a field off Gardner Road.” Hodge's uncle, Ralph Hodge, eventually acquired the rocket car as described in a later chapter.

98 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, April 7 (continued on 28), 1964

99 Marvin, “Misguided Missile”.

100 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, manuscript version, p. 19. The car was last registered for 1952 and retains (2013) that license plate in the rear. 

101 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, manuscript version, p. 17.

102 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, July 15, 1964.

103 Actually it was a Detroit Aero Engine that powered the Bleriot. The note at the Curtiss Museum further quotes Albee indirectly about the Oriole's flying characteristics. It would, reportedly, slide slip as fast as it would go forward. It was a tricky ship to fly and prone to ground loop. Albee had “a CG in it”.
I initially assumed the ”Albee” represented in the lettering on the side of the rocket car was Robert C. Albee, who first appears in the Elmira directories in 1919 as the manager of Wolcott Motor Company and later was president of the Albee Motor Company, Inc. While I had thought Robert Albee might have been the source of the Chevrolet car, George Mapes related by telephone on July 24, 2008 he thought not. Daniel Hungerford identified the source of the automobile, “...our Ashman Mr. George Reeves – from the late Mr. F. Brockway Blossom...” See page 33.

104 Taylor, Eva C., “Hungerford Rockets”, Chemung Historical Journal”, December 1974, p. 2446.  

105 Actually there is only one operational rocket engine. The side and bottom tubes are dummies.

106 “Being rather naïve in big business matters, he simply sent the plans for his invention to the Otto Bernz Corp., with an offer to sell the system to them. OOOPS!!!...Needless to say, there was no offer for compensation and, miraculously, the ‘Bernz-a-matic' propane lantern hit the market shortly thereafter.”

107 George Mapes to Geoffrey Stein via telephone, July 23 and 24, 2008. The wording in the quotes is approximate based on Stein's recollections of the conversations.

108 New York Times, December 24, 1929. Opel had visited the United States earlier in the year arriving in New York on April 20 also to “make a study of American methods in manufacturing motor cars.” The Opel concern had been acquired by the General Motors Corporation but “the Opel family still retained a financial interest in the concern, and the factory would remain in the hands of the German operators” according to the Times, April 20, 1929. At that point the Hungerford rocket car had yet to be constructed. The wintry setting of the Botsford-Hunt photo suggests a later date as well.

109 “Fuer grosses Aufsehen sorgten seine Versuche mit raketenbetriebenen Fahrzeugen und Flugzeugen, die der medienbewusste Fritz von Opel geschickt organisiert.”, Fritz von Opel/nachrichten/hr.

110 New York Times, December 24, 1929.

111 Cliff R. Towner to Geoffrey N. Stein, November 22, 1994.

112 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, April 7 (continued on April 28), 1964.

113 Quoted by Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”.

114 Marvin, “Misguided Missile”.

115 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, June 1, 1964.

116 In 1994, the Glenn H. Curtiss Museum at Hammondsport learned of a motion picture film showing the rocket car in operation. A check with the Curtiss Museum in late summer of 2008 revealed that no such movie was at hand.

117 Marvin, “The Wizards of West Second Street”, manuscript version, p. 21. It is probably Osman shown standing with Hungerford in a photograph taken with the car that day. Marvin reports the day's events were photographed, “showing the car both standing and in motion.”

118 The clip identifies the co-driver as Charles J. Oswald of 532 Decker Avenue. However, a check of city directories shows that address to be the Osman family residence. Charles A. Osman is listed in the 1934 directory as a carpenter residing with, apparently, his parents at that address.

119 Cliff R. Towner to Geoffrey N. Stein, November 22, 1994.

120 July 31, 1958 (“Tuesday [July 29, 1958] marked the 24th anniversary of an event at Roulette which is perhaps even more significant today that it was in 1934.”). A hand-written inscription on the clip reads, “With our Compliments Daniel D. & Floyd S. Hungerford 11-11-1958”.

121 Elmira Star-Gazette, July 2, 1935.

122 Unidentified clip apparently from an Elmira newspaper in 1936, this based on other data in the story, specifically references to Chemung County and Harry W. Laidler's candidacy for governor.

123 Noted and illustrated in Special Interest Autos, no. 146, March/April 1995.

124 Shirley H. Hyde to Geoffrey Stein, September 9, 1992. In another letter, November 2, 1992, Hyde noted that her “husband's brother patented a gun-type soldering iron in the early 1940's.” Note references elsewhere in this paper to the Hungerford's rocket-powered soldering iron.

125 According to the 1935 directory, the Hyde family resided at 1164 West First Street while the Jennie L. Hopkins and the two Hungerford women were at 1160 West First Street.

126 According to a Southside High School class of 1947 website, Towner was a member of that class.

127 Cliff R. Towner, to Geoffrey N. Stein, November 22, 1994.

128 Towner to Stein, November 22, 1994.

129 McCann to Stein, July 19 1994. McCann said her father, who died in 1935, worked for engine manufacturer Henry Kleckler in Bath prior to working for Curtiss.  McCann's mother's brother, Harry Genung, also worked for Curtiss as chief financial officer.

130 A letter from Daniel Hungerford on August 26, 1966, refers to “Ed & Helen”. The current author suggests the recipients were Erwin D. French and Helen E. Heckman French, who had married after the deaths of their first spouses. Erwin and Helen French in the 1950's lived in Horseheads. Later the two moved to eastern Massachusetts, where she had been married and lived with her first husband. Additional discussion of the Hungerford letter is noted in other areas of this book.

131 George Mapes in telephone conversations with Geoffrey Stein, July 23 and 24, 2008. Stein's notes were revised on August 5, 2008, after Mapes reviewed Stein's initial record. While Mapes said he had the rocket car for his second, 1947–1948, year at Champlain College, a photograph he supplied of him with the car at the college is marked “April 3, 1947”.

132 Robert M. Boyles, Before I Forget (unpublished (?) autobiography), no page numbers.

133 Robert Boyles via telephone to Geoffrey Stein, July 31, 2008.

134 Quoted in the Page column published on September 4, 1994.

135 Shirley H. Hyde to Geoffrey Stein, September 9, 1992.

136 Igor Spajic, “1929 Hungerford Rocket Car Part 2”,  Restored Cars , Number 140,  May-June 2000, p. 14

137 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, June 8, 1964. Farrell's letter to Hungerford was written from Kenmore on February 11, 1942.  Hungerford also wrote on the Farrell letter “At present Some where in the west[?]”.

138 Undated (probably 1964) Hungerford notes on an undated manuscript rejection letter from Liberty Weekly. Hungerford further noted “Material referred to above was written and forwarded to Liberty Magazine by Joseph R. Farrell, Jr.”

139 Thomas E. Byrne, Chemung County 1890-1975 (Elmira, 1976), p. 73.

140 Daniel D. Hungerford to Keith Marvin, May 28, 1964.

« previous   |   next chapter »

Museum Open Tuesday-Sunday: 9:30 am to 5 pm | Carousel Hours: 10 am to 4:30 pm
Office of Cultural Education | New York State Education Department
Information: 518-474-5877 | Contact Us | Image Requests | Terms of Use
Join us on Facebook See us on YouTube See us on Flickr