“Look at what Stanford mechanical engineering PhDs do in their spare time,” advised my friend Tom B.
Apparently, Ron Patrick likes to “smoke” other sports cars on the street. He also could “burn” high-performance vehicles on the drag strip.
How? With his jet-powered/4-cylinder hybrid VW Beetle. “Volkswagen does not make any hybrids, or jets for that matter,” you may point out.
That is correct. So Ron Patrick—in a self-financed personal side project—took an old GE helicopter turboshaft engine and mounted it in the back seat and cargo area of a New Beetle. This required rebuilding the engine, converting it to a jet, fixing its rudimentary hydraulic computer controls, and performing extensive structural analysis “to make sure the jet would not fly off and tear through the front of the car.” Quite a hobby, indeed.
The stock, inline, four-cylinder, internal-combustion engine was left untouched to drive the front wheels. The 1,350-hp jet provides additional propulsion via thrust only. The result was a street-legal (obviously only with the jet off) “Batmobeetle” that looks as if it has a cannon protruding from its rear end.
Intimidating? Yes, especially if you are following from behind. Tailgaters beware; that butt-cannon can roast you to smithereens.
Reaction to this jet-powered Beetle has ranged from derision to pure awe. In the case of the former, some people have raised the issues of gas mileage, insurance, emissions, and staying warm inside during the winter (due to the huge hole in the rear), as if any exotic car (Lamborghini, Bugatti, etc.) was built for these purposes. Others have ridiculed it as “the most worthless waste of cash I’ve seen in my life.”
Then there were the “armchair engineers.” One openly wondered if it was safe, sarcastically noting, “at least he didn’t waste money on safety equipment, like oh, I dunno, a roll cage.” Some wondered if there would be adequate intake (there is, with the windows and sunroof). Others expressed contempt with the turboshaft engine, saying “I am not impressed at all; there is no mechanical drive from the turbine to the wheels. It is based on the thrust only.” Then there were those who dismissed the entire jet as a mere “flame-thrower” and the entire project as “easy,” saying “a freshman could bolt a turbine into a car to just blow air out the back.”
Even more ridiculous were some of the social issues raised. Many took umbrage that Ron Patrick mentioned he had a doctorate from Stanford, even making snide remarks how it was a “waste of a Stanford education.” (Ron Patrick responded, “I mention my engineering degree because I am sick of hearing hot-rodders bashing people with engineering degrees and shunning analysis before building.”) Others asked, “Shouldn’t he have chosen a better car?” often alluding to how the Beetle was “a vehicle with possibly the worst aerodynamics ever.” More inflammatory were the incessant remarks about how a Beetle was a “chick car,” and that not even a jet engine could salvage its masculinity.
Then there were those in complete denial, proclaiming “it’s FAKE” or “it’s Photoshop tricks, you morons!” I have reason to believe that both the jet-powered Beetle and Ron Patrick exist, however. Evidence came from my former lab buddies at Stanford, who are working in the engines laboratory, after I forwarded them photos of the vehicle. One of them wrote,
Dollars to donuts that is Ron Patrick, a former engine lab guy from the 80s.
A.J. and I met him and mentioned he was building a jet powered VW bug. If there are two in the world, the originators are going to be tremendously disappointed.
You would need to wear a helmet, just to keep your hearing…
Even more compelling are reports from Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona last year. Apparently, Ron Patrick “won the prize for his category, then promptly took the jet car outside and fired it off, torching a hamburger stand in the process. He was then banned for life from the show.”
Now that’s what I call a real flame-broiled burger.
- 115-hp, 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder engine powering the front wheels
- 1,350-hp General Electric T58-8F helicopter turboshaft engine converted to a jet with custom tailpipe
- Turboshaft engine spins from 13,000-26,000 RPM and draws in air at up to 11,000 CFM
- Turboshaft engine controls: a hydraulic computer that is “pretty much like an old analog computer but instead of op amps and stuff it is run by hydraulic fluid”
- ~$250,000 invested
Another Jet-Powered Beetle!
It turns out there is at least one other jet-powered Volkswagen Beetle in the world—an “old” Beetle! This one—dubbed the “Blue Max Jet Beetle”—was showed at the 2005 Easter Thunderball in the U.K.. In contrast to Patrick’s, it was powered solely by a jet (the original rear engine was removed). Due to the omission of a conventional engine (i.e. one that does not spout out flames) it most likely is not allowed on a public street.
- Ron Patrick’s photos and text about his creation. Lots of great info on its engineering and construction along with hilarious anecdotes about run-ins with the police.
- Blue Max Jet Beetle at Easter Thunderball 2005
- SFGate.com: When bugs fly: Auto geek hits highway for surreptitious runs in jet-powered VW (April 30, 2006)
For another wow-inducing car project by Stanford alumni, please read about the history-making DARPA Grand Challenge robotic vehicle.