Batavia's Thomas Rocket Car
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Batavia's Thomas Rocket Car

by Lauren Humphrey

Fabricated in 1936 by Batavia native & inventor, Charles Thomas, the Rocket car was wise beyond its years with technologies that were decades ahead of the car's time. Low-set headlamps, hidden hinges, a dual cylinder, padded dash, four-wheel independent suspension even a rearview “camera” were all incorporated by the inventor who designed the car as part of his GM Institute of Technology graduate program in 1935. 

Charles Thomas, reportedly, went to work for Pontiac post-graduation as an engineer, but not for long; by mid-1936 he, and his friend Norm Richardson (also a graduate of The GM Institute of Technology) opened a garage on the corner of Main & Oak in Batavia and began fabrication of the Rocket Car.  After four years of hard work, the pair took the car to Detroit to pitch to the “Big Three” carmakers to move it into production.

“Whether the automakers felt threatened, or because of the prospect of the World War, or it would have been too expensive to retool, all three companies took a pass,” writes Howard Owens of The Batavian. “One Detroit executive reportedly told Thomas that his car was 10 years ahead of its time.” Thomas went on to a successful career as chief designer in Buffalo with the Amphibian Car Corporation then finishing his career with the maker of the Playboy automobile, but kept the Thomas car and drove it for some time.

Reportedly, Mrs. Thomas demanded they get rid of the family’s daily driver after a stalling incident on a set of railroad tracks.  By 1977, Gary Alt of Lockport found the vehicle rusting away in a field in Batavia, NY, and decided to store it in his barn until a group of Batavians spearheaded a restoration project in 2015. 

Enter, Dick McClurg.  Dick and a team of dedicated collectors, enthusiasts, and restorers approached The City of Batavia in September 2015 to propose that, if they took on the restoration, the city would accept the car as a gift for public display. With approval from the City, the group was able to bring the car back to Batavia for restoration by November of that year and began restoration work. 

According to the Batavian, “Alt clearly relished showing off the car to the buyers when they came to pick it up Thursday. He told them all about the grillwork, the engine, the solid fenders, the blue leather interior, the periscope, the original die kit and showed off the dozen or so original pictures he had obtained. He's taken loving care of it, even if he never got around to restoring it himself…. In all the paperwork saved by Alt is a complete list by Thomas and Richardson of every piece of material that went into building the car and where it was sourced. The original frame was fabricated at Graham [Manufacturing], as it turns out.”

Daniel Strohl of Hemmings Daily notes, “Restoring the Rocket Car, however, has proven easier said than done. Mechanically, it remains complete, but rust ate away at the lower half of the car, necessitating extensive sheetmetal and body structure replacement. Josh Quick of the Quick Speed Shop has stepped in to rebuild most of the floor and its structure, a process he’s documenting on his YouTube channel.”

The Thomas Rocket Car will be on public display at Buffalo's Pierce-Arrow Museum beginning summer 2024.

November 2019 Rocket Car Update
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