An excursion to our past… Mars Express XLI Rocket Car

Built sometime in the early 1930s, first appearing on American roads in 1934, this unique vehicle had an aluminum body, painted copper, and was powered by a supercharged Ford V8 engine and also had a rocket motor. Its overall length was 20 feet, width 7 feet, height 6 feet. The car was used for promoting the Pan American Petroleum Corporation. Pan American advertised the Mars Express as a 1,000 MPH car that “follows scientific forecasts of 50 years in the future.”

The Mars Express next shows up in 1938, just a few days after Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, with the somewhat more plausible claim of being able to run 115 MPH with a supercharged Ford V-8 engine powering it. However, Pan-American no longer associated itself with the car; instead, Peter Vacca (sometimes referred to as Peter Vacco) of Buffalo, New York, claimed to have spent $16,000 building the car. At some point in the late 1930s the car served as a rolling billboard for Golden West Brewery promoting its Golden Glow Stout beer.

Starting in 1939 the Mars Express XLI Rocket Car toured the country with the Russell Brothers Circus until 1942, before disappearing altogether. However, the rocket car still lives on with Walthers Model Trains, who produced an HO scale version of it as part of their “Circus Train” line.

Mars Explorer XLI - Berwick

This original photo, taken by my wife’s grandfather, was taken at the Athletic Park Service Station, a Pure Oil Company gas station, at the junction of Route 11 (Front and 2nd Streets) and Route 93 (Orange Street) in Berwick, PA. I’m not sure what year the photo was taken but most likely sometime between 1934 and 1938. The service station was named such because of the baseball stadium located directly behind it. (Collection of Andrew Hoke).

Mars Explorer XLI - photo

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