Jocko's Rocket Will the car of the future come screaming out of the Mojave desert?
By Brad Wetzler
Ninety miles east of Los Angeles, the San Bernardino Mountains give way to the flat, dusty moonscape of the Mojave Desert. Out here, the only things that stand up to the wind are gnarled Joshua trees and row after row of wildly spinning wind turbines. Continue driving east toward the town of Joshua Tree and you begin to see makeshift homesteads of shaggy-haired drifters living like moles in dug-out caves, plastic tanks discarded by chemical companies, and blue-tarp tents. Nearby, dozens of local eccentrics are hawking their artistry from flimsy plywood booths: miniature cacti welded out of copper, wood-carved jackrabbits, and beaded necklaces. Military jets scream overhead. Welcome to the gritty outskirts of Twentynine Palms, California, the last stop on the planet for deadbeats, loners, and dropouts; one of the few places in the country where $20 can last you an entire month; and home to a former drag-racing legend and self-proclaimed mechanical genius named Robert "Jocko" Johnson.
Organized chaos in Jocko's workshop
Jocko's compound stands alone amid the scorched desert scrub: four faded-blue Mack buses arranged haphazardly in a square. One bus serves as a bedroom and kitchen for Jocko and his wife, Joanie; another functions as storage; and a third doubles as a living room and a studio for Joanie, who's a painter. Curvaceous wood and metal sculptures depicting nothing in particular spruce up the dusty yard, which is littered with metal scraps and engine parts. Loud Salsa music, brought in by satellite, adds a ghostly, carnival atmosphere to the scene. And today, like most days, Jocko is sitting and contemplating the inside of bus number four, the one that serves as his workshop. Die grinders, band saws, hammers, and wrenches arrange themselves in an orderly chaos. On the wall above his cluttered work table an assortment of sun-bleached pages from drag-racing magazines flutter in the cool breeze of a window-mounted air conditioner.
Though it may not look like it to the casual observer, Jocko is hard at work on cracking a mechanical conundrum that has vexed armies of the sharpest automobile engineers from Tokyo to Detroit to Stuttgart—a problem that, if not solved, could mean the slow-burning end of life on Earth thanks to global warming: How do you make an engine that's just as powerful as an internal combustion engine, gets phenomenal gas mileage, and yet doesn't spew hydrocarbon pollutants into the air?
Pipe dream: the model PoweRRing3
Jocko has been mulling this over for 40 years, and he thinks he has the answer: a watermelon-size engine he calls the PoweRRing 3 Cycle, which he hopes will be the fastest, cleanest, and most fuel-efficient engine on the planet. "I live for the idea," says Jocko, massaging a piece of steel in his chapped hands. "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."
Jocko is a modern-day Henry Ford of sorts. At 63, he has a shaggy white beard, a burly build, and a fervent, helter-skelter way of expressing himself. His tousled white mane and torn blue jeans add to the air of manic distraction that surrounds him. For the last four hours, the lone mechanic has been milling engine parts and bending aluminum into curvaceous forms—components of his Spirit of 29Palms, the dragster he hopes will one day set a new wheel-driven land-speed record of 555 miles per hour, and prove to the world that the PoweRRing 3 is the engine of the future. "Sometimes I don't even stop to have a drink of water or eat," Jocko admits, as he cracks open a Pabst Blue Ribbon. "I can't stop until my muscles are burning."
Jocko may be too consumed by the PoweRRing 3 to think of himself this way, but he's among the latest in a long line of maverick American inventors who believe that they can improve life by creating the next lightbulb or personal computer—without help from corporations or foundations. Unfortunately, Jocko's pet project has a long history of flummoxing even the most brilliant minds—men like James Ward Packard, who invented the steering wheel and gas pedal; Preston Tucker, the founder and chief engineer of Tucker Motors; and more recently, John DeLorean, whose stainless-steel chariot enjoyed more world-beating success in the Back to the Future movies than in real life.
The fact is, except for incremental changes—fuel injection, for instance, which replaced the carburetor—the internal combustion engine hasn't been comprehensively redesigned since it was placed under the hood of the first automobile, in Munich in 1886. "The Volvo in my yard has the same engine as a Model T built in 1919," says Jocko. "The only thing different is that the Volvo has fuel injection and overhead valves. Engineers over the years have put a whole bunch of Band-Aids on it until we wound up with a Rube Goldberg affair."
All of which goes to say that the person who designs the car engine of the future will earn instant membership in a pantheon of immortal inventors—not to mention a lifetime supply of Bill Gates size paychecks. Is there any chance this titan of invention will be a lone craftsman like Jocko? "Impossible," says Csaba Csere, editor in chief of Car and Driver. "No one outside of major car companies can do it. Nothing can make up for the billions of dollars and hundreds of engineers working on the problem 24-7."
Ouch. That's exactly the kind of talk from which Jocko wanted to escape when he moved out to the Mojave 12 years ago. He makes a modest living hawking T-shirts, mugs, and model cars on the Internet and transforming the occasional client's car into a dragster—activities that leave him plenty of time to nurse a healthy grudge against naysayers and cultivate a fierce, if overinflated, sense of purpose. And to brood about bigwigs who might get nervous enough to dispatch hitmen to the California desert.
"For one reason or another, the Big Three in Detroit are not contacting me," he says, his voice rising to an excited pitch. "Maybe they think I'm going to be a flop. But they don't know bullshit!" He takes a swig of his Pabst and stares out the door of the bus to the blistering desert beyond, as though searching for the right words to explain his life's mission. "Yeah, this job has its costs, but if someone wants to make me dead over this, then cool. I'm not in this for any personal gain. I'm doing this for civilization."
But before his engine can save the world, Jocko has to build it.
Jocko is leaning over a propane stove, piling chunks of ground turkey breast and diced tomatoes into one "Jocko Taco" after the next and then spreading them out on the kitchen counter. At the same time, rapping as fast as Neal Cassady after a second pot of coffee, Jocko delivers a machine-gun survey of the problems he has solved with the PoweRRing 3, the engine of his dreams.
The internal combustion engine, Jocko argues, is inefficient because it's out of balance. Years of continual refinements heaped upon what he considers to have been a bad design to begin with have yielded a nightmarish tangle of iron and steel that is anachronistic at best and environmentally destructive at worst. "Newton tells us that for every action—and an engine is an action—there is an equal and opposite reaction. But where do you see that in a conventional engine? You don't. It's always out of balance because it only fires one piston at a time." The leverage generated by this single piston is weak and inefficient, he continues. When it fires, energy must be transferred to the crankshaft in order to generate rotary motion to turn the wheels. Meanwhile, a transmission is required to increase torque at low speeds. It's inefficiency in action.
According to Jocko, the essence of the PoweRRing 3 is its radial shape, relative simplicity (it has 146 fewer parts than a conventional V-8), and orblike symmetry. Eighteen pistons are arranged in a circle, with six—every third one—firing simultaneously to propel a cam wheel at the circle's center. A flywheel and belt links the cam to the axle. As the cam turns, so does the axle. There's no need for rods or a crankshaft because the engine itself generates rotary motion. Thanks to a few extra components—superchargers and ports—compliments of his dragster past, the power will be phenomenal (4,000 foot-pounds of continuous torque at 1,050 rpm), so a transmission is superfluous. And because the pistons are small, Jocko claims his engine will burn much less fuel and won't require a catalytic converter. "Fill the 15-gallon tank up and the PoweRRing 3 can go for a month without another gas stop," Jocko says. "I'm talking about gas mileage—300 miles per gallon—that's inconceivable!"
What kind of man could invent such a thing? The answer yanks us back down to earth, and backward 43 years. A high school dropout, Jocko bounced from one grease-monkey job to another before hanging his own shingle at Jocko's Porting Service in North Long Beach in 1956. ("Porting" is the process of grinding small holes in a car's cylinder heads to increase horsepower.) He was 20, and he quickly made a name for himself in southern California, fine-tuning engines for top drag racers and speed-crazed teenagers with their monster-horsepower Chevys. But all the while he knew he was destined for greater things.
On May 30, 1959, Jocko rolled out the now legendary Jocko Porting Service Special, a 950-horsepower fiberglass streamliner with a 43-year-old dragster named Jazzy Nelson behind the wheel. Screaming down Riverside Raceway in a blaze of smoke and rubber, the Special's engine blew a piston 200 feet before the finish line, yet still managed to coast to a new drag-strip record of a quarter-mile in 8.35 seconds.
Being a hot-rod legend was fine while it lasted, but then, as happened with so many others, the sixties expanded Jocko's consciousness. Toward the end of the decade he moved to Capistrano Beach, renounced racing, started a new career as a sculptor, and became a devotee of the Hindu philosopher Krishnamurti. He attended to material needs by making miniature dragster paperweights and Jocko Pocket Rockets—small, oblong marijuana pipes. Yet for all his renunciations, Jocko couldn't shake the conviction that, deep down, he was a drag-racing mechanic, and a pretty good one at that. "Drag racing did perform a service," he admits now. "It got this guy to think up how to build an engine that performs like a dragster but does so on a tiny bit of fuel and with very little pollution. Drag racing is not important, but it is where they push engines to their final fucking death. They make them live and die in seconds."
In 1978, Jocko and Joanie packed up their house and drove east to Twentynine Palms, where they'd heard you could buy land for $1,000 per acre. Jocko figured he'd need plenty of privacy if he was finally going to get around to building his automotive masterpiece.
Dream machines: a fibergalss replica of Jocko's 1959 dragster, General Motors' electric EV1, and the Honda hybrid (clockwise from top).
Two thousand miles northeast of PoweRRing 3 World Headquarters, the automotive industry is in a race of its own to reinvent the car. The starting gun went off with the first world oil shock, in 1973, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries curtailed production. History repeated itself in 1979 with sky-high prices, long lines at the pump, and in some places no gasoline at all. In 1990, the Gulf War briefly brought the oil jitters back, but soon scientists—not economists—were issuing dire warnings. Pollution concerns took regulatory shape in 1990, when Congress amended the Clean Air Act to require that automakers drastically reduce tailpipe emissions—hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter—with each successive year. By 2004, car emissions must be reduced 88 percent from 1994 levels, and 88 to 95 percent in truck and sport-utility vehicles. (Ford recently announced that its entire 2000 model year line would meet the new standards, four years early.)
But government edicts have not been very effective when it comes to mandating that citizens drive the latest energy-saving cars. In 1990, for example, the California Air Resources Board legislated that by 2003, 10 percent of all autos sold in the state were to be electric. Suddenly the rush was on: General Motors sank $900 million into its EV-1 sedans, which ran on rechargeable batteries, and soon after, Honda, Ford, and Nissan entered the fray. Quiet and pollution-free, the electric car was pulling in the lion's share of research dollars as recently as last year, but there were still major design flaws: The average electric tipped the scale at an unruly 3,000 pounds—nearly a third of which was battery weight—and could typically travel only 100 miles before needing to be plugged in for as long as ten hours. By 1997, it had become glaringly obvious that the California mandate would fall far short of its goal, and by the time Honda announced it was pulling the plug on its EV Plus in May, the industry as a whole had sold only 2,000 electric cars.
Even as the electric vehicle was running out of juice, auto engineers were busy designing other alternatives. In 1998 Toyota introduced the hybrid engine, which draws power from both internal combustion and electricity, figuring that drivers could use the electricity option in congested, urban environments and switch to internal combustion on the open highway. To catch up with Toyota's Prius, which is currently being marketed in Japan at a loss of 25 to 50 percent, Honda is touting the November release of its own hybrid, a two-person ride that promises 80 miles to the gallon.
But the latest buzz out of Detroit surrounds an innovation called the hydrogen fuel cell, an engine that's powered with electricity produced by mixing hydrogen with oxygen from the air. Compared to the previous flavors of the month, the fuel cell is different: Nearly all the auto companies are pouring serious money into its development, and Wall Street types are keenly watching for the right moment to strike. The first attempt at a fuel-cell-powered car came in 1994, when Daimler Benz unveiled a cramped, two-person Mercedes van dubbed the New Electric Car (NECAR); the new NECAR 4 can seat four people and boasts an impressive range of 280 miles. Meanwhile, Toyota, GM, Ford, Honda, and BMW have all entered the race to design and sell an affordable hydrogen-powered car.
But skeptics abound, including gasoline loyalists who point out that DaimlerChrysler is having trouble producing one such car for much less than $100,000. Given these roadblocks, you might surmise that an internal combustion engine will still be cooking underneath your hood in the year 2010—though a fuel cell, or some other innovative technology, will likely be sharing the work. "An engine is the most expensive part of the car," says Csaba Csere. "For Ford to build a plant to produce a new engine, it would cost $1 billion. There's no replacement for the internal combustion engine on the horizon."
On this score, Jocko cheerfully agrees with the old guard in Detroit. "A gallon of gas is so powerful, so compact, that it's impossible to come up with a better idea," he says. "When engineers and advanced thinkers read this article and start to build on the principle laid down by this hot-rod guy they call Jocko Johnson, we'll be on our way toward a future that will save our precious fuel resources!"
"Jocko? I've never heard of the man," said the voice on the other end of the receiver. I had phoned up Jerry Elrite, a top product-design engineer in Ford's engine and power train division, to talk to him about the PoweRRing 3. "But I do believe there are more ways than one to skin a cat," he added. "Maybe he's onto something."
Those were reassuring words. Jocko's obstinate self-promotion, his annoying self-aggrandizing, his zip-bop-do-boo-bop jazz locutions had begun to make me wonder if the PoweRRing 3 was nothing but a desert-induced mirage. I started to fear that Jocko had less in common with the great automobile mavericks and more in common with the flea-market hucksters in downtown Twentynine Palms. For starters, it seems the closest Jocko has come to producing a real, live PoweRRing 3 is a half-built prototype, a small, rotating model; a steno pad full of scribbles; and plastic milk crates full of scrap metal spilling over onto his workbench. He's still at least $100,000 short of the money needed to finish building a prototype and then test it on a computer dynamometer. Not to mention the fact that the Big Three automakers aren't exactly beating down his door to get the blueprints.
I began calling every engineer, mechanic, and automobile expert I could find, describing the PoweRRing 3 and asking if it could possibly be the automotive savior that Jocko envisions. I started with my own mechanic, Elliot, who lent some historical perspective: "The basic design has been around since the early 1900s. You've seen them behind the propellers in World War II planes."
Lindsey Kendall, the curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, home to the world's premier collection of automobile artifacts, confirmed this information. "They tried something like it on the Trossy Grand Prix in 1935. Also on the 1925 Julian, the Adams-Farwell, and the North-Lucas automobiles. They were too difficult to cool, which meant they broke down a lot."
David Cole, director of the Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation in Detroit and a son of former GM president Ed Cole, lauded Jocko's determination but painted a less than rosy picture of the PoweRRing 3's future. "There have always been guys throughout history who have dreamed up amazing engine designs and then become convinced that the Big Three, and now Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, are out to get them. And there are guys who go to the auto trade shows touting bizarre things like the all-plastic engine or the perpetual-motion engine that supposedly produces more energy than you put into it. I don't know Jocko, but I've seen that type of engine before. He'll never meet emissions standards. But I wish him luck."
Not only were most of my sources pooh-poohing Jocko's design, but one engineer I spoke to said he'd heard of a man named Verne Newbold who lives in a trailer (he sold his house to pay for engine parts) somewhere in the Colorado Rockies and has been developing a radial engine much like the PoweRRing 3 for the past 30 years. Unlike Jocko, however, Newbold actually finished the Newbold Turbo Rotary Engine prototype in the 3-D. It reportedly caught the eye of Alabama-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which was interested—though for only about five minutes—in using it to power unmanned surveillance vehicles.
I checked back in with Car and Driver's Csere, who laughed when I asked again whether two such men, toiling in obscurity on their respective rotary engines, might be on the verge of greatness. "There's no way on God's green earth that someone like Jocko can make it happen," he said. "People like him make one engine and think they've reinvented the wheel. Does it start in minus-40-degree weather? Can it be rebuilt after 200,000 miles? Can it be mass-produced? We have a file in our office labeled the Crackpot Folder, where we throw everything about inventors of radial engines. These things don't pan out. Ultimately, nothing can keep up with the conventional internal combustion engine. Write Jocko off."
The lone inventor and his streamliner-to-be
The dinner dishes have been washed and put away, and we're sitting in lawn chairs watching a thunderstorm roll in from the west. Jocko's dog, a big-haired, skinny-legged mutt named Tina Turner, is scavenging for taco scraps in the trash. Out here in the yard, one of the few places where one can see the physical fruits of Jocko's hyperactive brain waves, the inventor seems unsure of himself for the first time. "Ideas come slowly when you don't have the support of the auto industry," Jocko says almost apologetically. "I can't afford to put my engine up on a dynamometer for six months and work out all the bugs. Anyway, I know I'm right. The auto companies have dropped the ball all these years. I just have to remain patient and keep plugging away."
Maybe so, but some questions still weigh heavily. What if he never finishes the PoweRRing 3? What if fuel-cell technology makes his engine obsolete before it fires a single piston? What if he goes down in history as just another crackpot car buff who died a frustrated, paranoid loner, defeated by his own obsession and by the omnipotence of the auto industry?
Here was my cue to ask Jocko about a disturbing discovery I'd made: His patent application for the PoweRRing 3 had been rejected on grounds that a patent for the idea had already been issued. In 1908. Combined with the Newbold information, there was some explaining to be done. But Jocko has been waiting for this question all night: "You show me an engine like this out there," he says vehemently. "You can't find it. I didn't copy anything, at least not anything less than the ideal—and I didn't see the ideal, so I had to invent it."
There is a long pause. What can one say to a statement like that?
Then Jocko is jumping out of his chair, motioning for me to follow. We walk around the side of his shop, where a long and narrow object lies hidden beneath a threadbare tarp. With David Copperfield-like panache he yanks the tarp up and away, revealing a gleaming aluminum sculpture, its curved lines built for speed. "The Spirit of 29 Palms," Jocko announces proudly. Actually, it's just a shell: no wheels, no suspension, no dashboard, and, of course, no engine. Nevertheless, Jocko seems suddenly cheered by the sight of his streamliner, as though he needed this tangible mass of metal—the dragster he hopes will break the land-speed record at the Bonneville salt flats—to remind himself that he's hot-rod legend Jocko Johnson, the man who's destined to make automotive history.
Brad Wetzler is a former senior editor of Outside. Stephanie Gregory and Christopher Weir contributed additional reporting for this story.