The Proud American rocket car and Bonneville Boss transporter

Doomed never to play the roles they were designed for, this stunning duo remain a testament to the ambition and style of the 70s

Rocket powered dragster
Photographers: Matthew Howell

The history of land speed record racing is shot through with tales of triumph and tragedy. Names such Bluebird and Thrust II stir the blood and shiver the spine. Then there was the Bonneville Boss and the Proud American. Should these last two names furrow your brow, fear not, your memory hasn’t skipped a beat. You see, along with the brave folks who made it out onto the world’s salt flats and dry lake beds in pursuit of never-before-seen speeds, there were those who, despite their best efforts, never quite made it to the start line. This is the story of one such effort.

First published in Street Machine’s Hot Rod 11 magazine, June 2013

Back in 1969, Ky Michaelson, aka The Rocketman, was running a rocket-powered snowmobile. “At the time I was involved with Tony Fox of Fox Industries, Minneapolis,” recalls Ky. Two years later, Fox and Michaelson were again drawn together, this time to campaign the Pollution Packer hydrogen peroxide-fuelled, rocket-powered dragster. The Pollution Packer was not only a successful competition car but also a great promotional tool for Fox Industries. Out on the track, the Fox/Michaelson dragster took 21 FIA and national records, including being the first to top 300mph in Gainesville, Florida on March 18, 1973.

Tony Fox, now in his late-80s, was a passionate and driven inventor and entrepreneur. A major part of his business was developing, building and marketing trash compactors, hence the name Pollution Packer. However, there was much more to Tony Fox than garbage. His ingenuity and promotional prowess also worked its magic on many and varied projects, including snowmobiles, pumps and even a Foxjet aeroplane.

Like Fox, Ky Michaelson was a passionate innovator and a man with a serious interest in rockets. However, back in the early 70s, the two men had a problem – they’d taken the Pollution Packer dragster just about as far as they could, and its success had made them hungry for more.

One look at the Bonneville Boss and the Proud American conjures up images of a lonely land speed record caravan, headed up by this crazy truck, driving hard over rough and inhospitable terrain in search of a long and flat piece of desert real estate.

Stretching the tape to a considerable 32ft in length, the Bonneville Boss has a presence few other transporters can rival. And this despite it standing just 5ft 5in to the cab roof. Tipping the scales at 9000lb, the ’Boss took two years to build and was said to be the most expensive truck ever built.

Based on a scratch-built chassis, the ’Boss is powered by a scrapyard-sourced 455ci Oldsmobile Toronado motor complete with front-wheel drive. The dual front axles are steered hydraulically, while the suspension is torsion bar with air shocks to help control the ride height. The tilt bed that so ably cradles the Proud American land speed record car is raised by hydraulics and has mechanical stops for safety when at full height.

Inside, the three-seater cab features a central driving position with passenger seats to either side just ahead of the front axles. Decked out in unique Levi Strauss denim trim with blue carpet, it also features many luxury accessories needed to execute the serious and focussed job the Boss was built for. These include a battery charger, a 110-volt electrical system, a public address system, a sunroof and an 8-track stereo. The controls comprise a tilt steering wheel and walnut dash with levers at the bottom for operating the ramp.

As you might expect, all the exterior panels were custom made, as were the Cragar slot mag wheels (although some pictures do exist of the Bonneville Boss running Moon Discs back in the day). Despite the obvious link between Fox’s project and the salt flats, it seems the discs were rarely used and were not with the truck when it was recently rediscovered.

Having built the world’s most expensive LSR transporter, Fox and Michaelson needed something constructive to do with it. Their idea was to again employ rocket power, but this time on a much grander scale. And so the Proud American plan was hatched. The crux of it was to attempt to break the world land speed record in celebration of America’s Bicentennial on July 4th, 1976. For this, the two men would build a car around a hydrogen-fuelled rocket motor producing 35,000lb of thrust. The pilot was to have been Dave Anderson, who had also driven the Pollution Packer during many of its triumphs.

Despite this grandiose plan, the Proud American never turned a wheel in anger. Fox and Michaelson’s tempestuous relationship, a lack of funds, and the pressure of other projects, put paid to the idea. What you see on the back of the Bonneville Boss was as far as this land speed record attempt got, and it unceremoniously disappeared from sight until 2009.

“I started to become interested in significant cars that ran at Bonneville,” says Tom Shaughnessy, the man responsible for digging up this bizarre relic. Along with his business partner, Terry Healy, Tom had spent much time researching a number of possible purchases prior to unearthing Fox’s truck, complete with the Proud American. “Strangely, it was found in a motorcycle store,” says Tom, “surrounded by hundreds of bikes.”

Incredibly, both vehicles were in excellent condition and were a piece of largely unwritten land speed record history that Shaughnessy and Healy could not resist.

Tom had the ’Boss transported to his LA workshop where he quickly got it running again. Days after recommissioning, he started to show his new acquisition at gatherings such as Cars and Coffee and El Mirage, where the pictures you see here were shot. Naturally, the ’Boss and its cargo drew crowds wherever Tom took them, however, the sense of disappointment that the Proud American would never run was palpable in the same way it must have been back in 1976.

Not long after its visit to El Mirage, the ’Boss was on the move again, this time to Barrett-Jackson, where, despite rumours of bids in the six-figure range, the ’Boss and the Proud American sold for a less-than-record-breaking $46,000.

The Bonneville Boss and the Proud American will always be filed under ‘what could have been’. Nevertheless, few land speed record outfits can claim to be quite so smile-inducingly quirky, and for that Tony Fox and Ky Michaelson should be rightly proud.