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Thomas Rocket Car

June 29, 2021 - 9:01am
posted by Mike Pettinella in news, notify, Batavia City Council, Thomas Rocket Car.


What’s going on with the “Rocket Car?”

City resident John Roach posed that question about the 1938 invention of former Batavia resident Charles D. Thomas to Batavia City Council members at their meeting Monday night.

The vehicle, with innovations such as a rearview periscope and independent suspension, is officially called the Thomas Rocket Car. It was designed by Thomas and put together by a friend and welder, Norman Richardson, in a rented garage near Main Street and Ellicott Avenue.

It has been in the hands of Dick McClurg of Old World Collision for more than five years. The plan is to have the car, once fully restored, placed on display somewhere in the city.

Council Member Robert Bialkowski said the car was in the Memorial Day parade – on a trailer hauled by McClurg.

“Ninety-nine and a half percent of the exterior body work is done, the headliners in the interior panels are done, and I think they are waiting now to get a windshield and some other odds and ends, and it will be complete,” Bialkowski said.

City Manager Rachael Tabelski reported that, pre-COVID, there was a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce; Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, and McClurg, “and there was still a bit of fundraising to do – the last few parts and pieces of it – and we have not established the permanent home or location.”

She said people want to move it around to different shows, so she isn’t sure if the City Centre would be suitable in that case.

Bialkowski spoke of the independent suspension and unique periscope in responding to Roach’s query.

“It had a periscope, because back then if anybody remembers the older cars they were torpedo shaped in the back – you couldn’t see anything backing up – so a slow periscope went up and you looked in a mirror and you could see where you were backing up,” he said.

He said auto companies weren’t ready for something like that and that the car was way ahead of its time.

The car was cut up into pieces and almost scrapped, he said, before finding its way to Old World Collision for restoration.

“People from all over the country that aren’t from around here seem to know about it,” Bialkowski added.

Previously: Thomas Rocket Car nearly restored but another $4k needed to complete project

Photo at top: Picture of the original Thomas Rocket Car.

August 20, 2020 - 9:04am
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, news, video, batavia.
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It's turned out to take more than four years but restoration work on the Thomas Rocket Car is nearly complete. To finish the restoration work, the volunteers handling the project -- with Dick McClurg of Old World Collision leading restoration -- need to raise another $4,000.

They're asking the community to pitch in. Here is a link to a GoFundMe page where you can make a contribution.

The Thomas Rocket Car was designed by former Batavia resident Charles D. Thomas. He and Norman Richardson, a talented welder and body man just out of high school, built the car in a rented garage near Main Street and Ellicott Avenue in 1938.

The design, and several innovations in the car, such as a rearview periscope and independent suspension, were dreamed up by Thomas while working on his 1935 thesis for the General Motors Institute of Technology in Flint, Mich.

Once the car was built, Thomas tried to interest any one of the Big Three in Detroit to move the car into production. But 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. One Detroit executive reportedly told Thomas that his car was 10 years ahead of its time.

Thomas went onto a successful career in Buffalo with the maker of the Playboy automobile, and he apparently kept the Thomas car and drove it for some time. He eventually sold it. Local car buffs searched for it a few years ago and found it stored in a barn in Lockport.

They bought the car and returned it to it's rightful home, Batavia, with the intention it become a display piece of history in the city.

November 12, 2019 - 3:20pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia, video.
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While it's taking longer than the original estimated, work on restoring the Thomas Rocket Car continues, led by Dick McClurg at Old World Collision in Batavia.

The prototype car of the future was originally designed by Charles D. Thomas, born in Batavia in 1910, and built by Norm Richardson at a shop near Main and Oak. Once restored it will be on public display in Batavia at a location yet to be determined. It will also be available for parades and community events.

To complete the restoration, donations are still appreciated. Those wishing to make donations should contact Jeffrey Ackerman at Affordable Floor Covering, (585) 345-1108.

For previous coverage, click here.

July 28, 2018 - 10:59pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia, news.


Dick McClurg was excited to see the Thomas Rocket Car return to his shop on West Main Street Road, Batavia, today, after more than five months under the care of Josh Quick in Caledonia.

Quick fabricated all of the sheet metal parts, such as replacing a fender and the floorboard, that is needed to help restore the concept car designed by Charles Thomas and built by Thomas and Norm Richardson in Batavia in 1938. 

Once the car is fully restored it will be donated to the City of Batavia.

Quick put in 320 hours of work on the car and McClurg said he went above and beyond what he was asked to do.

"You haven't left any work for me," McClurg joked.

McClurg said what Quick did confirms there is a God because Quick is an angel, adding, "the ugliest angel I've ever seen, but an angel."

Next for McClurg, filling and sanding parts of the body that aren't yet smooth. There's still work to do on the trunk and hood, and of course it needs to be primed and painted and the interior restored.

There's still a lot of work to do.







March 3, 2018 - 11:02am
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, news.


The Thomas Rocket Car is now in the hands of Josh Quick, who is fabricating a new floor, new trunk floor, new wheel wells, and rocker panels at his shop in Caledonia.

Quick, a member of Rochester Street Rods car club, has restored several vehicles over the years and said what he enjoys most is fabrication. Other members of the car club are assisting with restoration.

He volunteered for the job after running into Dick McClurg at the Antique Truck Show in Stafford over the summer. 

Once he's done, the car will be transported back to Old World Collision in Batavia where McClurg will complete the bodywork. McClurg has already repaired and primed much of the body.

To follow the progress of Quick's work, follow the tag #thomasrocketcar on Instagram or on his YouTube Channel.

The Thomas Rocket Car was designed by Charles Thomas and built by Thomas and Norm Richardson in Batavia in 1938. Thomas hoped his prototype would become the revolutionary car of the future but it never went into production.

A group of local car enthusiasts volunteered to restore the vehicle and when completed donate it to the City of Batavia. For our prior coverage, click here.






September 24, 2016 - 9:39am
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia, news.


The Thomas Rocket Car is a family heirloom that is close to becoming a City of Batavia treasure, and the three children of the man who designed and conceived of the once-futuristic automobile think that's just how things should be.

“It’s great (that it’s coming back to Batavia)," said Gary Thomas, oldest son of the late Charles D. Thomas, "This is a Batavia car. It was conceived in Batavia. It was built in Batavia. It was driven around the town in Batavia for the first few years of its life."

Gary, now a resident of California, and sister Karen, of Hamburg, and brother Jeff, of Lockport, stopped Old World Body Shop, where owner Dick McClurg and a group of volunteers are in the midst of restoring the Rocket Car back to its 1938-era glory.

Charles Thomas designed the car and built it with the help of Norman Richardson, also a Batavia resident, in a shop at the corner of Main and Oak. Thomas dreamed of a car that would revolutionize the auto industry, with advanced safety features and a sleek design, but both General Motors and Chrysler passed on the design and war disrupted the auto industry, so the Thomas Rocket Car became another family sedan.

Thomas and Richardson completed the car in 1938 and Thomas didn't meet his wife until 1939 and Gary, the oldest, wasn't born until 1942, so the car was a well-established part of the children's lives in their early years, at least until mom put her foot down and told dad to get rid of it.

Karen told the story.

Their mother took the children to the grocery store in the car one day and when she needed to drive over railroad tracks, the car stalled.

Gary said he thinks the car stalled because the tracks were a bit higher than the road, causing the car to have to climb a 45-degree angle and his mother wasn't going quite fast enough, so the fuel drained from the carburetor and the Rocket Car sputtered and stopped. 

Mom yelled at the children to get out of the car fast. She feared a southbound train was coming.

A man came along and asked if she knew how to start the car if he pushed it. She did, so he pushed it off the tracks, the car rolled down the hill about 100 yards and mom popped the clutch and it started right up.

"After that," Karen recalled, "my mother said, 'that's it, get rid of the car. I'm not going to endanger my children. Get rid of the car,' and my father did get rid of the car after that, otherwise, we probably would have kept it."

There are a lot of family stories around the car, the siblings said.

"We rehearsed them all last night over chicken wings," Gary joked.

Like the time the family had to stop at Mercy Hospital, Karen said, and somehow the car got out of park (maybe the kids were messing with something they shouldn't have been messing with, she said) and somebody bumped the car and it started to roll toward the street.

"A nun hopped into the car and stopped it so it didn't go crashing into anything," Karen said, "but it went into the middle of the street and she just left it there."

Many of the memories involve other people's memories of the unique car.

"Dick Moore's favorite story (Moore is one of the people who helped get the ball rolling to save the car and donate it to the City) is the time he first saw the car on Main Street," Gary said. "My father had taken off the passenger rear wheel, so it was only on three wheels and my father was testing the stability of the car and drove it down Main Street and down and around and back and it never tipped it over so he pronounced it stable. But Dick Moore saw this car going by with three wheels on it and was immediately taken by it."

Jeff remembers the time he was meeting with an architect in Buffalo and the man found out about Jeff's roots in Batavia and asked, "Your dad isn't Charlie Thomas, is he?"

The man then recalled the Thomas Rocket Car.

"He said, 'I remember driving around in the Thomas Rocket Car,' " Jeff said. " 'I was in my 20s and we’d drive around Batavia, and we’d have our arms out the side of the car and people would look at us they would beep and stuff like that.'

"There’s a lot of people around who rode in it or remember it," Jeff added.

There's still a lot of restoration work to do on the car. By Thanksgiving, McClurg hopes to have the passenger side primed and then he can flip the car on its side and start working on the undercarriage. After that, more body work, painting, and interior restoration.




May 4, 2016 - 12:24pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia, news.


Dick McClurg continues to make progress on the restoration of the Thomas Rocket Car, the one-of-kind prototype designed by Batavian Charles Thomas and built in a garage at Main and Oak in 1938.

By the end of the month, McClug expects to have the driver side fender re-fabricated, in place, with the entire driver's side primed. If that timetable sticks, then he'll load the car on a trailer for the Memorial Day Parade through the City, weather permitting.

Since our last visit, McClurg as fabricated new motor mounts and inner fenders as well as repaired the rear driver's side fender.

The work has given McClurg a renewed respect for Thomas, he said, noting that getting the one fender right was tough work, but Thomas and Norman Richardson had to get all the fenders right and get them to match perfectly, all by hand.

"I wish I could have met him," McClurg said.

Once the restoration is complete, the car will be donated to the city, and at that point, it will be able to make its own way down Main Street in a parade, rather than on a trailer.

For previous coverage, click here.



January 23, 2016 - 3:29pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia.


The Thomas Rocket Car has been sandblasted down to bare metal as it continues through the process of restoration by a group of local antique car buffs who will donate the fully restored vehicle to the City of Batavia.

The car was designed by former Batavia resident Charles Thomas as a prototype of a car he was hoping Detroit would build in the late 1930s, but the car was considered too far ahead of its time and then the war came, so the Thomas Rocket Car is truly one of a kind.

It was built in Batavia.

The sandblasting was completed by Hillcrest Coating in Attica. 

Old World owner Dick McClurg said next he will fabricate a new front, driver's side fender.

"I always do the hardest part first," he said.

The bottom photo is of a print made by Pete Whyman from a glass plate negative of a photo taken by his father, Walter Whyman, sometime around 1941. The photo was taken in Williams Park. Pete Whyman showed up at McClurg's shop recently with the photos. Until then, nobody knew the color photos existed. The car must have been repainted shortly after Thomas completed it in 1938, because the vehicle was originally maroon and in the photos it's red.

For previous rocket car coverage, click here.







November 24, 2015 - 11:25am
posted by Howard B. Owens in rocket car, charles thomas, batavia, Thomas Rocket Car.


Restoration work on the "Rocket Car," originally built in Batavia in 1938 by Charles D. Thomas and Norman Richardson, is under way at Dick McClurg's garage.

Top photo shows, the motor and a damaged fender have been removed.


McClurg found a 1938 or '39 flathead, so it's period-correct, in Lockport. The original engine (which wasn't in the car when it was purchased, having probably been replaced in the 1950s) was a 1934 or '35 flathead. The "new" engine is "turnkey ready," McClurg said. It just needs to be dropped into place.


McClurg has started removing the interior. The seats and windows are out. Next, and it will be tough, possibly, the dashboard.


The hood is off.


The seats are out. They will be sent to another shop to be reupholstered.


This picture may not show it well, but McClurg found an interesting innovation in the front "bench seat." Typically, a bench seat is one piece across the width of the car, that's why it's called a bench seat. The Thomas car is a two-door but had a rear passenger seat. McClurg figured Thomas designed the car with a rear seat, but not much thought that anybody would actually ride in it because it would be too hard to get to the back with the bench seat in place. What Thomas designed, however, was a partially hinged bench seat. On each end of the seat is a side wing that can be folded down or locked in place.


November 6, 2015 - 9:23am
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia, history.


Caked in decades of dust, pockmarked with dings, dimples and rust, the Thomas "Rocket Car" was tucked snuggly into Dick McClurg's garage Thursday afternoon and Ken Witt smiled like a child who just got his first bike.

"She's finally back home," he said.

Witt, like other members of the volunteer crew who helped retrieve the car from a barn in Lockport, where it's been stored since 1977, admitted he's had a few sleepless nights in anticipation of bringing the car back to Batavia.

"That has been exciting, the last couple of days, when we were getting these guys coordinated, all of us were saying, 'It's coming home,' " Witt said. "We've all been waiting to get it here."

The Thomas "Rocket Car" was designed by former Batavia resident Charles D. Thomas. He and Norman Richardson, a talented welder and body man just out of high school, built the car in a rented garage near Main and Ellicott Avenue in 1938. The design, and several innovations in the car, such as a rearview periscope and independent suspension, were dreamed up by Thomas while working on his 1935 thesis for the General Motors Institute of Technology in Flint, Mich.

Once the car was built, Thomas tried to interest any one of the Big Three in Detroit to move the car into production. But 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. One Detroit executive reportedly told Thomas that his car was 10 years ahead of its time. Thomas went onto a successful career in Buffalo with the maker of the Playboy automobile, and he apparently kept the Thomas car and drove it for some time.

When the car arrived at McClurg's, Witt took an odometer reading: 96,296.

The car was acquired by a group of local antique car buffs, including Witt and Dick Moore, from Gary Alt, of Lockport.

Alt, whose antique car collection consists of a dozen Chevys from the 1930s, found the Thomas wasting away in a field in Batavia in 1977 when he drove out here with the intention of buying a 1934 parts car. When he saw the Thomas, he had no idea what it was. He'd never seen it before or heard of it, but he knew it was unique and worth saving, so he bought it and the parts car and hauled them back to his farm property near Lockport.

The car has been stored in a barn since, and Alt sort of became the car's historian. He tracked down Charles Thomas and Norm Richardson in Buffalo and interviewed them and acquired a binder full of documentation on the car. He wrote an article about the car a few years ago for an antique auto magazine, which is how Witt and Moore became aware that the car still existed.

"It's time to go to another home and let someone else enjoy it," Alt said of his decision to finally sell it.

The local group will restore it, with McClurg heading up the task at his Old World body shop on West Main, and when the work is complete, hopefully by July, the car will be donated to the City of Batavia so it can be put on public display and hopefully become a tourist attraction.

Alt clearly relished showing off the car to the buyers when they came to pick it up Thursday. He told them all about the grill work, 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.

It has, however, been restored once before, probably in the 1950s, though it's unclear who might have done that work.

The current grill is not quite the original grill designed by Thomas (McClurg will restore the grill to its original design), and while it's apparent the original color of the car was maroon, it was painted red when it was restored. That red faded to pink during the years prior to 1977 that it sat outside.

Those years in a field also took its toll on the chassis. The undercarriage is nearly rusted through. The only thing holding it together is the car's solid body, though it's rusted at the edges. The frame will likely need to be refabricated, but the restoration crew has a leg up on where to turn, potentially, for the work: Graham Manufacturing.

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, as it turns out.  

McClurg, who is officially retired from the auto restoration business, is used to working on cars for which there are thousands of companies, meaning a supply of spare parts, but with the Rocket Car, there's only one. But McClurg said that won't be a problem.

"Rust doesn't care," McClurg said. "Everything is there to work with. You either have to refabricate or work with what's there. It's just got to be done. It's all labor intensive."

Once the car was out of the barn yesterday, Witt got to see the car all the way around for the first time, and he admitted to a sense of awe and wonder.

"It's unimaginable to me, and I've been collecting cars since the early '60s, to think that really, a couple of guys, Richardson and Thomas, were able to do this, because many of the sheet metal things were handcrafted," Witt said. "We've even unloaded the tools used when this was crafted, when it was shipped, and to think of the engineering, it was truly 10 years ahead of its time."





Norm Richardson with the Thomas in a photo that was part of Gary Alt's collection.






Norm Wright, left, Dick McClurg, Ken Witt, Dave Salway and Gary Alt.


Back home in Batavia ... 


Ken Witt checks the odometer.

September 29, 2015 - 9:37pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in Thomas Rocket Car, batavia, history.


davehowe_sept282015.jpg Backup cameras on cars, they're practically standard features on new cars and soon they'll be required. You might say, they were invented right here in Batavia, but long before cars even had air bags.

Oh, those were first dreamed up, in a fashion, by a Batavia inventor, too.

Charles D. Thomas, born in Batavia in 1910, grew up to be a car designer and his dream car was Thomas Rocket Car. Designed to be sleek and powerful, Thomas also dreamed of a car that was affordable and safe at a time when safety wasn't a high priority in Detroit. 

So he invented the "Ventriscope": a periscope-type of device that gave drivers of the world to their rear. He also came up with the idea of extra padding in the passenger compartment to protect occupants in a crash. Your car has four-wheel independent suspension. That didn't exist in 1938 when Thomas built his Rocket Car, which did have four-wheel independent suspension. 

When Thomas showed off his car in Detroit, experts agreed it was at least a decade ahead of its time.

You might say Charles Thomas was the Preston Tucker of Batavia, but it was also Tucker's failure to bring his own car to market as a mass-produced automobile that also doomed the Rocket Car. When Tucker failed, investors were scared off of such a unique and inventive conception of motoring. 

There was only one Thomas Rocket Car ever made. It was built in an auto shop about where Dunn Tire is now. A group of antique car buffs think it's time for this unique piece of Batavia history be returned to its rightful home, but it will take the cooperation of the City Council to make it happen.

Local businessman Dave Howe, owner of Charles Men's Shop and the Masonic Temple building, and an antique car collector, represented the group of would-be Rocket car restorers at Monday's council meeting and said the group has a simple request: That the city agree to accept the car, once it's fully restored, as a gift and agree to keep it and display it for the public.

Howe said he and the group believe the car will be a tourist attraction since its well known to auto history enthusiasts and car collectors and will give Batavia a unique perspective on the city's history.

The council will consider the request at its next business meeting.

Accepting the car as a gift will cost the city nothing, Howe said, and outside of keeping it clean and acquiring antique car insurance, which Howe described as inexpensive, the ongoing expense for the city will be minimal.

The group interested in restoring the car is really only interested in purchasing it (the car and all its parts have been located, but not yet acquired) if the city is willing to accept the gift.

September 28, 2015 - 4:11pm
posted by Howard B. Owens in batavia, Thomas Rocket Car.

From our news partner, WBTA:

Feral cats, a new police station, a gift of a sundial, and the restoration of a "rocket car" are all on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of City Council. A local automobile collectors' group is seeking to restore what is being called a “Rocket Car” developed and built in Batavia almost 80 years ago.

In 1938, Charles Thomas, of Batavia, built an egg-shaped vehicle that many car enthusiasts consider to be very advanced for its time.

David Howe is among the group looking to restore the car.

He says, "The car ended up touring around the country to dealerships as 'the car of the future' and attracted big crowds wherever it went around the country."

During the national tours, Ford liked the car, but since it was so radically different, the company did not think they could retool and make the vehicle.

The group restoring the car knows what needs to be done and plans to put it back together exactly as it was built. Upon completion, the group seeks to present the car to the City of Batavia as a gift.

Tonight, Howe plans to ask City Council for permission to present the car as a gift to the City for public display, highlighting not only its local historic value, but the national history within it as well.

"They're interested in bringing the history back and giving it back to the City of Batavia. I think it could be a real source of civic pride and a good sense of history for our city," says Howe.

City Council meets tonight at 7 at the Batavia City Centre.

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