Quackenbush and the Flying Caduceus
Nathan Ostich was a doctor, unmarried, living in a part of east LA that kind of grew into a barrio around him. He was good at his profession, and he cared for a lot of less fortunate people. He was also an avid hot rodder, a part of that Whittier area of rodders that included Ak Miller and Wally Parks. To all of us, he was Doctor Quackenbush.
When I moved to Los Angeles in 1957 to work at Hot Rod Magazine, I inherited Doc as my family doctor, even though it was a drive from my home in Glendale (which I rented from Phil Weiand) to his modest store-front office. That was a time when Ostich was giving lots of vitamin B12 shots to everyone who would stand still. I took two of them and declined further. I had more than enough energy, thank you. It was also a time when Doc was dredging up the idea of what would become America’s first jet LSR car.
If you go back in Hot Rod Magazines of the early Sixties, you’ll find accounts of this most incredible machine. Tomes on the building, which was in Doc’s home garage, done by a cast of precious few volunteers and only Doc’s money. Our (the magazine’s) own Ray Brock was part of the brain trust involved, and did much of the wrenching alongside Doc. And it was through Ray’s involvement with Firestone that those huge man-height tires were created. The Caduceus (you can look up he word) was sort of a carryover from earlier LSR vehicles. Big, bodacious, overkill in several ways, totally hot rod everywhere.
I should point out here that Brock was involved in a great many automotive endeavors prior to and after his stint with Hot Rod Magazine. He did the Round Australia ralley that was truly brutal. He did the Mexican Road Race, the Pike’s Peak Hillclimb. Indianapolis 500, Baja, Nascar, all sort of salt and dry lakes vehicles, and an odd assortment of drag cars. He got things done, and he knew where to unearth support for a project. Still, Doc’s jet car was his first involvement in that realm and I recall vividly his reports of a morning coffee break after a late night session of construction at the Ostich residence. When hot rod historians finally get around to telling our hobby’s unusual stories, the name Ray Brock will be front and center.
But it wasn’t the first hot rod oriented top speed development to turn to aircraft power. The Arfons brothers from Ohio were the most prominent in hot rodding circles during the Fifties and Sixties. But that thingie that Doc built was really a stuff it down your throat affair that exemplified all things hot rod. It’s a pity that it was never really unleashed.
In the first place, Doc ended up afraid of what the car could ultimately do. Not in a paralysing fear, but a kind of respectful caution. I know I would have never strapped it on, even with my own experience in fighter jets. For me, I think I just could never get around those huge tires. The caduceus wasn’t overly long (Doc’s home garage was short, after all), but it was rotund. Kind of like a l000 gallon drum. With a pointy bit out front for the driver.
In the end, it was more an exercise in something interesting, just to see if the idea had merit. Oh, it had merit, tons of it as displayed in subsequent history of land speed jets and rockets. But the Flying Caduceus was a kind of dinosaur at the end of that history burp. Along came some really credible streamliners, most notably Craig Breedloves’ slippery jets, and the Bigger Is Better theory sort of went into stasis.
But it remains that a quiet doctor from a poor end of Los Angeles had the foresight to create an honest jet powered land speed record car. It did run, it did work, it never broke any speed records. Who cares?