It was the most ambitious car stunt ever attempted, and it happened over thirty years ago.
From his youth, Ken Carter was a stunt driver. He toured across North America doing what he loved: jumping cars. Carter would line up old jalopies, or dealership loaned Cadillacs, and jump whatever he could find, an old Chev, a Firebird, over a row of land yachts safely (sometimes) to the other side.
In 1976, he wanted to make his mark, something significant, something big. Ken Carter wanted to go the distance. The distance was actually one mile, but not just any mile, it was to be over open water, over the St. Lawrence river, from Morrisburg, Canada to Ogden Island, USA.
To accomplish this, or at least give the stunt any likelihood of success, Carter needed an 85 foot take-off ramp, and a rocket powered vehicle capable of 270 miles per hour. The task was laid out, and now it came down to finding the money. With Evel Knievel fresh off the heels of his latest Snake River Canyon stunt, ABC decided to fund the event and broadcast it live on their TV show Wide World of Sports. Due to a heavy rain season, construction of the ramp and it's runway (on the site of a farm pasture) was delayed when heavy equipment was constantly getting stuck in the mud. There were other delays too: the car. Rocket propulsion expert Dick Keller was charged with the task of not only designing a hydrogen peroxide missile of a car, but also something safe and practical enough to make the landing (on land or water) survivable.
After several delays, ABC sent Evel Knievel to examine the progress, and give his opinion on the probability of success. Knievel, probably fearing his latest stunts would be superseded, gave a negative review of the whole set-up, and ABC withdrew its financial support.
With the ramp only being a very tall mound of dirt, and an unfinished rocket car chassis, Carter returned the following year with a manager, a Canadian lawyer who secured funds from local families, businesses, and creditors who treated the stunt as an investment, hoping to see returns in the form of ticket sales, merchandise, and fame. Rumor has it, as he was close to losing his dream, Carter also secured funds through underground connections in nearby Montreal.
Over the next few summers, serious design flaws plagued the ramp. The dirt base kept eroding and settling, and the pavement would become uneven and bumpy. The car had a simpler problem, the fuel tank which under pressure when fully fuelled, kept exploding.
By 1979, after running out of money several times over, and putting everything he (and the financial backers) had into the stunt, Carter was almost ready. The car was tested, and after adding ailerons (yes, wings) the car design was approved and deemed fit to make the jump by the technicians involved. Due to its size, the car was given a fibreglass shell of a Lincoln Continental. Ramp construction had been completed in the fall. The jump was scheduled for the following summer.
After the harsh Canadian winter, the ramp was still standing. Bumps in the paved runway were ignored by the experts and financial backers, despite Carter's concern to have level ground for take-off. Because of Carter's protest, the financial backers decided that he had lost his nerve. They distracted him with a meeting in nearby Ottawa, to discuss a European tour that would never come to fruition. Meanwhile in Morrisburg, the car, with Carter's name still on it, was put in the hands of Ken Powers, a small-time stunt man who was considered Carter's protege. Powers was given last minute instructions on the rocket sequence, and parachute procedures. Powers was to make the jump without a crowd, only in front of cameras in hopes of selling the film to the general public.
The jump was a spectacular failure. The bumps in the runway that worried Carter, tore apart the fibreglass body. Powers, who was shorter than Carter, was thrown around in the cockpit and was unable to keep his foot on the accelerator. As a result the car, which was supposed to leave the ramp at 270MPH, was only going 180MPH. When the car left the end of the ramp, the wind caught the fibreglass body, taking away all momentum generated by the rocket thrust. The cracked body work deployed the parachutes ahead of schedule and the car sailed only 506 feet into the shallow waters of the Canadian shoreline. The car was destroyed. Powers had broken his back, but survived.
Needless to say, when Carter heard about what happened he was furious. His dream, years of hard work, his (and many creditors) financial support had now gone to waste. After his initial anger subsided, a cool-headed Carter confided that what happened to Powers, could have very well happened to himself. However, with the ramp properly constructed, and the car performing like it should, the math works, and the stunt could be completed.
But it didn't matter, the damage had been done, all of the financial backers, including families, local businesses and major companies alike, lost their investments. The Canadian lawyer went bankrupt and eventually dis-barred for having defrauded Carter investors with promissory notes on already fore-closed properties. Anyone who thought about investing with Carter soon heard about the "International Superjump" failure and ran away from the project.
The film The Devil at Your Heels (1981) directed by Robert Fortier starts off by telling you how Ken Carter got his start in the stunt industry, then chronicles the 5 year attempt at jumping the St. Lawrence river from Canada to the USA.
After the film, the ramp was eventually torn down, the remains of the car were stored in Morrisburg. The rocket propulsion system was removed by Carter, and the car itself disappeared from a storage site there. Carter managed a racetrack in the southern USA, and eventually returned to car stunts.
In the summer of 1983, Carter attempted to jump a pond at Westgate Speedway in Peterborough, Ontario. His vehicle, a modified rocket powered Pontiac Firebird, was fitted with one of the two rockets salvaged from the Morrisburg Lincoln. His first attempt to jump the pond landed him in deep water, Carter survived because of a breathing apparatus fitted in the car, and the divers on site sent to rescue him. The car was salvaged, repaired and another attempt was made to jump the pond, This would be Carter's last.
Just before midnight, with almost 5,000 spectators in attendance, and against what the propulsion experts had told him; Carter ordered extra rocket fuel into the car to make the trip. As a result the rocket kept firing even after the car left the ramp, sending the car into the sky, slowly somersaulting forward. The Firebird overshot the 60 meter pond, landing directly onto its roof an additional 30 meters beyond the landing ramp. The roll cage and safety systems were not designed for such an impact, and as a result Carter was killed instantly. It took rescue crews over ten minutes to pry open the car to free Carter. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Montreal, and his mangled Pontiac firebird was taken to car-shows as a horrifying display.
Now you would think the story ends there, and for the most part it does. It is now present day, and I am writing this article from just outside Morrisburg, Canada, where the paved runway (albeit very weathered) still rests in a farm pasture.
In 1979 when the Lincoln broke apart in mid-air, pieces of the car scattered, and Morrisburg residents saw a chance for a keepsake. We have managed, over time and many cold calls, to collect pieces of this rocket car, including one of the wings fitted to it. But have never found out the fate of the Keller designed Lincoln. We've also supplied Carter related memorabilia to the Peterborough documentary Ken Carter: Stuntman to the End (2013)
Our goal is to further spread the story of Ken Carter and his mile long jump, to preserve the memory of Ken Carter. Perhaps with the help of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, or a little help from the people at RedBull, Ken Carter's dream stunt can finally be realized.
Images supplied by kencarter.ca