Art Arfons’s famed Cyclops jet dragster was a prolific machine in its time. The giant jet engine on wheels held Bonneville records (one of which still stands), was converted into a boat for a water speed record attempt, and made untold hundreds of runs at drag strips and events across north America between 1962 and 1970. If we had to take a guess, more people got a glimpse of what a “jet car” was from seeing the Cyclops than they did from any of the other touring jet dragsters of that time. What most of those people didn’t know was that the nose cone of the dragster was an old industrial lamp shade and that they were looking at one of the great homebuilt creations to ever grace the drags.
On my last trip to the Wilmington Mile, I managed to hook up with my friend Shari Arfons, wife of Tim Arfons who is the son of Art. Got that? Good. Anyway, she had offered me the opportunity to see two of Art’s creations and I wasn’t going to miss that chance. Enter the third party in this exercise, a man named Bob Jones. Bob has an extensive car collection (which I will be covering in its own blog next week) and he is providing a home for both the Cyclops car and the last car that Art ever built and drove at Bonneville. Bob is an Akron native, an incurable hot rodder, and a great guy to allow a scrubby looking journalist to sneak in and mingle with his awesome collection on a weekday afternoon while he was trying to make a living. Again, more on Bob next week.
Before getting to Bob’s, the car had previously been in a motorsports hall of fame up in Michigan that folded up or ran into some other sorts of trouble. Not wanting anything untoward to happen to the iconic dragster, Tim went on a rescue mission and brought it home. Bob had the room and the life long connection to the area, family, and racing. It was a great match.
WE’RE GOING TO TELL YOU THE STORY THROUGH PHOTOS AND CAPTIONS BELOW SO SCROLL DOWN TO LEARN ABOUT THE FAMOUS CYCLOPS!
Because the Arfons guys were prolific builders of stuff, it is often difficult to keep track of when a new car was constructed, an old car was updated, or something completely different happened. In order to cut through that confusion we called Tim Arfons for the straight scoop. Tim told us that this car was constructed in the winter of 1961 and debuted in 1962. It was originally built with a J47 jet engine and was run with the J47 until the late 1960s. The car became the Cyclops when Art found a big industrial lamp shade of some sort with a hole in it. Knowing that most tracks had bad lighting, he stuck a large bulb in the hole, came up with a fun name, and they were in business.
Art was the primary driver of the car and made the vast majority of laps and runs in it. That being said, there were two more occupants in that driver's seat over the years. The first was Betty Skelton from Detroit who set the women's land speed record in the car at Bonneville during Speed Week in 1965. According to Tim, this was the only time she drove the car. Tim also mentioned a man named Eddie that was hired to drive the car but was ultimately fired by Art for being hard on the equipment and hanging out at a girlfriend's house when he should have been back in Akron with the car from some far off trip. After that Art remained the driver until the car was retired for the next generation of Cyclops.
Savy jet onlookers will recognize that his is a J79 engine, not the J47 we have been talking about. The larger 79 was swapped in after the previous engine was wrecked and it was what the guys have laying around the shop. Tim's performance data was all reflective of the period that the car was equipped with the J47, so here's what the ol' Cyclops did. At Bonneville it turned a record 342 mph. This is still the fastest open cockpit car to ever run at Bonneville. It was the chariot that set the women's land speed record of 274mph by Betty Skelton (record was then broken shortly thereafter by Craig Breedlove's wife). Its highest top speed achieved on a drag strip? How about 276mph according to Tim. Additionally, he told me that the Cyclops topped 400mph but did not have the fuel capacity to sustain the speed. Art actually petitioned Bonneville officials to strap a 50 gallon drum of fuel to the machine, but they denied him that ability. Tim said, "It was probably for the better. They may have saved his life."
This thing has what looks to be a beam axle out of an old truck under it! Imagine what that felt like at 320+ mph!!!
During the time when Art was making the 300mph runs at Bonneville, according to Tim he thought that he was having heart trouble. After thinking about it and trying to figure out what was going on, people have come to the conclusion that at 300mph, sitting 18-inches from the inlet of a massive jet engine at full throtttle isn't going to supply you enough air to be happy. Seriously. Look at this for a second. 300mph people!
The car went though several paint liveries in its day from the traditional slathered on green to a green/red/white Firestone scheme, to a "bad", as Tim described it combo involving Purple, to what you see here. This paint was laid own by famous custom painter Greg of Akron. The next few photos will highlight the paint work, which was done in 1969 and perfectly captures the wild and far out attitude of the day.
These period decals are fantastic. The car is very much as it ended its career in 1970. Because it was prepped to be stored inside at a museum, Tim reports that if anyone wanted to drive it again there would be some work involved in the mechanical systems. That ain't gonna happen though and this beast will live out its days in quiet slumber…which is earned 100%.
Can you imagine the learning curve on tuning one of these suckers up? We wish we had seen Arfons' face the day his first turbine came to the house. He must have been in hog heaven. The mighty J79 weighs in at just under 4,000lbs, is over 17ft long, over 3ft across, and by the note on the rear cowling, Art surmised that it made about 17,500hp. Sounds good to us. Who knows? The next few photos display all of the greatness that is the engine!
This car provided a very lucrative business for Arfons. He was able to capitalize on his household name recognition, he was able to use the same piece to attack the salt (his favorite place on planet Earth), and he was able to keep himself in the public spotlight as Cyclops was covered in a myriad of magazines, on television, etc. To see it up close is to see how a very smart guy with limited resources made things happen. Pretty isn't so much part of the picture as is functionality and purpose. Remember kids, the nose cone is a lamp shade!
Here are my two gracious hosts, Bob Jones and Shari Arfons. Thanks to them for allowing me in and the rare opportunity to see this stuff and share it with you.
This thing had to have been an absolute show stopper in its day. Anyone who has heard Bob Motz's truck run with its monster J79 engine knows what we mean. The concussion from the burner pops, massive afterburner flame, and ear crushing noise were something totally foreign to the majority of the world in the early 1960s. Even with the "small" J47, people's minds had to be completely blown to shreds.