Andy Granatelli died this past Sunday at the age of 90. He was a man worthy of note in the world of cars and the world of business. His sponsorships via the STP oil additive company changed the way automotive product companies used motorsports and vice versa. A larger than life personality, and a genuine character, Granatelli’s two Indy 500 wins as an owner were in many ways overshadowed by the near misses at Indy of his revolutionary turbine powered racers. A man of considerable accomplishments in racing and in business, no doubt. It seems to me, though, that his most enduring influence on the automotive world (and the basis of some of the longest enduring automotive speed records) was his popularizing of forced induction, specifically superchargers.
Granatelli and his brothers Joe and Vince had been part of the American racing scene since they first entered a car in the 1946 Indy 500 race, finishing in 21st place. Andy himself tried to qualify for the 1948 500 but he crashed and broke his arm. He was a much better promoter than race car driver, having some success putting on stock car and hot rod races in the 1950s. Then, in 1958 he bought a financially distressed maker of belt-driven superchargers, Paxton Superchargers.
Though Paxton had already had some success getting Kaiser, Studebaker and then Ford to offer superchargers as either factory or dealer installed options, by 1958 the company was losing money. Granatelli bought it and in barely more than half a year he had turned the company around, making it profitable. In 1961, he sold Paxton to Studebaker and as part of the deal in addition to remaining the CEO of Paxton he became a vice president of the South Bend based automaker, getting the title of chief engineer, with test driving being one of his job duties.
The radical Avanti sports coupe was about to be launched, taking on Chevy’s Corvette and Jaguar’s E Type. Granatelli supercharged that launch with serious performance bone fides. In late 1962, a supercharged R3 stage V8 equipped 1963 Studebaker Avanti with Granatelli at the wheel set 29 speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats. At the age of 62, in a street legal car, he drove at 241.731 miles per hour on the ancient lake bed.
Granatelli would return to Utah with his blown Studebakers and in all his supercharged Studes set more than 400 world land speed and endurance records for production cars. Some of those records stood for decades. It was after his success promoting the Avanti that Studebaker put Granatelli in charge of a subsidiary chemical company that made an oil additive that was named Scientifically Treated Petroleum, STP.
Obviously, superchargers had been used before Granatelli organized the Avanti’s Bonneville based PR stunts. Duesenbergs, Cords and Graham Paige automobiles could be ordered with superchargers back in the 1930s and, as mentioned, more mass market companies like Ford, Kaiser and Studebaker offered blowers in the 1950s. Blowers were also popular at the dragstrip but one rarely heard their distinctive whine on the street. Granatelli’s production speed records stood for years. The records actually survived Studebaker (and so did STP). For a long, long time, car enthusiasts knew that the speed record for a factory built car was held by a supercharged Studebaker.
Andy Granatelli and his brother Joe also had a role in the creation of a very small number of notoriously fast Cobra Super Snakes made by Carroll Shelby that featured twin Paxton superchargers, as well as 28 GT350 Mustangs that came from the Shelby factory with a single Paxton blower. Things like that stick in people’s heads. Granatelli’s revival of Paxton, his embrace of superchargers and use of them to set speed records, and his later contributions to some of the most badass Shelbys ever made helped to lay the groundwork for forced induction’s general acceptance decades later.
In 1963, almost every production car had a naturally aspirated induction system feeding fuel and air to the engine. Half a century later, companies like Volkswagen anticipate a time soon to come when none of their production engines will be naturally aspirated. While it’s true that most forced induction engines these days use exhaust gas driven turbochargers as opposed to mechanically driven superchargers, blowers have become more popular and it should be noted that the most powerful Corvette ever sold, the ZR1, has a supercharger, as do Jaguar’s most powerful engines. Somewhere in automotive heaven, Andy Granatelli is driving a supercharged Avanti, smiling at the thought of his former competitors embracing forced induction and supercharging.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS