Andy Granatelli, R.I.P. – A Supercharged Life

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

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.

andy granatelli r i p a supercharged life

Andy Granatelli showing off a new Paxton supercharger model.

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.

Red Paxton supercharger on R3 Studebaker V8 in 1963 Studebaker Hawk GT. A small number of Studebakers left the factory with twin superchargers.

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.

Andy Granatelli was a master marketer. Here he is with comedian Johnny Carson when he arranged for the Tonight Show host to take hot laps at Indy in the STP Turbine car.

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 was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2003. It’s appropriate that his memorabilia on display at the AHoF is near that of Richard Petty and Mario Andretti. Richard Petty’s race team still carries the STP logo and Mario Andretti’s only Indy 500 win was at the wheel of one of Granatelli’s cars. All the pictured items were donated to the AHoF by the inductees. Yes, that’s Carroll Shelby’s black hat (a pair of his famous overalls are just out of the frame).

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.

A master promoter at work. If they made reproductions of Granatelli’s suit and the STP team’s apparel today, I bet they would sell.

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

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  • OliverTwist OliverTwist on Dec 31, 2013

    I recalled a very fascinating article about his 1983 Chevrolet Caprice Classic in Autoweek magazine. Andy installed the 900-plus horsepower 9.6-litre Chevrolet V8 motor with twin turbochargers in the stock Caprice with a minor modification to the suspension. His Caprice was still a plush boulevard cruiser fully equipped with air-conditioning, automatic gearbox, power windows and seats, opera lights, vinyl roofs, crushed velvet upholstery, and such. Not even a roll bar or safety cage was installed as precaution. Caprice was his personal toy and a publicity tool. Andy didn't plan on doing the speed record run with his Caprice until the Bonnesville officals asked him to help set the clocks. Andy invited a reporter, his friend, and a member of his public relations firm, to ride along with him. During the run, he averaged 194 mph on both runs and had exceed 200 mph in one run. This remains the fastest four-door vehicle with three passengers riding along ever run at the Bonnesville to this day. Of course, that was 1983 when the automotive technology started to progress after the absymal Malaise Era and when a small number of sports and exotic cars could do more than 150 mph. To my recollection, 2013 Bentley Flying Spur is probably the only *stock* four-door sedan that can reach 200 mph.

    • See 2 previous
    • LarryR LarryR on Jan 02, 2014

      @OliverTwist I'm pretty sure he did that on more than one occasion and also with his street legal Camaro. Another story I heard straight from Andy involved Mario Andretti. As Andy told it Mario and him were late to an event and Andy was driving faster than the posted speed limit. An officer pulled him over and not knowing who was in the vehicle immediately asked Andy, "Who do you think you are? Mario Andretti?" to which Andy motioned to the passenger seat and said "No, he's Mario Andretti." I think the officer let them go with a warning.

  • Shaker Shaker on Jan 01, 2014

    Nice article... I didn't think that an Avanti (with the high-mounted body) was aerodynamically stable at those speeds - though the oversize rear tires were a good trick to improve the axle ratio as well as tilt the car forward for better aero. In the 60's, STP stickers were handed out like free candy; kids used to put them everywhere - it was the No. 1 form of "vandalism" back then. I always got a chuckle when I'd see a ubiquitous STP sticker - stuck over various existing ads (like metal Coke/Pepsi signs), street signs and on the sides of buildings (even churches) 10 feet off the ground (so that they would be there for a while). In the 70's, I would check underhood of a car that I was thinking of buying for the telltale "ringprint" of STP left by the wide-mouth pull-top of the can being set down on the rad support/inner fender - even if it was wiped away, it would still leave a stain. The stuff was used to mask piston ring wear, and could even reduce valve guide related exhaust smoking for a time -- Sooo, despite of the marketing, STP was designed to be used to mask engine problems on used cars, and was used by dealers and private owners to "flip a turd" on the unwary. Keep in mind that it wasn't the *only* viscosity improver of the day (something called "Motor Honey" comes to mind), but it was NEVER adopted by the auto manufacturers for use in new cars because it made the oil so thick that it would starve flow during low-temperature conditions, leading to excessive wear. Its only benefit was that it would enhance lubrication under extreme high-temperature and stress conditions that were useful to performance enthusiasts of the day.

  • Analoggrotto Only allow Tesla drivers to race, we are the epitome of class and brilliance.
  • Wjtinfwb When my kids turned 16 and got their Operators, we spent $400 to send both (twins) to 2 driving schools. One held by the local Sherriff was pretty basic but a good starter on car control and dealing with police officers as they ran the school. Then they went to a full day class in N Atlanta on a racetrack, with the cars supplied by BMW. They learned evasive maneuvers, high speed braking, skid control on a wet skid pad and generally built a lot of confidence behind the wheel. Feeling better about their skills, we looked for cars. My son was adamant he wanted a manual, Halleluiah! Looking at used Civics and Golf's and concerned about reliability and safety, I got discouraged. Then noticed an AutoTrader adv. for a new leftover '16 Ford Focus ST six-speed. 25k MSRP advertised for $17,500. $2500 above my self-imposed limit. I went to look, a brand new car, 16 miles on it, black with just the sunroof. 3 year warranty and ABS, Airbags. One drive and the torquey turbo 2.0 convinced me and I bought it on the spot. 7 years and 66k miles later it still serves my son well with zero issues. My daughter was set on a Subaru, I easily found a year old Crosstrek with all the safety gear and only 3k miles. 21k but gave my wife and I lots of peace of mind. She still wheels the Subaru, loves it and it too has provided 7 years and 58k miles of low cost motoring. Buy what fits your budget but keep in mind total cost over the long haul and the peace of mind a reliable and safe car provides. Your kids are worth it.
  • Irvingklaws Here's something cheaper, non-german, and more intriguing...
  • Wjtinfwb Happy you're loving your Z4. Variety is the spice of life and an off-beat car like the Z4 intrigues me as well. More than anything, your article and pictures have me lusting for the dashboards of a decade ago. Big, round analog gauges. Knobs and buttons to dial up the A/C, Heat or Volume. Not a television screen in sight. Need to back up? Use the mirrors or look over your shoulder. If your Z4 had the six-speed manual, it would be about perfect. Today's electronified BMW's leave me ice cold, as do the new Mercedes and Audi's with their video game interiors. Even a lowly GTI cannot escape the glowing LED dashboard. I'm not a total luddite, Bluetooth streaming for the radio would be nice and I'd agree the cooled seats would be a bonus on a warm day with the top down. But the Atari dashboard is just a bridge too far for me.
  • Craiger Honestly I was incredibly disappointed by the lack of steering feel. I dropped off my 530 at the dealer in New Jersey and picked up the Z. Driving all of my familiar roads I was just shocked at how much info wasn't coming through the wheel. Because of that I was never able to push the Z like I did the 530.