If you listen to your grey average whiskered gent who has supplied performance parts for classic cars all his life you might start to think that the sixties and seventies were far more exciting than today as far as performance cars go, but is this just a rose-tinted view?

It’s certainty true that companies like Empi in California stepped in to provide something extra for the VW Beetle that Volkswagen seemed reluctant to offer, while over in Washington, the likes of Gene Berg was moving forward the science of going fast in leaps and bounds in an age where a high performance customised car was reliant on tuned carburettors and the skill of a maverick engine builder.

turbonique black widow

One such maverick that has attained near-legend status in the sixties is Gene Middlebrooks, an aerospace engineer who seemed to have no limits on the ideas he would attempt to put into action.

Middlebrooks’ company, Turbonique, based in Orlando, Florida, was all about making your vehicle go faster in a time before Health & Safety would iron out some of the more crazy ideas out there. Turbonique offered three products – a Rocket Drag Axle, AP (Auxiliary Power) Supercharger and Micro-Turbo Thrust Engine – and you could buy any of these from their catalogue for your daily driver.

gene middlebrooks turbonique

They even has their own branded rocket fuel that they called Thermolene, which was essentially the highly dangerous N-Propyl Nitrate, which is from the family Isopropyl Nitrate which is classed as an explosive with the added danger of burning with an invisible flame. Even the exhaust fumes could be explosive.

Though it wasn’t just the on-the-edge engine men that dabbled in such chemical warfare, as respectable luminaries like Rolls Royce demonstrated that Isopropyl Nitrate could actually be very stable and was not to be so readily dismissed.

Turbonique was, in the nicest possible way, an insane company. There was no real acceleration/throttle involvement in the products; it was very much either (full) on or off. With the AP Supercharger fired, the micro-turbine would spin at around 100,000rpm doubling the horsepower of the poor unsuspecting engine. In a rare moment of sensibleness, Turbonique advised brave users that the Supercharger should only be run for a maximum of 5 minutes.

The Rocket Drag Axle was another level altogether, offering up to 1300hp direct to your car’s rear wheels over and above what your engine was already giving.

turbonique drag axle

And the Micro-Turbo Thrust Engine was simply dressing up the plain fact that you would be strapping a rocket to your car.

Of course, while some people did add these devices onto street-legal cars and were probably the talk of the illegal drag scene, the more sensible would use Turbonique’s products on the professional drag race scene.

Gene Middlebrooks and Turbonique had their own in-house drag Beetle, the Black Widow, which confidently achieved a 9.36 quarter mile.

turbonique black widow vw beetle

The Black Widow started life as a simple 1955 Oval with the meagre stock 36 horsepower engine before Turbonique got their hands on it, made it into a rocket car and gave it to Roy Drew, who had the odd drag-racing name of Mr Pitiful.

Even the Turbonique advertisement was off-the-wall, with Drew standing grinning in front of a battered Black Widow and a caption stating: “sorry about that.”

turbonique black widow mr pitiful

In fact, prior to the picture being taken, the Black Widow had just been all but destroyed after becoming airborne during a race after going just too fast.

Turbonique came to a rather unusual end after Gene Middlebrooks was sent to jail for fraud. It seems that there was a company oversight – they didn’t advertise the fact that their parts required assembly after purchase. In with a rocket-powered bang and out with a damp fizz, you might say.

Images – ntnews.com.au, leblogauto.com

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