The Black Widow

Jason Torchinsky is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Jason has a book out now, Ad Nauseam: A Survivor's Guide to American Consumer Culture. He lives in Los Angeles, where he is a tinkerer and artist and writes for the Onion News Network. He lives with his partner Sally, five animals, too many old cars, and a shed full of crap.

I've always been fond of VW Beetles, and any real Beetle lover should set aside a special place in their gas-fume-smelling heart for one particular Beetle, the Black Widow. The Black Widow started life as a 1955 oval-window Beetle, boasting a small stable of 36 horses for power. Then, the kooks over at Turbonique, makers of some truly bonkers small jet engines for daredevils and other fun-loving loons, put one of their engines in the Bug, along with the VW/jet engine transaxle they developed. The result was a Beetle that made about 850+hp and weighed about, oh, half of a modern Honda Civic.

The Black Widow was an absurdly fast car; and by the nature of the rocket-type engine used, it had no warm up at all-- one button push and you had full thrust, making it a real hit to drag-racing crowds. In one especially notable race, the Black Widow put Tommy Ivo's Showboat-- a similarly insane dragster with 4 Buick V8 engines-- over its rounded fenders and spanked it, but good; those are pictures of the race shown to the right here.

Like anything truly insane, the Black Widow's life was fast, wild, and short. Apparently, the stock 1955 Beetle's shape is only aerodynamically sound up to about 183 mph-- only about 110 or so mph more than the stock engine could ever push the car-- at which point it, full of false confidence, takes flight. Which the Black Widow did, but even then the fast little bug was put to good use, in this ad.

Upon rereading that ad, I realized that the Black Widow's driver, Roy Drew, must also have a great story. I mean, he's a drag racer with the nickname "Mr.Pitiful." It just doesn't get any better than that.


  1. Proof that you can fly a barn door if you apply enough power. Given the aerodynamic shape of the Bug, we see that 850shp is enough to fly a hemispherical barn door.

    Due to this effect, and the swing axle design you got a jacking effect that made them unstable in corners with crosswinds at about 85 mph. The Z-bar was an attempt at reducing the wheel jacking.

  2. Now that’d be fun when you encounter the guy revving his his souped-up Honda Civic at the traffic lights…

  3. My first car was a VW Bus, my second was a Beetle, my third was almost a Karman Ghia, but I realized it just wasn’t very wise for that to be my only wheels, and I defected to the Toyota camp.

    Still, a little part of me died when they stopped making air-cooled VWs.

  4. Yeh…interesting thing about Herr Porsche’s car…this very model is the one that the nutso, homicidal stressed-out British engineer Father in Walkabout by Nicholas Roeg, greatly under-rated British film director, drives out to the desert with his kids in and attempts to kill them but fails and then shoots himself instead after lighting the whole thing on fire as they run away. Later in the film the Aborigines are hanging with his dead body in the carcass of the car.

  5. Youtube is full of turbo flat 4 four (never looked for jet powered) VW’s out gunning everything at the strip. I’ve been to a couple of the SEVWA drag meets at Farmington and around NC, they are always a blast.

    I’ve got an old 77 convertible living in my parent’s basement…one day…just one day it will live again.

  6. A common misconception with Turbonique axles is that they were thrust power devices, but the facts are even stranger. To avoid potential street-legality issues with thrust propulsion , the creators of the Turbonique instead went with a rocket-fuel powered turbine which engaged the rear axle when activated. When installed in a conventional front-engine car, this enabled the driver to use the conventional powerplant for everyday driving and engage the rocket turbine for 850 (or more) extra HP on demand (as seen in this 1964 Ford Galaxie ). Iowahawk has a good writeup on Turbonique, too.

    The Black Widow (as I understand it) used the same basic Drag Axle as the Ford I linked above, but it was bolted to a modified VW transaxle in place of the stock motor.

  7. @Myself #8: I should have noticed that Torchinsky also referenced Iowahawk’s piece in the article. My bad.

  8. In the linked add it mentions that if you send $2.00 they send you a “33 1/3 rpm recording of operating noises.”

  9. My first car was a 1966 VW beetle sedan in Bahama Blue with a cloud white interior… come to think of it, it is still my car. That beautiful bitch is still in the driveway as I type this.

    Thanks for the black widow history, I only knew part of the story.

  10. A few months ago a friend had a garage party and some interesting people came by- a guy developing electric motorcycles, a guy who scratch-builds classic Porsches, a guy who made a robot-drawn chariot, and Ron Patrick, who brought his New Beetle with the jet engine in the back.

    Stellar workmanship, best of everything. The regular engine’s still in the car for “normal” driving. He fired up the jet and ran it up to about a quarter throttle- man was it loud!

    Lucky for Ron that he left before the sheriff’s helicopter and two carloads of teed-off deputies showed up.

  11. From the Iowahawk page.

    “”TOO MUCH: The above (go)cart, which is equipped with T-21-A engines, is considered unsafe for 1/4 mile competition as pictured. The thrust/weight ratio is such that speeds over 160 mph are reached within 4 seconds.””

    You’re fucking kidding me.

    “Such pleas for moderation fell on the deaf ears of “Captain Jack” McClurg, who eventually coaxed his Turbonique (go)kart to over 240 mph in the early 1970s.”

    Stunned silence.

  12. A cross between Herbie the Love Bug and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang? What else could you possibly want in a car?

  13. I shuddered from a horrible flashback when I saw the headline and pictures. One of the first volkswagens I ever sat in (it wasn’t operational) was an old black one that my buddy kept in a garage… The whole car was crawling with black widow spiders, which he told me to beware of AFTER I sat in the driver’s seat and saw several on the dash.


  14. The Turbonique transaxles, blowers, and rocket motors used a monopropellent called n-propyl nitrate, sold under the trade name ‘Thermolene’. Under normal circumstances, it’s quite well behaved. However, under adiabatic compression, it shows big, scary teeth. Since you can get adiabatic compression by opening or closing a valve too fast, this has potentially nasty consequences.

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