Home » Happy Juneteenth! Meet Mr.Pitiful And His Rocket Turbine-Powered VW Beetle

Happy Juneteenth! Meet Mr.Pitiful And His Rocket Turbine-Powered VW Beetle

Cs Drew Juneteenth
ADVERTISEMENT

Holy crap, it’s The Autopian’s second Juneteeth! As before, we’re taking the day off, because any holiday commemorating the Emancipation is okay in our book. We’ll have a few posts go up today, but our staff has the day off, so, you know, adjust those expectations accordingly, please. And, while we’re at it, why not take a moment this morning to think about Roy “Mr. Pitiful” Drew, an incredible drag racer who was one of the very few to attempt to tame the absolutely clinically bonkers Turbonique rocket-turbine-powered 1955 Volkswagen Beetle known as the Black Widow. I wrote about Drew over a decade ago for The Other Site, but it seems like it’s a good time to revisit this absolute legend.

Because you’re probably wondering, Drew got his Mr.Pitiful nickname from this Otis Redding song:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

…and not because Roy Drew was pitiful, because he very much was not. Drew was from Kansas City, and was drawn to the more unusual sort of drag racing challenges, which is why he ended up in the seat of a formerly 36 horsepower Beetle that, thanks to the rocket-powered Turbonique, made well over 750 hp.

Cs Roydrew Vw1

ADVERTISEMENT

It’s not a conventional rocket motor in there, in the sense of an action-reaction thrust type of motor; the rear axles are powered here, but powered via a jet of rocket thrust, said to be as hot as an oxy-acetylene cutting torch, pushing against a turbine, and the whole thing designed to bolt right into an otherwise pretty stock VW Beetle.

That means the car that Mr.Pitiful was known for driving weighed about 1500 pounds at the most and made over 750 hp. At 0.5 hp per pound, that’s a better power-to-weight ratio than a Saleen S7 Le Mans.

Cs Blackwidow1

I heard about the exhaust heat from Jim Graham, noted VW Class 11 Baja racer, who spoke with Captain Jack McClure, who worked with Turbonique back in the day:

Jack never met Drew but was aware of the program and the car. He said the VW only ran a couple of times. Once on a drag strip and once on an airfield runway. The turbo shaft was connected directly to the VW’s axle – there was no clutch or disengagement mechanism. When the VWs rear wheels rolled, the turbo’s gears were turning.

I think Jack said the turbo was powered by propyl nitrate (I was typing very quickly as he relayed this to me) and the flame was the equivalent of a cutting torch coming out the back of the turbo.

To say that the Black Widow was hairy to drive is like saying a pinching your genitals in a pair of vice grips is “uncomfortable.” It’s a colossal understatement. This is a car that took Tommy Ivo’s drag car, Showboat, which featured four V8 engines, and paddled its parachute-crammed behind, soundly:

ADVERTISEMENT

In that run, the Black Widow ran an elapsed time of 9.36 seconds at 168 mph, incredibly impressive numbers. I’m not certain Roy Drew ran that particular race, but he did others, including the one in October 1966 that definitively proved at what speed a stock VW body becomes a wing and lifts off into the aether: 183 mph, meaning VW seems to have factored in a 110 mph or so margin of safety for that era’s Beetle, a very prudent move.

Cs Blackwidow2

The launching of the Black Widow while Drew was driving was commemorated in this well-known ad:

Cs Roydrew Vw2

ADVERTISEMENT

Drew was, incredibly, unharmed in the wreck, saying “That was the greatest ride I ever had. Felt like I had all the power in the world.” And, really, he did, or at least enough power to make a VW airborne, which is close enough.

Roy Drew must have had a constitution made of tempered steel that had been injected with steroids, and probably a few splinters of the True Cross and some cheetah’s blood. I doubt there have been many people then or since capable of handling such a terrifying machine like that, but Drew was one of them, and if you need an image to call up into your mind’s microfiche reader during moments when you require inspiration for bravery and madness, I think Mr.Pitiful launching his mad Beetle skyward should do nicely.

Have a great Juneteenth, everybody.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
18 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
05LGT
05LGT
11 months ago

Mr. Pitiful clearly had $10 and checked “Send Everything”!

Tsorel
Tsorel
11 months ago

Too bad they weren’t able to learn from the VW Beetle drag racing efforts when we started lowering the front to improve handling and reduce lift over 100 mph in the early 80s. This car is still of the “Gasser” era where the front was kept high to help increase weight transfer to the rear wheels for added traction at launch.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
11 months ago

*takes June 19 off to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation*

*links an article describing why June 19 is not a good day to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation*

Ian McClure
Ian McClure
11 months ago

BTW can confirm the fuel was propyl nitrate. It’s relatively safe in most regards (for literal rocket fuel) unless there are any bubbles in the fuel line and you suddenly close the throttle, in which case it detonates due to ridiculous sensitivity to adiabatic conpression.

John Clark in his excellent book about rockets “Ignition!” talks about it briefly, in the context of it being a deceptive widowmaker of a chemical and quickly deemed too dangerous to use. Which in the context of what he considered “safe”, is saying something.

Christopher Pohle
Christopher Pohle
11 months ago
Reply to  Ian McClure

Ooh I hadn’t made it to that part of the book yet, guess I need to pick it back up! Love seeing it referenced here

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
11 months ago

Isn t there a Galaxie with a Turbonique setup on it that does rounds of the fancy auction crowd every now and then? Man, I love Turbonique. The Old Ways are the Best Ways.

Ian McClure
Ian McClure
11 months ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

Yeah, the “Tobacco King”.

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
11 months ago
Reply to  Ian McClure

That’s the one! Beautiful object, so it is.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
11 months ago

That’s what a flat, sealed underbody will do for you when the flow of air over a long, curvy body reduces air pressure up top and generates lift below, just like a plane wing.

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
11 months ago

Happy Juneteenth. I’ll see ya back here on Junetieth.

I had never heard about this original Beetle with the rocket engine before, but I have hazy memories of an email forward that made the rounds many years ago with a series of photos of a New Beetle with either a rocket engine or an afterburnered jet engine wedged into it. I’ve always wanted to learn more about it but haven’t been able to track it down, so I may be misremembering some things.

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
11 months ago
Reply to  Duke of Kent

This one? https://www.ronpatrickstuff.com

I found it years ago, on the Old Internet, and it stuck with me, too – not least ’cause we had a New Beetle in the family at the time.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
11 months ago

Turbonique’s follow-up ad is a brilliant take on VW’s own ads at the time.

Unrelated taillight geekery; Travis Huisman’s YouTube channel shows an 800-mile 1977 Chevy Chevette. He runs the 4-ways for a walkaround and we can tell that unlike on the Vega, the early Chevette’s amber turn signals were real;

https://youtu.be/2anPsAQSOFI?t=82

Old Busted Hotness
Old Busted Hotness
11 months ago

Looks to me like Showboat pulled way ahead on the top end. Sill damned impressive for a Beetle, though.

RootWyrm
RootWyrm
11 months ago

And while you’re at it, read this.

And read about these guys.

Gubbin
Gubbin
11 months ago
Reply to  RootWyrm

Thank you!

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
11 months ago
Reply to  RootWyrm

Thanks for the links, rootwyrm. I’d heard of Wendell Scott, of course, and Roy Drew, but had no clue about people like ‘Mean’ Billye Jean Armstrong

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
11 months ago
Reply to  RootWyrm

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5862338/

Willie T was on the F1 Beyond the Grid podcast. What a character. https://youtu.be/CqMwbWQcTUY

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
11 months ago

I can’t believe that thing was able to lift off, what with the driver’s giant balls of steel weighing it down.

18
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x