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Supercharger Gives Second Wind to Automotive Accessory Company

February 05, 1989|JEFF YIP | Times Staff Writer

CHATSWORTH Six summers ago, Jim Davis, president of B&M Automotive Products, settled into the driver's seat of a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle and stomped on the gas pedal. Under the hood was a supercharger, a pump that forces extra air into the engine and can boost the horsepower by 40% to 60%.

He still remembers the exhilarating speed and raw power. "The first thing that impressed me was that when you just barely touched the throttle, you could literally feel the horsepower," said Davis, 54.

At the time, B&M needed some extra oomph. The 30-year-old company had found success selling sophisticated automatic transmission kits that helped turn ordinary sedans into weekend drag-racers, but plenty of competitors had sprung up during the past decade, and B&M's sales were stuck in neutral.

Davis, a former record-holding drag-racer and advertising executive, needed to rev up B&M's sales, and the supercharger did just that. The privately owned company started selling its supercharger in late 1983. Since then, the company's total annual sales have more than doubled, and last year superchargers accounted for 18% of B&M's $16.5 million in sales.

In all, B&M has sold about 12,000 of the units, which retail from $1,200 to $2,000 each.

"I would never have predicted the size of the initial sales," said Pat Ganahl, editor of Rod and Custom Magazine. "It was astronomical--totally unheard of in this industry. The total number of superchargers sold previous to that would be probably in the hundreds."

B&M has "the best-selling supercharger," said Marlan Davis, technical editor of Hot Rod Magazine. "B&M has gone through the trouble of engineering different kits for different cars."

B&M is not the only manufacturer of superchargers, nor are B&M's models the most high-tech on the market. But B&M's superchargers are overwhelmingly the most popular, and they have been designed to fit on a wide variety of models, including various Chevrolet, Ford, Buick, Chrysler and Toyota engines.

Before Californians rush out to buy superchargers, they should know that B&M's superchargers are not legal for street use on any American cars made after 1965 because they have not been granted exemptions from emission control laws by the state Air Resources Board.

Still, this doesn't deter the hard-core enthusiasts who buy them, promising that they will be used off-road, and then putting them on street cars. "We don't advocate it," B&M's Davis said. He said B&M plans to obtain Air Resources Board exemptions for an upcoming supercharger that will fit late-model cars and work with factory fuel-injection systems.

B&M's success boils down to a new application of a technology that was established in the 1920s. Superchargers were used on such vintage luxury cars as Cords and Duesenburgs, but the technology all but disappeared in the 1960s when Detroit found that it was easier to attain comparable power by simply making bigger engines.

Superchargers, or blowers, as they are also known, are the under-the-hood equivalents of the blow dryer. Installed on top of the intake manifold where the engine "breathes" and linked to the crankshaft by pulleys and belts, the supercharger rams more air into an engine.

The result can be dramatic. Adding a B&M supercharger to a factory-stock, 180-horsepower Camaro engine would boost its horsepower to 250 and trim the time that it takes to cover a quarter-mile by about 1.3 seconds, said to George Wallace, B&M's director of engineering.

There are two markets for superchargers: drivers between 19 and 45 years old who want their cars and trucks to look impressive under the hood and go faster, and those who need the added power to haul big loads, such as tradesmen and recreational-vehicle owners.

One reason for B&M's success is that it came up with a compact supercharger. For years, modified truck superchargers have been used to propel professional 2,500-horsepower drag-racing cars. But it was rare for a car on the street to have one, and it was necessary to cut a hole in the hood for the supercharger to fit. B&M's superchargers, however, nestle comfortably underneath many hoods, affording drivers extra power without drawing unwanted attention from police.

B&M's superchargers come with 30 pages of detailed installation and maintenance instructions. Somebody who doesn't know how to change a spark plug isn't going to want to tackle the installation, but a mechanic can do the job for about $700.

The supercharger's lure, of course, is speed. Robert Bartholomew, a 47-year-old welder from Minnesota, installed a B&M supercharger on his 1979 Chevrolet show car last spring. He spent 2 1/2 hours bolting the supercharger onto the Camaro's 400-cubic-inch engine.

"After I put the blower on, it was unimaginable," Bartholomew said. He once got the supercharged Camaro up to 150 m.p.h. before he backed off because the handling got so dicey, he said.

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