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December 5, 2011

News & Features

Need for speed keeps supercharger maker's business humming


Rod Bradford of Vortech balances an impeller, a moving part of a centrifugal compressor. (Mel Melcon/The Associated Press)

Vortech Engineering has built a business helping drivers satisfy their need for speed. The Oxnard, Calif., company manufactures superchargers that force more air into an automotive engine, providing a boost of additional horsepower.

The firm has built a loyal following among young gearheads and professional racers who love giving their rides some extra muscle.

"It makes a little engine behave like a big engine," says Vortech's founder and president, Jim Middlebrook.

To some aficionados, the sound of the supercharger spooling up "is what you hear first. It's like the scream of a hawk swooping down on a rat," says automotive journalist John Pearley Huffman. He recently reviewed a 2011 Ford Mustang GT outfitted with a Vortech supercharger that boosted the engine's horsepower to 605 from the original 412.

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"What kind of person wants a car like that?" Huffman says. "Vortech superchargers are for enthusiasts, for people who want more of what they already have too much of."

What Vortech wants more of these days is customers. The company's signature supercharger kits for cars and trucks are sold through big online suppliers including Summit Racing Equipment, Jegs Performance Parts and Keystone Automotive Industries Inc. They can cost $2,000 to $8,000, not counting installation, Middlebrook says.

"It's a discretionary purchase, and it's expensive," he says.

Middlebrook got his start in 1970 working as a technician for American Honda Motor Co. Within a few years, he says, he was helping Honda build race-car engines. In the 1980s, he went to work for famed speed-shop legends the Granatelli brothers -- Andy, Vince and Joe -- building custom supercharger systems.

He heard so often from customers dissatisfied with the turbochargers and superchargers available on the market that he figured he'd found a niche. Encouraged to go for it by his wife, Theresa, a patent attorney, Middlebrook read every book he could find on vehicle and air dynamics.

In 1990, he launched Vortech Engineering in a 2,100-square-foot space in Moorpark, Calif. At first, the company operated purely as a distributor, selling other firms' products. But soon Middlebrook was designing his own superchargers and having them manufactured in various machine shops.

Sales grew quickly, but it took a decade for Middlebrook to land the capital he needed to do all of his own manufacturing. In 2000 he moved Vortech to its present location.

Richard Holdener, a hard-core enthusiast, says he bought his first Vortech supercharger in 1990, adding it to a 1988 Ford Mustang GT with a 225-horsepower engine. He says the Vortech supercharger and other improvements doubled the horsepower.

"We drag-raced it. We beat the heck out of the thing, and never once did it leave me stranded. It was the epitome of reliability," Holdener says.

That kind of loyalty has Middlebrook committed to the speed business for the long haul.

"We're car guys," Middlebrook says. "That's not going to change."


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