Quick, name one of the most recognizable cars in the world. If you answered “The Batmobile,” you’re spot-on. It’s the car that carried Batman and Robin in the 1960s television series Batman, and has been famous for decades.
And now, after belonging to the man who created it, car customizer George Barris for all those years, Batmobile Number One is heading off to the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale next month. This is going to be one huge sale, as the car could likely bring “millions” according to auction officials.
First, a little back story on the car. It started life as a space-age show vehicle called the Lincoln Futura, built by Ford Motor Company in 1955. Mr. Barris was involved in the promotion of Ford’s concept cars, and was able to acquire the Futura once its duty of touring auto shows had ended.
Then in late 1965, Barris got a call from the producers of a new television series based on the Batman comic books. They needed a proper Batmobile, and they needed it pronto. Starting with the Futura’s long sleek proportions and twin bubble cockpit, he customized the nose to resemble a bat’s face, and added long fins to mimic bat wings. Crime-fighting gadgetry was added, and the skirted wheel wells were opened up to show off racing-inspired custom wheels with bat logo centers.
On Jan. 12, 1966, television audiences got their first look at the Batmobile, with the costumed “caped crusaders” roaring out of the Batcave and onto the streets of fictional Gotham City. Since this is Hollywood, the Bronson Caves in Griffith Park did duty as the exterior of the secret cave, and also had an impact on the look of the car.
Barris’ original idea for the Batmobile was to have it sinister looking in a matte finish black. But when they did the first test shots of the car emerging from the Batcave, it got rather lost in the darkness. That’s when George got the idea to paint the car in gloss black and add florescent orange striping to highlight the car’s silhouette. That way, it could be seen much better by the cameras as it emerged from the darkness.
Another key feature of the car is its flame exhaust, supposedly part of its nuclear power system. In reality, the car has a 390 cubic inch Ford V8, but the flame lit up every time the Batmobile roared away in a scene. Barris had rigged up a propane system to create the flame, with a simple bathroom fan to make it shoot out the rear. Clever stuff, and part of the magic of making on-screen illusion.
The TV series only lasted a bit over two years, and there was also a theatrical movie with the same cast (and of course, the Batmobile). But the show and the car continued to be immensely popular, so additional duplicate cars were built to tour county fairs and car shows. According to Barris, people lined up to see the car wherever it went in the country. Yes, there have been different movie Batmobiles since, but to many, this one is the Batmobile.
The original car also spent many years in Barris’ landmark showroom on Riverside Drive, captivating anyone who drove or walked by. I was one of those kids who used to peer through the window on occasional Saturdays, wondering what it might be like to drive in the famous Batmobile.
On a recent visit to the showroom, I felt that same thrill upon seeing the legendary car among Mr. Barris’ many pieces of Hollywood memorabilia. Even well into his 80s, the well-known car creator is still sharp as a tack, and still enthusiastic about the stories of having the car ready for filming on short notice, and tending to it week after week during production.
Before I left, and before the Batmobile was loaded up into a transport truck to carry it off to the auction, George Barris graciously offered to let me sit in Batman’s seat in what is arguably the most famous car in the world.
How on earth could I say no! The much younger version of me peering through that showroom window never would have forgiven me.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave