Today we tell the story of the Batmobile, the automotive hero of the 1966 children’s television series that was based on the comic book adventures of Batman and Robin.
DTW readers of more mature years will immediately recognise the apparently random selection of words in the title above. They are lifted from the opening credits of Batman, a 20th Century Fox children’s television programme that ran from 1966 to 1968 and made an indelible impression on one childish mind at least.
The hero of the programme was Bruce Wayne, a wealthy bachelor played by Adam West, who led a double life as Batman, protecting the good citizens of Gotham City from the dastardly deeds of a variety of colourful, if inept criminals including The Riddler, The Joker and The Penguin. At Batman’s side was Robin, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne’s young ward, Dick Grayson, played by Burt Ward, and their indefatigable and unflappable butler, Alfred Pennyworth, played by English actor Alan Napier.
The plots were always highly implausible and would invariably end in a fist fight between our heroes and a gang of baddies, hence the title words above. While nominally aimed at children, there was a high-camp element to the humour that certainly appealed to more knowing adult viewers, who might also have wondered about our heroes’ impeccable chivalry and apparent lack of anything more than polite interest in members of the opposite sex.
The characters first appeared in a D.C. Comics publication in May 1939 and were a staple in comics and graphic novels thereafter. 20th Century Fox secured D.C. Comics’ agreement to produce a television series and the hunt was on for a suitable Batmobile. With filming scheduled to start in just six weeks, time was of the essence. The producers turned to George Barris, a renowned builder of customised cars for both private clients as well as for films and television series. His most famous work to date was the decrepit 1921 Oldsmobile pick-up truck that served as transport for the Clampett family in the 1962 CBS sitcom, The Beverley Hillbillies
With such a tight deadline, Barris knew he could not build a Batmobile from scratch, but fortunately he had in storage a 1955 concept car called the Lincoln Futura. Designed by William M. Schmidt and John Najjar, the Futura had been hand-built in Italy by Carrozzeria Ghia coachbuilders. It was fitted with a six-litre (368cu.in.) V8 engine and three-speed automatic transmission. The Futura was a large car, with a wheelbase of 3,200mm (126”), overall length of 5,765mm (227”) and width of 2,134mm (84”). With its futuristic ‘double-bubble’ plexiglass roofed cockpit and long but low rear fins, it would be the perfect basis for conversion.
The Futura was originally pearlescent white but had been subsequently repainted red for its appearance in the 1959 movie ‘It Started with a Kiss’, a romantic comedy starring Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford. For its transformation into the Batmobile, it given scalloped trailing edges to its tailfins resembling bats’ wings and a more aggressively sculpted front end. A five-gallon steel drum formed the outlet for its flaming ‘jet’ engine at the rear, on either side of which were mounted genuine Deist drag-racing parachutes to assist braking. Prominent wheel arches replaced the Futura’s semi-enclosed wheel arrangement and the car was fitted with Rader cast-alloy five-spoke wheels garnished with oversized bat logos on the wheel centre caps and fitted with Firestone tyres.
The Batmobile was equipped with all manner of high-tech crime-fighting devices, mostly with names prefixed by ‘Bat…’ and included the Batphone, Batcomputer, Batsmoke, Batphotoscope etc. It was painted in gloss black with red highlights and bat-shaped silhouettes on the doors. After three frenetic weeks and at an eye-watering reported cost of $30,000(1), the Batmobile was just about ready in time for filming to begin in October 1965.
In the television series, the Batmobile lived underground in the Batcave beneath Wayne Manor, surrounded by the Caped Crusaders’ crime fighting arsenal. It sat on a turntable so could be rotated for a quick getaway(2). It was, of course, nuclear-powered(!)
There were a total of 120 episodes of the television series, which were aired over three seasons from January 1966 to March 1968 by US broadcaster ABC and internationally syndicated. There was also a movie made with the same cast to coincide with the launch of the television series. For a flavour of the programme, take a look here.
Astutely, Barris bought the Batmobile, which was not road-legal, for a nominal $1 (and waiver of storage fees owed to him by Ford) in December 1965. He patented the design and leased rather than sold the car to the production company. A further three full-size Batmobiles were needed for both filming and promotional purposes. As there was only ever a single Futura show car, these were instead based on the contemporary 1967 Ford Galaxie production model. Other replicas were made, not all of which were authorised.
Barris held onto the original Batmobile until January 2013, when it was put up for sale at specialist automotive auctioneers Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Batmobile achieved an extraordinary $4.62 million, then a record amount for a car from any movie or television series. Barris, apparently still fit and healthy at 88 years of age(3), attended the sale and was naturally delighted at the inconceivable outcome. The Batmobile was offered for sale again in July 2016 for an undisclosed amount. Its current whereabouts are, as far as I can ascertain, undisclosed but the car was most recently reported as undergoing an extensive renovation that began in 2018.
There have, of course, been other Batmobiles built for a series of big-screen movies, beginning with Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Batman, starring Michael Keaton in the title role. These films were altogether darker and more sinister affairs and completely lacked the high-camp tomfoolery of the 1960’s television series. Similarly, the Batmobile was reinvented as a far more threatening device, more stealth fighter than car, with matt black paint and armour plating. For this scribe however, the original is still the best.
(1) This equals $250,500 in today’s money, an extraordinary amount for the conversion.
(2)The getaways were ridiculously quick, thanks to the film being obviously speeded up!
(3) George Barris died on 5th November 2015 at the age of 89. DTW published an obituary which may be found here.