March 24 (Bloomberg) -- This is every kid’s dream. I’m sitting in the Batmobile, a gonzo fantasy car with parachutes and fins so big they look like wings.
I’ve arrived at a custom-car garage in North Hollywood to meet two automotive legends -- the original car from the 1960s Batman TV show (“Pow!” “Zap!” “Kaboom!”) and its creator, 85-year-old George Barris.
I’ve even been promised a drive in the Caped Crusader’s cruiser...if only it will stop raining.
Barris calls himself the “King of the Kustomizers.” He’s behind innumerable TV and movie cars, including the “Back to the Future” DeLorean, “The A-Team” van and KITT Trans Am. His most famous car will always be the Batmobile, fashioned in 1966.
Most were built at Barris’s Riverside Drive garage, where I arrive in a deluge -- hardly typical L.A. weather. The Batmobile has no roof, which signals trouble.
In a car world populated with big kids who’ve simply graduated to bigger toys, Barris is Peter Pan. A small man with white hair haloing his skull and funky 1970s-style gold-rimmed glasses, he’s a live wire who constantly tells stories about former clients from Elvis and Michael Jackson to Clint Eastwood.
Bat Wing Span
“I wasn’t really aware of Batman before making the car,” he says. “I knew the comic books, I guess, but had no idea it was going to turn into such a big thing.”
ABC Studios gave him less than three weeks to conceptualize and build it. “The only idea they had was to cut out a bat face and stick it on the front of a Lincoln. Ridiculous!”
Barris had a long-standing relationship with Ford and owned a concept car called the Lincoln Futura -- an outlandishly long, bubble-windowed coupe handbuilt in Italy. It became the base.
Almost 20 feet long, it’s too big to take in at a single glance. Barris’s team fashioned wings that start from the middle of the doors and rise over the beltline, coming to a sharp rake in the rear.
There’s a fake jet exhaust in the back (actually a painted 10-gallon bucket), and two packed parachutes that actually work, used to effect a “Bat turn.”
“I popped them once on the Hollywood Freeway and got pulled over,” Barris says. “The officer asked, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ I told him, ‘Just checking the Bat chutes out before you and me go out to catch the Riddler.’ ‘Now I’ve heard it all!’ he said.”
Fashioned from steel, the car doors are incredibly heavy. I slip into the black-leather bucket seats where Adam West once perched (“He’s a good driver,” says Barris). The large steering wheel has a tachometer in the center (an original concept-car detail), and controls for various James Bond-like gadgets on the dash.
They include oil slicks, an ejector, rockets, nails and an anti-theft system, all helpfully labeled -- and all very imaginary. The oil-slick nozzles on the front of the car are actually sprinkler heads.
There’s a radar screen and, rather inexplicably, a large plastic bubble-encased compass mounted on top of the vinyl dash.
To my right is the Bat phone, a clunky hunk of red plastic attached to a coiled phone cord. A pretty revolutionary idea for its time. Instead of a roof, there’s just a Plexiglass half bubble front and rear which make up the windscreens.
A Ford badge adorns each side. While the car runs and has a 500-horsepower engine, Barris prefers not to drive it often. “I wouldn’t sell it for the world,” he says. “It’s for my kids.”
No Bat Turn
During the TV show, which ran from 1966 to 1968, molds were made from the original and some half dozen fiberglass replicas were created for stunt work and promotional events. In 2007, one sold at auction for $233,000.
Car No. 2, the first reproduction, is also here and Barris fires it up. It’s loud and rough-sounding. “As soon as it stops raining...” he says pointedly. I look outside. Buckets of rain.
As we wait, Barris shows me around. “This is my Batcave,” he says of a room brimming with Batman toys in their original packages. I contemplate their worth on eBay.
Every inch of wall space is covered with movie posters and promotional photos of shows Barris has worked on. He’s currently a judge on Speed channel’s “Car Warriors,” where two teams compete to customize cars. “It’s awesome what these guys do,” he says breezily.
Still, he complains that cars used on retreads of TV shows like “Knight Rider” and the movie “Green Hornet” aren’t as cool as the versions he worked on. “They use computer effects. Our cars actually had to do all that stuff.”
One last look outside. The rain has gotten even worse. Foiled! No Bat turns today.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
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