WESTPORT, CONN. — Quick, what are the most famous cars in the world? A short list would include President Kennedy’s death Lincoln, the DeLorean from "Back to the Future," KITT from "Knight Rider," Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang, the General Lee ’69 Dodge Charger, Herbie the Love Bug and the police car from "The Blues Brothers." It’s no coincidence that most of these are movie cars, and it’s why you have to include the Batmobile from the 1960s TV show.
Can you imagine actually driving the Batmobile? I can, because I just did, as part of Dragone Auctions’ plan to sell the car next month. And in 30 years of driving everything you can imagine, I’ve never seen such a commotion. Nearly every person we passed swiveled their heads, offered thumbs up and cheers, then quickly pocket-dived for their cellphones. The Batmobile doesn’t drive by every day.
“There is no better time machine than this car,” George Dragone told me. “When people see it, they recall their childhoods watching the TV show.” I like the fact that it’s drivable — not all of them are — because the great fun of owning it would be cruising around and watching the double-takes.
The campy, very period "Batman," starring Adam West in the title role and Burt Ward as Robin, ran from 1966 to 1968. It was a huge pop hit, and watching the show was part of the childhood of every Baby Boomer. The 1965 Batmobile was not the sole achievement of customizer George Barris, as many suppose, but a quickie revamp (just three weeks) of the $250,000, Italian-built 1955 Lincoln Futura show car, which Barris Kustom City had purchased for $1 (see model at left). In 1955, the car appeared on the "Ed Sullivan Show," but a decade later it was surplus to requirements — show cars hadn’t yet gained collector cachet.
The Batmobile made its debut in the 1940s Batman #5 comic book, but it was then just a sleek and powerful sedan, looking something like an 810 Cord. Barris' version is a Bat-branded muscle car, initially with a Lincoln chassis and not a great departure from the Futura. My test car, with a General Motors chassis and a 327 V-8, is said to be Batmobile #5, used for stunt driving and chase scenes. Barris said in a 1996 letter that comes with the car that it is serial number #00005 and “was the main stunt car for the 'Batman' TV show.” Barris still owns the original one, but a scattering of other TV show cars are out there. The history is quite convoluted.
This Batmobile is very intact, retaining all its bat accessories, as befits a car that allegedly saw some close-up camera work. Getting in is a bit of a squeeze, but Batman’s driver’s seat is cozy, with everything from the missile launchers to the Detect-o-Scope within easy reach. Everything has a little red sign, including the squarish “Bat Moniter.” Yes, it’s spelled that way. The Batmobile introduced some technology that actually happened eventually, including a FAX-like machine that could transmit photos (see the video below).
Among other features: a Bat Turbine Switch (the car was supposedly turbine-powered, explaining that macho flaming exhaust), the pushbutton Bat Phone (30 years before cars actually had phones). The Bat Compass, and bat insignias everywhere — on the wheels, the floormats, the doors, even the seatbelts. The “Emergency Bat Turn Lever” was for turning the car around in emergencies; it deployed the parachutes, which this car indeed has. Completing the period look is a non-working Pioneer eight-track player.
This video shows the gadgets in operation:
Driving the car was an experience. The steering column and ignition were obviously of General Motors origin, complete with GM key. The center section between two Plexiglas windscreens creates a blind spot, and there are no rear-view mirrors, but otherwise piloting the car was amazingly straightforward. The big V-8 burbled and made satisfying noises, but no huge forward thrust. Once underway it was tractable, with very light power steering. Road manners were good, and it even soaked up speed bumps without complaint. There were minor creaks and groans, but all-in-all it has held up quite well. I was distracted for most of the drive by having to wave back at people who converged on the car.
How much is disturbing the peace with this car worth? George Dragone estimates it will fetch something between $500,000 and $750,000. The auction is Saturday, May 19 at the Dragones’ showroom in Westport, Conn., and includes more than 50 other collector cars, including a Duesenberg Model J and a Ferrari 250 GT Lusso. I drove both of those, too, but that’s another story.
Here's my close-up video look at the Batmobile: