While Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was putting the finishing touches on his script for the BATMAN pilot, he wrote to executive producer Bill Dozier enthusiastically on August 6th, 1965: "I can tell you that we've created one absolutely guaranteed new TV star: the Batmobile." The Batmobile became almost as popular as the show's stars, and even today draws thousands of fans to auto shows around the country.
Semple's version of the Batmobile is an American dream. The ultimate example of car-as-an-extension-of-owner. Batman's car was a dark, powerful machine, faster than anything else on the road. It was extremely cool, flamboyantly thwarting its own theft with sirens and fireworks. Its atomic-powered engine and fire-spouting rocket turbine propelled it down the road at only dreamed-of speeds. It even protected itself from fire with flame-retardant smoke. And much more. It made Bob Kane's Batmobile pale in comparison, and by it's creation, Semple forged a legend.
After reading the script, Dozier realized he needed someone working on the Batmobile immediately, and called George Barris, the "King of the Kustomizers." Barris and his brother had started customizing, (or kustomizing as he prefers), cars before World War II, and moved to Hollywood in 1945. There, they set up shop in Lynwood, California and created cars for Clark Gable, Mamie Van Doren, Jayne Mansfield, Spike Jones, and even Barry Goldwater.
The company had moved to North Hollywood, and specialized in cars for television shows, including customizing the monstrous hot rod (from hell?): the Munster Koach.
Dosier and Barris cut a deal: BKI [Barris Kustoms] would be paid to customize the car and would then rent that car to Greenway on a weekly basis for the show. Production artist Eddie Graves at 20th Century Fox designed the Batmobile and gave the sketch to Barris. "The art director brought in an idea of what they needed: flashing lights, turbine fire blower on the back, chain slicer, etc.," said Barris. "We gave them a twentieth-century Batmobile that was different from Bob Kane's."
Barris had an automobile that fitted Graves' design, an experimental 1957 [actually 1955] Ford Lincoln Futura. Barris was given three weeks to deliver the car to the studio for the pilot. While Barris worked on making the chain cutter and other additions to the car, Barris hired a competing car kustomizer, Bill Cushenbery, to do the body work. "Bill did the metal shaping," said Barris. "I chose him because of his experience and craftsmanship. He is a top-notch craftsman."
Recalled Cushenbery, "I guess they were too snowed under. I did it in my own shop. Barris TOLD me what to do. I didn't work from any sketches."
Said Barris, "I incorporated the bat-face into the design sculpturing of the car. That's why you see the ears go up where the headlights are. The nose comes down for the chain slicer. The mouth is the grill. Right on back to the huge, long fins which are Bat-fins."
The metal modifications proved very tricky. "The car had to be torn down quite a way to do the work because the fins stopped at the quarter panels," said Cushenbery, "I made up new fins that went all the way into the doors. Then I reworked the wheel wells and made them all the same and reworked the hood to make it look like a Bat-man car type hood. I had a welding machine and a little air hammer. I would pound the metal out and run it through a little air hammer untīl I got the shape I wanted. I would trim it and weld it on. It's quite an art.''
After Cushenbery was finished, a Barris crewmember added finishing touches. "One of his guys came over to my shop and started putting Bondo(tm) (bonded plastic) on it," said Cushenbery. "I don't know why they did it. They put plastic on everything. It's like a primer. It was sprayed on. It pissed me off. It didn't need it."
Barris explained that the plastic was added to finish off the welding seams to provide a smooth effect, something not uncommon at his shop. When Cushenbery was finished, he delivered the car to BKI for the final work to make it look like Graves' sketch. "We never took the Futura body off the frame to modify it", said Barris. Bill Cushenbery made the extension on the fins. We did the scallops over here. From the scoop on the hood he put an extension down which went into the chain slicer. We made the grill cavity, and we made the ears from the headlights, and everything in the rear."
The Futura had a full plastic bubble from front to rear and side to side, covering the whole cab, "We made it into what we call a target top: half on front, half on rear" said Barris. "Then we put the radar arch in the middle with flashing lights and the emergency lights. The 20th Century Fox prop department worked with us on some of these things that were to be incorporated from the script for special effects- radar arch, smoke stuff, seat ejector, how we were going to release the nails, spill the oil. They put those rocket tubes on the back of the car, and we had to make the adapters for where they went." A final addition was the silver hub-caps with the red bat especially cast by Center Engineering.
BKI had to take a break in building the car and send it over to the sound stage that Jack Senter had dressed for the screen tests of Lyle Waggoner, Ward, and West. It stayed for the tests for about a day or so, receiving some modifications on the sound stage from Twentieth Century Fox special effects technichians and then went immediately back to BKI. When the pilot starting shooting in October the car still wasn't finished and was delivered to the studio with only the primer coat applied, "In the first shots, the car was in the black primer, which really didn't come on so strong," said Barris. "They wanted to get more of a gloss on it. We then airbrushed white highlights round the outside edges, but that didn't come out as strong either. That's when we went ino the 3/4 inch red fluorescent glow edges to accentuate the lines of the Batface and fins. It made it much more dramatic."
During the filming of the pilot, a small mishap ensued that put Bill Dozier into a panic: "In the rush of getting done we got it up to the Batcave to get the original shots coming out of the Batcave," said Barris, "For safety reasons, I acquired Mickey Thomp- son's racing tires off of his race car, so that we would not have any problems, We took the car up there and had our stunt driver come barreling out of the Batcave. He hit the first turn and blew a tire.
"These tires were a thousand dollars a piece. Needless to say, we had no spare. Dozier was going out of his mind because we're holding up the whole thing. So immediately, we jacked up the car, peeled off all the tires and wheels and went down to a Firestone Dealer. We got some regular Firestone tires, popped them right on, and off we went.
Victor Paul, Burt Ward's stunt double and Hubie Kerns, BATMAN's co-stunt remembered shooting the car at a real cave in Bronson Canyon.
"All they did was put in a bunch of phony doors and highway fence in front of it," said Paul. "We only had a couple inches on either side. It was so tight that the camera- man had to undercrank. We didn't want to take any chances of tearing the car apart. We came out of there about twenty five miles per hour."
"That thing was a deathtrap, almost. The steering would break on it.
Once we missed an open manhole by inches!"
Stuntman Victor Paul
The second car was a stand-in car for the filming. The third car was mostly used to tour for exhibitions and feature attractions. The fourth car was a drag racing car, with a more powerful engine than the others. And according to Barris, the fifth car was another steel car and was used mostly for drive-by shots out on the highway. California Metal Shaping pulled molds off the number three car to do the metal work.
The engines were all 427 Ford (except the drag racer)," said Barris. "The trans- missions were all BMN Hydros. The fibreglass cars weighed 3800 lbs. The steel cars were 5500 lbs. All the tricks in the cars were created for various things called for in the scripts: Nail spreader, oil skidder, the butane flame blower out of the back. the anti- flame detector, seat ejectors.
According to Kerns, he only drove the Futura and none of the others.
"I'm told that they are very fine cars, but I would never know, because i never saw them," he said. "When I heard they were making a second, I thought we were going to get a good car for the show, but I never saw them. I only drove that piece of junk that looked good."
Kerns thought of the Futura as "that piece of junk" because of the age of the car and the high drgree of use the production required of it.
"It got so much use, the suspension and engine got tired," said Barris. "It was a tired car before it got started."
Because it was 'tired', Barris was always prepared for repair work.
"We always had certain repairs after certain shots were done." said Barris. "We had tires, wheels and other knock-offs in our shop. We always maintained spare parts, either on location or here. Fox transportation was there with tooling also."
Another problem due to all the stuntwork required of the experimental car was overheating.
"The engine would get hot, because they would leave it running and everything is enclosed," said Barris. We had to adapt more fans in there. We incorporated draw fans in the front of the radiator and pull fan behind the radiator. To do that, it took 30 to 40 amps more juice. The generator only puts out 18 to 20 amps. We were losing 20 amps everytime we were running it so the battery would go dead. That means we had to put in a spare battery and another 20 amp alternator so that it would get more juice to run all the extras when at low speed, and still not get over 220 to 230 degrees as far as the engine was concerned."
The car also had another annoying problem. "The winshield had a bad spot in it where Hubie had trouble seeing," said Victor Paul. "It was always blurry on one side."
Barris explained that as a problem unique to windshields with compound curves and the cockpits of the other cars were blown a different way after the flaw was discovered. "That was a Lexon we used on the Futura, then we used plexiglass," said Barris. "We vacuumformed the others, which means we didn't have to lay it in the mold. It was a lot cleaner and easier."
In spite of the complications, they continued to film the show with the Futura. "It did a lot of what we wanted it to do, taking off and stopping, and coming around the bend," admitted Victor Paul.
"It would move. That car was over 5000 pounds, once you got it going, it could go pretty fast. We did some pretty fast chases around Malibu where we were going at a pretty good clip."
But age finally caught up with the Futura. "That thing was a deathtrap, almost," said Victor Paul. "The steering would break on it. The transmission got screwed up on it.
I remember we were doing a chase in Malibu and Hubie was coming around this curve, down by the beach near Marineland. We finished the take and Hubie said 'Y'know we had no more steering. I was turning the wheel and we were just going straight. Another time, we missed an open manhole by inches."
After too many close calls, BKI had to do a major overhaul on the car. "We removed the transmission, the drive, the suspension and the engine and replaced it with a 1965 Ford; the same as the other four cars," said Barris.
Two of the most common effects shots done on the show with the Batmobile were the Bat-turn and the rocket engine startup. Each of the cars was equipped with the twin Dietz parachutes commonly used to stop drag-racing cars. These were supposed to turn the Batmobile 180 degrees during the Bat-turn. The effect was managed with an insert shot rigged by Fox's special effects crew. The car was mounted on a special effects turntable and was simply turned around. The camera was undercranked to speed up the film and the interior shots were done by rear projection work.
The rocket engine start-up's tight shot was done at the prop department at Fox. They built a full-scale mock-up of the back of the Batmobile for an inset shot. While the Futura and the other Batmobiles did shoot flames, they weren't spectacular enough for the producers.
Today, only the first two cars are still in Barris' possession, the others in hands of collectors. Barris leases them for car shows and exhibitions around the country. Crowds always gather to see them, wherever they go, proving that these vehicles are truly "The stuff that dreams are made of."