Holy Hot Wheels, Batman!

In 1966, plenty of 11-year-old kids knew what happened when Batman and Robin rushed through their se

In 1966, plenty of 11-year-old kids knew what happened when Batman and Robin rushed through their secret headquarters.

The costumed crime fighters always jumped into their car.

“Atomic batteries to power,” Robin would say. “Turbines to speed.”

The famous Batmobile ignited with a rumbling, rolling growl. Flames flickered from the exhaust and the sleek, black auto zoomed toward the fictional villains’ paradise of Gotham City.

Former TV fan

Douglas Knapp Jr. of Princetown was one of those 11-year-olds. He liked the corny humor and vivid colors of the television sensation. And he really liked those hot wheels.

“We all dreamed of owning a car that could do a 180-degree turn at the pull of a handle or produce a ram and smoke screen to help with irritating motorists who refuse to drive properly,” said Knapp, a former car mechanic who worked many years at his family’s auto garage, Knapp Service Ltd. on Steuben Street in Schenectady.

Forty-two years later, there’s a new Batman and a new version of the cool car. “The Dark Knight,” the sequel to 2005’s successful “Batman Begins,” stars Christian Bale as the masked vigilante and the late Heath Ledger — in his last complete movie role — as The Joker. The characters’ appearances have changed over time and medium. So has Batman’s longtime “mechanical assistant.”

Bob Kane, who created Batman in 1939, decided to put his star in the driver’s seat right away. At the time, few characters in pulp fiction had their own special cars — radio’s Green Hornet was just about the only one, traveling in the souped-up Black Beauty. Years later, James Bond’s Aston-Martin would delight movie fans with its array of special gadgets.

But the Batmobile could be the most enduring fictional super car.

At first, it was nothing special. Kane’s first Batmobile was a simple red sedan, but color and accessories changed quickly. The comic book car of the 1940s became darker and darker, and began to feature a giant bat “mask” as a hood ornament. Decorative “wings” also became part of the look, as artists installed them on the top, and later over the rear fenders, of the vehicle.

By the mid-1950s, a bubble dome covered the driver’s compartment. Part of this design was used for the celebrated television Batmobile, as front and rear “half domes” kept wind — and more dangerous objects — from harming the masked men.

Ultimate car

Aficionados of both the comic book and movie incarnations of Batman love to talk about the different cars. Bill Spencer of Hannacroix (in the Coxsackie-Greenville area of Greene County) runs the fan Web site batmobilehistory.com, which received 248,185 visits during the first week of July. Spencer says people like talking about the fictional auto because it can be considered an ultimate car.

“It’s the thing everybody wished they could own,” Spencer said. “It’s fast, armor-plated and looks cool. There’s no worrying about parking lot dings, fuel economy, insurance premiums, flat tires or any of the million other little hassles we all put up with in our everyday cars.”

Spencer said the television car — a Lincoln Futura painted black with red trim lines and red bat decals on the wheels and doors — is one favorite for discussion. The other is the sleek, armored, all-black Batmobile used in the Michael Keaton films of 1989 and 1992.

Surprising change

The current model, nicknamed the “Tumbler,” surprised some fans. The long and lean look had been scrapped in favor of a tank-like vehicle with four monster-sized tires in back and two in front. Bat insignias were not part of the package.

“Most fans were caught off guard by the design when it first showed up, and some outright hated it,” Spencer said. “But after its appearance in ‘Batman Begins,’ most people accepted it and for some it even became a new favorite.”

Spencer added the car was never referred to as the “Batmobile” in the movie.

“One likely reason was that the creators of ‘Begins’ were trying to get away from the ‘bat’ prefixes that plagued the campy versions of Batman,” Spencer said. “ ‘The Dark Knight’ seems to be a little more lenient in that respect — the ‘bat-pod’ will be called that in the movie — so you might hear the term used this time around.”

The current car can only be checked out at the movies. Dick Messer offers the 1992 Batmobile from “Batman Returns” at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

“We’ve had the 1960s Batmobile, too,” said Messer, executive director of the 150-car showplace. The older model has been lent to designers for digital scanning work.

“It was pretty well trashed during the show,” Messer said. “The Futura was never designed for those sharp corners, busting out of the cave. The car took a beating, and the engine blew up once; so it’s not the original engine. The body is really the only thing that has survived the ages.”

The 1960s car has been duplicated many times, Messer said. People have posted video snippets of chance encounters with the Batmobile on the file-sharing site YouTube.

Messer warns that Warner Brothers, which owns the rights to the Batman character, will pursue mechanics and Fiberglas body artists who design their own bat cars. It’s all about trademark infringement, so cheaters may some day find themselves pinned in giant mouse traps, turned into ice cubes or stuffed into Egyptian sarcophagi by the Warners’ legal team.

Lawyers haven’t got a problem with Petersen showing off the movie Batmobile, which was purchased through legitimate auction. “Sometimes there will be kids I know who come to the museum, I let them sit in the car and they can’t believe it, they’re just wide-eyed,” Messer said. “It’s ‘I’m sitting in the Batmobile.’ ”

There’s not as much demand for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, also part of the Petersen collection. “ ‘The Green Hornet’ was not that popular a show, but this is the real deal car. The brooms come down by the back tires, the radar thing comes out of the trunk and its got the gun turrets.”

Robert Thompson of Syracuse University, a nationally consulted expert on pop culture and television, says artists and writers behind Batman and the Green Hornet — and the characters’ smart transportation — must thank an earlier generation of good guys.

“Superheroes owe a lot to cowboy heroes,” Thompson said, “and the way in which they wandered about as itinerant rescuers and do-gooders. Their horses, in many ways, would mutate into the automobiles used by superheroes.”

Borrowing from Zorro

Batman creator Kane admitted borrowing from Zorro, the 19th-century avenger of Spanish peasantry. He not only lifted the Western character’s black garb and flowing cape — he also borrowed the meek alter-ego, underground headquarters and peerless transportation: Zorro’s black horse, Tornado.

Thompson’s favorite Batmobile is not a surprise. As a member of the baby-boomer generation, the black-and-red 1960s car was part of his youth. Thompson said young people who marveled at the more violent Keaton movies — and its tougher, more dangerous Batmobile — probably prefer that car.

The somber Keaton ride is not for everybody.

Doug Knapp says watching Adam West’s TV Batman probably inspired him to install unconventional components in his own cars.

“In the mid-’70s, I owned a [Volkswagen] Karmann Ghia, which had a body designed by the same outfit that designed the Futura,” he said. “I loaded it with equipment that was rare back then: A full-blown cassette stereo with large speakers, a 40-channel CB radio, a police scanner and a small television with a five-inch screen. I put custom lights all around, special bumpers, wheel covers and a fake grille on the nose.”

Nick Falvo, owner of Schenectady Auto Service, says young people today would be impressed by Mr. West’s old car.

“If it was driven down the road, it would turn a lot of heads,” he said. “Young kids would definitely say, ‘What is that?’ ”

But things change: Thompson said pop culture always evolves. The Batmobile of 1966 would never work with Christian Bale at the wheel, not with global positioning systems, voice-activated components and other gimmicks on 2008 dashboards.

“I know people who drive Toyota Corollas that can do more than the Batmobile from the 1960s could do,” Thompson said.

Categories: Life and Arts

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