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Batmobile (Lincoln Futura)

Classic Projects: Batmobile (Lincoln Futura)

Find out why the Batmobile is a classic.

Although there had been versions of the armoured fighting motor vehicle dating back to 1939, it was not until 50 years ago that the Batmobile truly became a household name.

The superhero Batman was the dark, crime-fighting caped crusader and the most famous incarnation of his vehicle began in three-dimensional reality as a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car.

When the live-action 20th Century Fox TV series - which ran for 120 episodes in three seasons from 1966-1968 - was commissioned, its producers had wanted the Dark Knight to ride around Gotham City in a Cadillac. However, Dean Jeffries, the custom car designer drafted in to supply Batman’s wheels, was unable to produce a vehicle by the scheduled start of filming. Thus the project was handed to renowned ‘auto customiser’ George Barris, who was also to produce one-off vehicles for the Munsters, the Beverly Hillbillies and Knight Rider.

Barris had just the right vehicle on stock: a 1954 Lincoln Futura prototype that he had bought from manufacturer Ford for a peppercorn of $1. The Futura had been built entirely by hand at the Ghia Body Works in Turin and had first been exhibited at the Chicago Motor Show in January 1955. Although the prototype was to appear in the 1959 Debbie Reynolds movie ‘It Started With a Kiss’, the Futura had remained otherwise unemployed in Barris’s Hollywood workshop.

Barris was given three weeks to convert the Futura into what is now the most iconic version of the Batmobile. Assisted by Herb Grasse and Bill Cushenbery, Barris made metalwork modifications to the fins and nose to ensure an overall more bat-like appearance, before painting it gloss black with fluorescent cerise stripe trim. The conversion came at a further investment of $30,000 for Barris, who wisely retained ownership of the vehicle, preferring to lease it to 20th Century Fox for the series. At the time, the Batmobile was worth $125,000 or around $1m in today’s money.

Even before its bodywork modifications and the addition of its striking livery, the Futura had been an extraordinary car. Put together by Ford stylists Bill Schmidt and John Najjar, it was highly original by 1950s standards with its double clear canopy top, hooded headlights and large outward-canted tailfins. According to the July 1955 edition of Car Life magazine, the original concept had come to Schmidt after encountering a shark while scuba diving. The design was such a hit that the vehicle made an appearance on national TV, featuring on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’. Despite being regarded by Ford as a ‘laboratory on wheels’ the 1950s fashion for big, long cars was already starting to fade and the concept car never made it to development.

Although the prototype was fully functional, the Batmobile was never the most reliable of film props and the show’s producers had to contend with a temperamental vehicle that had overheating, battery and tyre problems. Despite this, fictional evolutionary developments were added that were later to become a reality in road cars. Among these were anti-theft devices, automatic tyre inflation, a remote computer and a cell phone. Further features such as a rear rocket thruster, parachute-assisted 180 degree turning, Bat photoscope, Bat ray projector and Bat Ram added to the geeky allure.

Over the years, numerous replicas of the Batmobile have been made, with Barris himself creating two for exhibiting on the car show circuit. Barris eventually sold the original at auction in 2013 for $4,620,000 (£3.2m), meaning that he had made literal millions in profit from his $1 investment.

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