The life and times of the Batmobile

The life and times of the Batmobile
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First Published: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 51 PM IST

Larger than life: The two Batmobiles from (left) Batman and Robin and (right) Batman Forever have been criticized for their over-the-top look.
Larger than life: The two Batmobiles from (left) Batman and Robin and (right) Batman Forever have been criticized for their over-the-top look.
Updated: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 51 PM IST
At the Chicago Auto show in 1955, the Ford Motor Co. unveiled a concept car called the Futura and the press release stated: “The Futura can and will be driven. It will be utilized as a laboratory on wheels and will be subjected to all the hazards and conditions of road testing.”
Larger than life: The two Batmobiles from (left) Batman and Robin and (right) Batman Forever have been criticized for their over-the-top look.
They forgot to add that it would take a decade before that would happen and that the man testing the car would dress like a bat. The Futura never saw the light of day as a mass produced car (in fact, the original was sold for only $1 to a car collector), but George Barris of Barris Kustom City transformed the Futura into the Batmobile for the 1966 television series. Of course, it was modified a lot before Batman and Robin plonked their butts into the driver and passenger seats respectively, but the Futura’s lines were all there.
The Futura matched Batman’s persona because it had “bat” features built into the design already, such as the long fins and the exaggerated angles. But Barris spent around $30,000 (about Rs13 lakh today) for some modifications: the nose made to appear like an integrated bat mask; opening the wheel wells; and sculpting the Futura’s fins into subtle bat wings by extending their leading edges into the doors and scalloping the trailing edges.
The 1966 Batmobile featured plenty of accessories and gadgets. Some, such as the laser rays and magnetic beams, remain the stuff of a fanciful imagination, whereas others, such as the onboard computer, TV and phone, seemed incredible then, but are standard car accessories today. Other gadgets, such as the auto tyre inflation, remote engine start and live camera at the rear of the car, seem like viable options for the latest car designs. To escape from pursuers, the fancy Batmobile could release a smokescreen, something that decrepit cars on our roads do every day.
Retro wheels: Creator George Barris rides in the original Batmobile.
In the summer of 1989, when Batman flew on to the big screen for the first time since 1966 in the Warner Bros. movie Batman, director Tim Burton updated the beloved Batmobile, but he had modern technology to toy with this time. The design team, led by Anton Furst, spliced together two Chevy Impala chassis and topped this with a custom-built body. In the 20 years since the previous car, suspension set-ups had advanced. Michael Keaton’s car swung itself around corners using grappling hooks which could be retracted. Also, a pneumatic jack could be activated to lift the car off the ground and swing it around. But this is an old trick: In fact, it was first patented in March 1944 as a built-in power jack for automobiles.
Furst further pimped Batty’s ride by incorporating new design elements while still managing to capture the essence of the Batmobile. Out went the bat-face façade, to be replaced by a large, jet turbine intake flanked by sweeping, mandible-like front fenders. The low-set lights gave it a sinister presence and the large forward-facing air intake dams on the rear fenders looked as if design cues were taken from Darth Vader’s mask.
The 1989 Batmobile is my favourite: It’s drop-dead gorgeous, has a magnanimous rear and very curvaceous fender and body lines. It exuded sleekness, thanks to its streamlined fins and wrap-around split windscreen, and had the crouching look of a cat stalking prey. And, it was rendered all the more sexy thanks to Kim Bassinger in the passenger seat rather than the gawky, adolescent Robin.
Inside the cockpit, clutter was reduced to make the instrumentation more airliner-like rather than the school science-project look of the older car. But retaining the analogue dials lent a lovely retro feel. Gadgetry was a self-diagnostics system, CD recorder, and voice-command recognition system — commonplace in fancy cars today.
The next two generations of the Batmobile, like the movies themselves, were a step down. Barbara Ling’s designs for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin trimmed out voluptuousness and the pleasing curves of the last car and kind of turned Sophia Loren into Ally McBeal.
A new trick up the first car’s cylinders was that the wheels could turn a full 90 degrees on either side, enabling the car to move sideways in a straight line, which was very handy in avoiding rockets. Another trick was the ability to re-route the jet exhaust under the front-end to provide lift and launch grappling hooks at overhead anchors. With the nose up and the lines in place, the car could climb sheer vertical surfaces such as building walls as if it were driving on flat ground. According to me, this was the Batmobile’s coolest trick, but I have a feeling it’ll be some time before we can skip the traffic by scaling a few walls.
Sleek vs solid: The Batmobile from Batman (above) has sexy curves, while the Batmobile from Batman Begins (right) opts for a tank-like look.
Ling designed the second car to have a very large screen presence. Her inspiration came from Jaguar’s iconic racing car of the 1950s, the D-Type. But the winged rear reeked of excess and was impractically sized. Batman could never chase villains if they drove through Mumbai’s Milan subway. The rear wings were simply too high. And this car was a convertible, which was quite ridiculous—what about protection against snipers?
At more than 30ft long, it did serve its purpose of larger-than-life screen presence but I can just picture Batty cursing away and banging the wheel in frustration when he has to back up thrice before being able to turn into a small alley.
For the 21st century design, in the 2005 movie Batman Begins, Nathan Crowley and Christopher Nolan sought out an entire new gene pool for their vehicle called the Tumbler. Built by movie car engineers Chris Corbould and Andy Smith, the Tumbler was as different from the other Batmobiles as a bison is from a horse. And the analogy is quite telling because, while the previous Batmobiles’ designs incorporated flowing, sexy lines, the Tumbler exudes a stocky, brutish image. It evokes the popular Hummer, a brutish desert vehicle that Arnold Schwarzenegger prefers (in real life, not in the movies). A no-nonsense car that may not get lingering looks but will get the job done, the Tumbler resembles a bat with its wings folded forward, or a giant lobster with wheels instead of pincers. The Tumbler is 15ft long, weighs 2.5 tonnes, but is still capable of 0-100kmph in less than 6 seconds with a top speed of 180kmph.
The Tumbler may be much more effective and practical (being able to jump gaps and all that) than the previous Batmobiles, but it simply lacks style. Batmobiles have always been about fine form, eye-catching curves and sleekness. Their lines always drew inspiration from an era where cars were made more by men and less by machines. And the hint of retro had always been the essence of the Batmobiles on the silver screen, until the Tumbler changed all that. It’s as if James Bond morphed into Conan the Barbarian.
The rumoured vehicle of choice for the new movie is a motorcycle dubbed the Bat-pod. Let’s hope Christian Bale’s Batman has improved his taste in vehicles — it’s a sad state of affairs if we have to choose brutishness over body.
Rishad Saam Mehta is a traveller and car enthusiast who writes about self-drive holidays across the world.
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First Published: Fri, Jul 11 2008. 11 51 PM IST
More Topics: Ford Motor | Futura | George Barris | Batman | Robin |