- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
On Jan. 13, 2013, Lot 5037 rolled smoothly onto center stage at the prestigious Barrett-Jackson car auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. The sleek, low-slung vehicle, owned by California auto customizer George Barris, glistened like a black diamond under the lights.
Moments later, furious bidding erupted among the well-heeled. After 13 minutes, it was all over, the buyer elated, the audience stunned. TV’s original Batmobile had found a new home.
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During the ’50s, American car companies held annual auto shows, where attendees were often enthralled by what the factory folks called “concept cars.” Such boldly designed vehicles were constructed to showcase new styling and technology but were never offered for sale.
A decade before the Batmobile appeared on TV’s Batman show, the Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford Motor Company had proudly displayed its Lincoln Futura concept car at the 1955 Chicago Auto Show.
Bill Schmidt, the company’s chief stylist, had been inspired to come up with the design for the Futura one day after he had scrutinized a shark while scuba diving.
Schmidt later designed what would amount to a “laboratory on wheels,” an experimental machine loaded with advanced — really advanced — engineering and design features.
Measuring nearly 19 feet in length, the Futura was 7 feet wide but stood less than 4.5 feet high. It sported rakish tail fins, Plexiglas bubble canopies, a push-button gearshift, and space for a telephone behind the center console.
Most concept cars, expensive as they were to design and build, were eventually scrapped. In this case, though, the Futura was later bought by George Barris. Never titled and therefore uninsurable, the auto sat idle for years, slowly deteriorating behind Barris’s Kustom City shop in North Hollywood.
In August 1965, two producers from the forthcoming TV show Batman approached another California car customizer, Dean Jeffries, about building a Batmobile for the program. Jeffries soon began working on the body of a 1959 Cadillac before realizing he wouldn’t have time to finish the project before the three-week deadline. He was paid off, and the producers turned to Barris.
“They said, ‘You’ve got 15 days and $15,000,’” Barris recalled later. “But the challenge was worth it. I said, ‘Let’s go for it!’ What I had to create was a fantasy.”
He rounded up five people to revamp the Futura. Barris himself painted it a gloss black and added bright red-and-orange trim to help make it “pop” on color television.
Miraculously, the project was completed on time, and the Batmobile debuted on national TV on Jan. 12, 1966. That’s when the Caped Crusader and Robin first roared out of the Batcave in a gadget-loaded vehicle meant to instill fear in the hearts of Gotham’s lawbreaking louts.
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In Scottsdale, the new Batmobile owner set an auction record by paying $4.2 million (plus another $420,000 for the 10% buyer’s premium) to acquire the iconic collectible. That was quite a markup for George Barris as, decades earlier, Ford had sold him their $250,000 Futura for the princely sum of $1.
Although Randal C. Hill’s heart lives in the past, the rest of him resides in Bandon, Ore. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.