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To The Batmobile! (CAR archive, February 2011)
Stuff We've Done
22 August 2012 09:30
‘What are you going to wear?’ That’s all my friends are interested in. I tell them I’m going to drive the Batmobile from the cult TV series, and all they do is snigger and ask about my clothes.
‘Will you wear a cape?’
‘Underpants on the outside of your trousers?’
‘You’re really not funny.’
In reality though, I was having the same thoughts about the car’s owner. When we discovered that Firebox, the gadgets and gifts company, was offering an exact recreation of the original 1966 Batmobile – made to order in America and imported as a £120,000, range-topping indulgence – we were interested. Then we found out someone had actually bought one in the UK, a real customer who’d paid real money. Okay, now we’re really interested in the car, but also I couldn’t wait to meet this mystery buyer. Would he be wearing a cape and a mask? Would his whole house be a slightly creepy facsimile of the Batcave? And would his wife be a leather-clad Catwoman, or a normal, harassed mother-of-three, saying ‘For goodness sake, Gerald, can’t you take up golf like everyone else?’
Sadly, meeting the owner proves a disappointment on that score: Mark Perkins is actually a very normal, very generous guy, with a great sense of humour and a specialist car-hire company called Character Cars. No cave and no cape. Still, the car may be destined for weddings and themed birthday parties, but there’s no disguising Mark’s enthusiasm for his new Bat car – not least because there’s another Batmobile parked next to it in his garage. Maybe it is a geeky obsession after all?
‘I’ve owned the other car for over 20 years,’ Mark tells me, nodding at a huge shape hidden under a dust cover. ‘But the old one’s not quite right – it was built before the internet, before you could do all the research, look at all the pictures.’ He lifts one corner of the cover. He’s right – even from the glimpse I get, I can see the proportions are wrong, the styling a little amateurish – it’s clearly not the real Batmobile.
‘I really wanted one that was exact,’ Mark goes on. ‘Right down to the details in the interior.’
Perkins found his answer in another Mark, Mark Racop of Indiana in the USA. Racop is a proper beardy-weirdy, who looks a dead cert for computer programming if he hadn’t gone into Batmobile production. But you can’t fault his dedication. His first Batcar was a hatchet job, done by him and his friends on a Chevy Monte Carlo back in 1983. Based (I kid you not) on four photos and a Corgi toy, it must have looked like a car crash, because in the summer of 1986 Racop watched all 120 episodes of the original Batman series on VHS, hoping to improve it.
More details and further modifications came in 1996, when pictures of the original Batmobile – built by legendary customizer George Barris – started to circulate on the newfangled internet. By now Racop had a ring-binder full of details, which his girlfriend must have loved flicking through. (What girlfriend?).
Anyway, the real change – the thing that makes Racop’s recreations different to your average backstreet Batjob – comes in 2004. Racop finds an exact copy of the 1955 Lincoln Futura up for auction on Ebay, a non-driveable replica of the concept car that Barris turned into the original 1966 Batmobile (see panel). Racop bought the tatty Futura copy, made a fresh mould from it, and then modified it in the same way Barris had, forty years earlier. That’s why Racop’s Batmobile looks exactly like the original TV star: because it’s based on the original 1950s concept car that spawned it.
Fast forward to 2010, and Racop’s company, Fibreglass Freaks, has now built ten examples of his Batmobile, and Mark Perkins’ car is one of them, the only one in Europe.
Based on a 1970s Lincoln Town Car, the first thing that strikes you is the scale of it. This is one gigantic car: seven-feet wide, 20-feet long, low-riding and finished in a strikingly beautiful paint job – $20,000-worth of deep black, with a ribbon of blood red highlighting the edges. Black is not a colour that disguises bulk, and the Batmobile looks like a grounded stealth bomber with chrome missile launchers. My first thought: looks a nightmare to parallel park.
Beneath the tall double-bubbles, the interior is a 1960s movie-prop-made-real, a camped-up pantomime Bond car with bold red labels for the ‘Bat Ray Projector’, the ‘Detect-a-scope’, and the ‘Emergency Bat Turn Lever’. There’s even a bright red Batphone – like everything else it’s fake, but it’s all real enough, in the sense that buttons click, lights flash, scopes flicker, and a gold antenna sprouts from the bonnet at the trip of a switch. It’s wide-eyed wonderful, and I love it.
Time to drive. To the Batmobile! ‘Atomic batteries to power, turbines to speed!’ as Robin would say. In fact, the only advice I get from Mark Perkins is: ‘The gearshift’s sticky and the brakes are a bit severe.’
When the engine starts you know this car belongs in the 1960s muscle era. The Firebox Batmobile comes with a brand new 5.7-litre GM V8, and when it fires it makes that big, lazy blub-blub-blub noise like a waiting tugboat. Slot the gearbox into ‘D’, gently squeeze the throttle, and the car wafts down the road as effortlessly as a featherbed on a train. You sense vast potential under your right foot, but it feels wrong to burn up the road like a drag racer – this is a car that was born to cruise.
This interior is like no other I’ve ever encountered. Aside from all the crazy Bat-gadgets, the steering wheel has no top rim, which is disconcerting when you come to a roundabout and grab thin air. It has terrible visibility, thanks to the roll bar arch between the occupants, and (despite Batman’s supposedly ‘brilliant analytical mind’) there are no windscreen wipers and no heater.
One thing’s for certain though: it doesn’t need superstrength to drive it. The steering’s so light and loose I feel like someone’s cut the nerve-endings in my arms. The throttle only needs a tickle to get the unstressed V8 to release its 280bhp, and it feels more like an unstoppable gush of water than a bomb going off. The scariest part is when you come to a roundabout – it’s like carrying a ladder over your shoulder, the front swinging out wiiiide in front of you, the tail swinging sloooowly round behind, and all the other drivers swerving out of your way.
And yet, teeth chattering on this foggy winter’s day, it’s hard not to smile. The sheer lunacy of the experience is then amplified and loudhailered down the street like a police warning when we drive through downtown Windsor. This is a car that makes people literally stop and shout out in the street: ‘It’s the Batmobile! Look! It’s Batman!’ And when we park up and climb out, the pavement immediately clogs with folk taking pictures on their phones. Until now, the Ariel Atom was my Number 1 Crowd Stopper. But the Batmobile is in a class of its own: a crowd-pleasing superpower-amongst-supercars.
I’m glad I didn’t wear the cape. Wear the tights and mask, and you’re a comic-obsessed computer programmer who needs a girlfriend. But dress normally, and people gasp and laugh and love your sense of humour. Automotive theatre of the best kind. Thank the Lord for geeks.
To rent the Batmobile, you can contact Mark Perkins through www.character-cars.com. To buy one yourself for £120,000, visit www.firebox.com