The Batmobile Changed My Life

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I don’t remember much about being four years old. But I remember seeing the Batmobile in real life. And that changed everything.

Batman has saturated today’s culture. So it’s tough, even if you’re old enough, to remember that there was a time when the character was obscure and comic books were trash for kids, not yet “intellectual property.”

It was the 1966 TV series “Batman” that elevated the crimefighter up out of the entertainment muck. Airing two half-hour episodes a week, it was all high pop-art fun for adults, and mesmerizing for those of us in preschool. There was no dark backstory to the 1966 Batman—no dreary doom, no overweening philosophizing about society’s crushing class warfare. It was one millionaire, one youthful ward, a devoted British butler, the commissioner, the police chief and the dim-witted Aunt Harriet Cooper. All familiar elements in future Bat-things, except Aunt Harriet, who was pretty square anyhow.

1966 batmobile,

Steve Parsons / Getty Images

It was the lack of ambiguity that made Batman so powerful to pre-kindergartners. The good guys wore capes, the bad guys delighted in evil and had killer hideouts, and the cops were hapless oafs.

Best of all, there was the Batmobile.

Between the first and second season of the TV series, 20th Century Fox decided to produce a feature film using all the primary-colored elements established by the TV show. It would be a cheap movie to stick in American theaters that summer and exploit the amazing attention the TV show was attracting. Then Fox could use the movie to sell the rest of the planetary audience—maybe not so attuned to American pop art—on the TV series. Much money was to be made.

What mattered to me was this: Stearns Wharf, in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California, would portray the scuzzy Gotham City docks. Sometime between April and June of 1966, Batman was in my city, and the Batmobile was coming with him.

stearns wharf in santa barbara california at dusk

pygmalionk / Getty Images

One of the parents at my pre-school—it may have been my own mother—decided to organize a herd of us thumb-suckers and go down to watch them filming at the wharf. Most of what happened that day has long out of my memory. But I do remember two things.

First, that wasn’t Adam West wearing the Bat-costume, nor Burt Ward in Robin’s duds. To my four-going-on-five mind, that was inexplicable. I didn’t know anything about stunt-doubles back then.

Second, and much more importantly, there was the Batmobile, parked just down the pier from Moby Dick’s Coffee Shop. It was perfect. Black with red trim, sitting on five-spoke wheels, with a twin-bubble canopy… dang, it was glorious. Not at all disappointing. Just like it appeared on TV. Better, actually, because my family had a black-and-white TV and I didn’t know about the red trim. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as color TV.

1966 batmobile

Steve Parsons / Getty Images

To my toddling eyes, the Batmobile’s absurd proportions—126-inch wheelbase, 225 inches of overall length—didn’t register. That this massive car only held two people, had a trunk you could only access by crane, and lacked such niceties as side-view mirrors, didn’t matter. The thing didn’t even have a roof or windshield wipers. What it had was an ongoing story. Every episode it took the Caped Crusaders to another encounter with Catwoman, Joker, Riddler or some off-brand villain like the Bookworm. It wasn’t a car for doing anything except telling stories. And while I couldn’t intellectually articulate that when I was four (almost five), that’s been the standard by which I judge cars, trucks and every other type of vehicle ever since. I don’t care how it looks or what it does as much as I do what kind of story it can enable.

It’s the stories that turn mere cars into classics. A Ferrari 250 GTO is just a bunch of haphazardly formed sheetmetal over a primitive chassis and a V-12 engine. Except that the 250 GTO is three times a world champion and looks spectacular. All the great cars are backed by great stories. Grumpy Jenkins’ 1968 Camaro that won the first Pro Stock race at the 1970 Winternationals (along with so many other great Camaro racers

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) made that car a classic. Any McLaren is more special because Senna drove McLarens. Obsessive fascination with car stories has led to VINwiki videos, the Knight Rider Historians, and more than a few automotive magazines.

It isn’t all about show business, of course. I don’t remember my mom’s 1971 Fiat 124 Special as a great machine; I remember it for taking my family across the country in 1972. The 2000 Toyota Tundra down in my garage is the truck that took my wife both times to Cottage Hospital to give birth to our kids. It’s the truck that brought home my dog Alabama in 2011 and took him on his final ride last year.

1966 batmobile interior

Steve Parsons / Getty Images

The cars and trucks that matter are those that live up to the standard set by the Batmobile I saw in 1966. What kind of stories do they carry us to, through and beyond?

And that’s what this newest iteration of Road & Track is all about. It may as well be Batmobile Magazine, because it’s not about product reviews or pimping the latest collectible trend. It’s about the stories the road and the track tell us.

I’m 60 (almost 61) now. That glimpse of the Batmobile is one of many reasons why I do what it is I do for a living. I’ve been trying to live up to that car’s magic for 56 years.

There’s a new Batman movie coming out this Friday. It won’t be as lovable as the 1966 version; we take comic books way too seriously now for that. But The Batman will have a new Batmobile, and it will, presumably, be optimized for storytelling, just like the 1966 version. For the tiny tots and crazed kindergartners of today, it may always be “their” Batmobile. I hope they love it as much as I love mine. And that it changes their lives for the better, as mine has.

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