Comics / Cult Favorite

Secret Origins of the Batmobile

By Philip Schweier
September 20, 2008 - 10:41

George Barris and his famous creation
After more than 40 years, the Batmobile has become an icon for fans of Batman and Hollywood the world over. It's probably the most recognized vehicle in Hollywood history, and its foundation was purchased for $1.

"The Batmobile still sparks interest in fans. Its futuristic design has held-up very well over the years and still retains its modern 'crime-fighting' looks," says Eric Seltzer, who runs the website

"I would say my site is about as close to 'official' as you can get," he says. "I have a good relationship with the Barris family and that definitely helps when getting insight and information from them."

The car known as the Batmobile was originally created in 1955 by the Ford Motor Company as a concept car, the Futura. Designed by Lincoln Mercury chief stylist Bill Schmidt, it was built by Ghia in Turin, Italy for $250,000. The car was never intended for mass production; instead was to be a rolling laboratory, sporting a variety of automotive features and styling innovations.

It debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in January 1955. By gauging public response at such events, Ford intended to incorporate the more successful features into its products in the years to come. When the grand experiment was over, the car was stashed away in the Ford's archives, its future uncertain.

George Barris
Then Hollywood came calling. In 1959, the car was used in It Started with a Kiss, starring Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. According to Back to the Batcave, by Adam West and Jeff Rovin, when production wrapped, the automaker failed to reclaim it and it was sent to George Barris' shop for storage. After Ford failed to pay the storage fees, Barris took possession of the vehicle.

Barris, a custom car builder in Los Angeles, would go on to build the Munster-Koach for the television series The Munsters. In October, 1965, he was hired for $5,000 to create the Batmobile for a new Batman television series that ABC had in production. He was given three weeks to deliver the car, but fortunately the sleek, predatory design of the Ford Futura provided a much-needed shortcut. Under the direction of Barris, five men modified the Futura at the cost of $30,000.

Barris delivered the car to Greenway Productions for approval, after which a few adjustments in design were made, as well as decisions regarding the final color scheme. Overall, the Barris Batmobile was a huge success, presenting a car worthy of the Caped Crusader.

Batman creator Bob Kane behind the wheel of the seminal Batmobile
Approximately two months later, according to records at Seltzer's website, Barris bought the car outright from Ford for $1. Quite an investment, considering at the height of the show's popularity, the car was valued at $125,000.

Batman star Adam West says in his book, "The suspension, brakes and transmission were not user-friendly, making the car unreliable and sluggish, not to mention tough to turn." Hardly surprising, considering the vehicle was never intended for ongoing road use; it was primarily a show car.

Despite the mechanical drawbacks, filmmakers simply under-cranked the cameras, so that when the film was played back at regular speed, it gave the illusion of speed. This was especially important in scenes where the Batmobile zoomed out of the Batcave. Filmed in Bronson Caverns in the Hollywood Hills, the narrow cave left little room for maneuverability.

Batman was a huge television success, turning stars Adam West and Burt Ward into overnight celebrities. Demand for personal appearances was high, as well as that of the Batmobile itself. As a result, three additional Batmobiles were built using molds taken from the original. Made of fiber-glass, these duplicates were approximately 20 percent lighter and handled much better.

One of the replicas contained a powerful engine, and was seen at drag strips and raceways across America. This enhanced the image of the Batmobile's speed and power. After all, even on a Hollywood set, the Dynamic Duo required a car up to the task of battling the most hardened of evil-doers.

Following the third and final season, the demand for Batmobiles lessened, and today all of the original Barris-built Batmobiles are more or less  retired.

Around 1967, it was discovered a fifth Batmobile was plying the exhibition circuit throughout the United States and Canada. The car was created by Jim Sermersheim, but in the course of legal action for infringing on Barris’ patented designs, Barris took possession of the unauthorized reproduction. Legend has it – though unconfirmed – it may have been used as a stunt car for the show. Afterwards it gradually deteriorated until Barris sold it to custom car collector Bob Butts of Fantasy Cars in El Cajon, CA., who restored it in the mid-1980s.

Other replicas have since been created. Authorized by Barris, Butts used one of Barris' duplicate Batmobiles to create fiberglass molds for fans to build their own. "Bob's bodies were as accurate as they could be" says Seltzer. "Remember, the #4 Batmobile was created from a mold of the #1, so Bob's were created from second or third generation molds."

According to Seltzer, in early 2000, Butts was selling turnkey Batmobiles in excess of $60,000. Sadly, Butts passed away about four years ago, which put an end to what was very likely the most accurate Batmobile kit produced.

However, there is only one ORIGINAL Batmobile. It is still owned by Barris today, as well as one of the Bob Butts duplicates. The other three are owned by private collectors.

"I'm very happy that the #1 Batmobile is still around and even makes a rare public appearance," says Seltzer. "I'm also very happy to see Hot Wheels has come-out with a whole line of TV Batmobile diecasts, so now the kids can appreciate this car as well."

• Sources:
"Back to the Batcave" by Adam West and Jeff Rovin

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