A History of the Batmobile

“The Dark Knight Rises,” the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s epic Batman trilogy, debuted at midnight on July 20, providing nearly three hours of action, suspense and an ending to one of the more successful franchise reboots in recent memory.

Since then, however, the movie has captured the attention of the country, both for the political overtones of its storyline as well as the implications of the saddening events that followed in Colorado. But, while both heavy topics are likely to be continually debated, the movie got us thinking about a lighter subject, the history of one of Batman’s most famous accessories, the Batmobile.

Like many of the heroes of U.S. popular culture, Batman has always been about high-performance vehicles. (Over the course of the caped crusaders many incarnations, he’s owned a Batjet, Batcopter and the Batwing, to name a few). But, Bruce Wayne’s alter ego always really had two modes of getting around Gotham: swinging from building to building with his grappling hook and evading cops and criminals in the streets with the Batmobile.

Still, while the newest Hollywood movies have relied on custom creations to capture the grandeur of the Batmobile, the most recent taking an almost tank-like design, the original incarnations of the Batmobile were far more modest:

The Batmobile in the First Comics
The design for the first Batmobile was based on the 1936 Cord 812, a car that Jay Leno calls “one of the most beautiful sedans ever built.” And while not exactly the kind of car we associate with superheros today, the Cord stood out for the times. It was the first American car to have front-wheel drive, improved streamlining, a covered gas cap and hidden headlights, which provided a combination of stealth and luxury that likely attracted the original creators.

In addition, commentators have noted that since the engine was in the rear, the car could take frontal damage without much risk, giving Batman obvious advantages when it came to crime fighting. The car wasn’t much of a success with buyers, however. (Though, this issue seems to dog the many cars associated with the Batmobile).

1943 – Columbia Pictures’ Batman serial
When Batman first hit the big screen, he wasn’t the main attraction. Rather, Columbia Pictures chose to introduce Batman to the viewing public with a 15-installment serial in which Batman operated as a U.S. government agent attempting to defeat a Japanese villain named Dr. Daka. These short films showed before the main attraction in theaters, and were separated into chapters.

And while the Batmobile was present, no attempts were made to produce a version as outlandish as the one depicted in comic books. Instead of racing through the streets on a custom motorcycle and tank, both Batman and Robin were chauffeured by Alfred in a simple black Cadillac.

1949 – Batman and Robin
Following the success of Batman’s first run, a second 15-part serial ran in 1949. In this version, the Dynamic Duo faced off against the Wizard, a hooded figure with a secret identity. For this run, Batman drove a 1949 Mercury Convertible, which doubled as Bruce Wayne’s day transportation.

According to reports, the car’s poor handling wasn’t quite able to hold up to the chase scenes. Johnny Duncan, the actor who played Robin in this version, estimates that the studio went through six Mercurys over the course of the shooting.

1966 – The first Batman film
By 1964, Batman had become a television staple, and due to demand and advances in film technology, Adam West and Burt Ward, who played Batman and Robin respectively, were called to do battle in their first big-screen feature. And starting with this version, Batman was no longer forced to travel in cars available to regular consumers.

The Lincoln Futura, a concept car that was made by hand in Italy, was used in the filming. MGM acquired the car in the late ’50s and had used it in movies previously. For example, an unmodified version was originally used in the film “It Started With a Kiss,” before it was painted and updated for Batman.

But, it was likely called into action again by filmmakers due to its $250,000 price tag and original style, which was reportedly inspired by the manta ray and mako shark. As a result, the Futura had exaggerated designs such as headlight pods, outward-facing tailfins and a clear canopy top, giving it a unique look that could separate it from real-life in the minds of viewers.

1989 – Tim Burton’s Batman
With his 1989 film “Batman,” Tim Burton may have started the modern comic book movie era. And to usher in this bold new world, Burton was given hefty investment, estimates say nearly $40 million. As a result, he was able to create the first Batmobile that truly captured the fictional vehicle’s appeal. However, even this version had humble origins.

Tim Burton’s Batmobile was created with the frame of a ’67 Chevrolet Impala that was taken from a London junkyard. The car was then enhanced with a sleek profile and a 327ci V-8 engine to finally put some muscle under the hood. Rolls-Royce jet engine components were also used in the design, most notable in the car’s hood-mounted intake, which resembled that of a jet’s.

Whatever the design, the Batmobile remains iconic. And in my opinion, one of the top 3 movie cars, due to its unique ability to adapt to the imaginations of whoever tries to recreate it.