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Iconic '60s Batmobile still turns heads, while creator still churns out cars

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. - This week, one of the biggest TV stars of the past 50 years pulled up in front of a hotel where critics from across North America had been gathering — and didn't even come inside.

She didn't have to. Everybody instantly recognized her and came out to meet her: Holy classic chassis! It was the Batmobile.

The iconic automobile drove into pop culture history in the campy ABC series "Batman," which ran from 1966-68. Adam West starred as the caped crusader.

The car was originally modified for the series by George Barris, the "King of the Kustomizers" who, at 87, still operates an auto shop in North Hollywood. One of his associates, Ronald McAtee, accompanied the Batmobile to the Television Critics Association press tour Monday.

The car arrived by trailer at the request of the PBS network, which was promoting "Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle," a look inside the world of comic book crime fighters. The series will air in October.

Superheroes are battling crime on screens big and small this summer. On this same summer press tour, ABC has been promoting their big-budget, superhero fall drama, "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."

That show will introduce a whole new generation of gizmos and gadgets, but they'll be hard pressed to have the same lasting impact as the Batmobile. The car was the perfect blend of '50s automobile excess — with its fins and elongated hood and trunk — and comic-book fantasy. Millions of Corgi toy cars, Hot Wheels racers and plastic model kits were sold and prized by Boomers.

The toys remain very collectible, and so does the car. Barris, who at one time either designed or owned the most famous TV cars — including the Munster Koach, the Monkeemobile, K.I.T.T. from "Knight Rider" and the General Lee from "The Dukes of Hazzard" — sold the original Batmobile this past January. The vehicle fetched US$4.62 million, topping the $4 million paid at auction for James Bond's silver Aston Martin DB5 from "Goldfinger."

The Batmobile price could have gone even higher, says McAtee, if the two top bidders hadn't decided to flip a coin to see who would drive off with the prize.

Not bad for a used car Barris originally obtained for one dollar. That's what he paid for the Lincoln Futura, a Ford concept car hand made by Ghia in Turin, Italy, in 1955. Ford spent $250,000 on the flashy, space-age vehicle, which was the darling of car shows in the mid '50s and found its way into the 1959 Debbie Reynolds movie "It Started with a Kiss."

By the early '60s, Barris was gaining a reputation as a hot rodder and car stylist and auto manufacturers like Ford and Chrysler were selling him older cars at a dollar just to see what he would do with them.

The producers of "Batman" gave him three weeks to come up with a Batmobile for the mid-season replacement series. Barris had the Futura pulled into his shop, changed it from white to glossy black, gave the rear fins a bat wing flair and added decals and chrome rocket launchers. He modified the grill and gave the car more of a bat face. Before you could say "Holy makeover!" the car was before the cameras.

The producers at Fox also ordered four replicas to be used for stunt scenes and promotional needs. Barris had a mould made of the original metal body and tricked out four more Batmobiles. It was the exhibition or No. 2 car that was on display outside the Beverly Hilton.

Fans who lined up for photos did not seem to mind or know the difference. There are even more Batmobiles out there, some made from kits.

The original and the replicas still turn heads on the highway. McAtee says years ago, Barris was driving the Batmobile to a car show in Minnesota when he was pulled over by a policeman. It could have been for any one of a number of infractions — the car has no wiper blades, seat belts or, usually, even licence plates.

"Knowing George, he was probably speeding too," says McAtee.

In those days, out of town highway infractions were quickly settled at a local court house. When the judge realized that Barris was driving the Batmobile, he chastised the cop and tore up the ticket.

Barris has lived long enough to see a revival in California car culture.

There are echoes of his work on the History Television series "Counting Cars" featuring Las Vegas customizer Danny Koker. This summer, the Huntington Beach Art Centre is hosting a "Kustom Kulture" show, with Barris's trippy Munster Koach as a centrepiece. (Barris also made Grandpa Munster's hearse-inspired "Drag-u-la.") Other legendary hot rodders and customizers, including Ed (Rat Fink) Roth and pin striping master Von Dutch, are also being saluted.

If you drive there, remember to buckle up, citizen.

___

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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