Batmobile swoops into local service station

Holy bucket of bat-bolts, it’s the Batmobile! A downtown Darien service station drew crowds late last week as it revitalized a 1966 Batmobile — a replica of the speedsters built for the famous “Batman” television series of the same decade.

Vince DeRentiis, owner of Darien Auto Specialists on the Post Road, played host to scores of Darienites who were lured by the dangerous curves of this dark beast.

“It’s not every day that you get to work on something like this,” DeRentiis said, as he paused from entertaining questions from curious passersby. “It really brings back memories… It’s awesome.”

DeRentiis needed to replace some wires and fix the starting circuitry, he said, but getting to work proved difficult as the Batmobile attracted nearly everyone who crossed its path. People of all ages, genders and backgrounds swarmed the black Lincoln, taking pictures and checking out the assortment of gadgets and technology that in the 1960s was über-futuristic.

There’s the Detect-A-Scope built into the passenger-side dashboard to track villains using radar. The red Bat Phone sits in the center console — a bat-winged handset wired to a base where push-button numbers sit, waiting to dial Commissioner Gordon to head-off the Joker during a chase. The Emergency Bat-Turn Lever dangles from the ceiling, ready to eject a parachute during a hairpin turn at high speeds. Every gadget just begs for a demonstration, even if many aren’t working.

One of the first things DeRentiis explored was the flame-throwing exhaust in the rear of the car. “This one doesn’t haven’t it,” he said, frowning in disappointment.

Luckily the engine parts are not customized and are relatively easy to find, he added. “I can’t call ahead and say I need a starter for the Batmobile,” DeRentiis said with a laugh.

A woman sees the car and calls out from the sidewalk. “What is that? Where did it come from? Did you buy it on eBay?” she asks, smiling broadly and trotting towards DeRentiis.

The inquiring visitor is Gwynne Campbell, owner of Sylvan Learning Center on Brook Street. She and DeRentiis quickly dive into a conversation about old television shows. “He’s the best car guy in town,” Campbell said of DeRentiis, noting that it’s no surprise that the Batmobile’s owner came to him for work.

The owner of the car declined to be interviewed by The Darien Times. But he did say that the car was recently sold. Although the selling price was not confirmed, rumors floating around at the gas station indicated the car went for $125,000.

“The guy who engineered this thing put a lot of time and effort into it,” DeRentiis said. The design of the original Batmobile stems from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car. The American Broadcasting Company commissioned car designer George Barris to create the Batmobile for the TV series and gave him three weeks to complete the task. Barris decided to use the Futura because it already had design elements he was looking for, according to the Web site.

The original Futura cost $250,000 to build and never went into production, but survived as the basis for one of the most iconic vehicles in popular culture.

Although Ford built the body, DeRentiis said that the Batmobile at his shop had a 350 small block Chevrolet engine. “It was built for performance and horsepower,” he said.

California-based car designer Jay Ohrberg designed a 1966 Batmobile replica and also designed the Batmobile used in Tim Burton’s 1992 film, “Batman Returns.” Ohrberg said that the Darien Batmobile was likely one of hundreds of replicas made since the 1960s.

“The original ones had Ford engines,” Ohrberg said in a phone interview. “People all over the U.S., all over the world, are building these things.”

Originally, ABC only built one car, but decided to build three more with fiberglass frames like the original, according to the official Web site. A fifth car with a metal frame was built by a fan and later added to the list of official replicas. Three of the cars have owners listed on the Web site, and one of the cars was reportedly sold in 2000 for $212,000 to an unknown buyer who recently sold it for an undisclosed amount. There are only five official replicas, according to Barris, and only one has an unknown owner.

Ohrberg’s metal-framed reproduction was licensed to be built by Warner Bros. but is not considered an official replica by most fans. Regardless, Ohrberg’s Batmobile fetched $233,000 in a 2007 London auction. Bloomberg News reported that the auction entertained bids from around the world. Another unofficial replica sold for $216,000 at an auction in Florida.

George Barris owns the first car built, and it is valued at $2 million. Its 1966 value was $125,000, according to the Web site.

D.C. Comics recently licensed Indiana-based company Fiberglass Freaks to produce ’66 Batmobile replicas that sell for $150,000. These cars have working flame-throwers, however, they are built with General Motors engines, like the one from Darien.

Hollywood created five more incarnations of the Caped Crusader’s hot rod since Barris’s original design. These cars burned into the public consciousness after decades of marketing and cultural impregnation through movies, theme parks and various memorabilia. The most recent Batmobile hit the streets in film versions of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” series. A far cry from Barris’s choice to use sharp curves and wing shapes, the 21st Century Batmobile’s angular and ferocious design seems reminiscent of a Humvee crossed with a Lamborghini.

Batman originally appeared in Detective Comic’s no. 27 issue published in May 1939. The Batmobile is said to be his most important weapon. The Batman TV show aired only two years, from 1966-1968, but its legacy extends beyond generations.

Ohrberg also designed KITT, the Pontiac Trans Am used in the 1980s series “Knight Rider.” He also had a hand in the DeLorean used in “Back to the Future.” But his experience building the Batmobile stands out.

“I still get a lot of calls from people wanting to buy parts to make their own” Batmobile, he said.


Originally published in The Darien Times


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