Friday, October 19, 2007

All About Super Spy Cars: And a New CHITTY, CHITTY, BANG-BANG Coming in 2008

By Wesley Britton

May 2008 is going to be a feast for all fans of Ian Fleming. As part of the James Bond author’s centenary celebrations, we’ll be seeing Sebastian Faulks’ Devil May Care, the first 007 continuation novel since the Raymond Benson series; Samantha Weinberg’s The Moneypenny Diaries: Final Fling; Kev Walker’s graphic novelisation of Charlie Higson’s SilverFin; not to mention an exhibition dedicated to the 007 author.

On top of all this, Fleming’s 1964 classic for children, Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang, will be reprinted in a new hard-cover collector’s edition complete with original illustrations by John Burningham. Now, while visions of Dick Van Dyke and the strains of the Disneyesque soundtrack fill your head, it’s worth noting that this tale of a flying car does indeed have connections to the James Bond universe. Before dismissing this new release as but a literary footnote to the legacy of Ian Lancaster Fleming, it’s important to remember the significance of super-cars in the super-spy realm of the 1960s and the contribution Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang made to children’s literature.

Signature Cars

Four-wheel transport has been part of the spy milieu from the beginning. Back in the 1930s, "Clubland" writer Dornford Yates, pen name for Major William Mercer, established many staples of future spy adventures. For example, his main characters included Jonah Manscell and William Chandos who set out on European adventures in a Rolls-Royce equipped with staff and customized caches and secret compartments hiding rifles, revolvers, maps, water-proof clothes, medicine chests, grave digging tools, handcuffs, and passports. In his Rolls, Jonah carried torches for flashing messages, ropes for hanging crooks, rubber tubes for gassing criminals, and spare clothes to lend girls whose own attire had been drenched. (note 1)

Later, in 1961, four years before Goldfinger made the Aston-Martin DB5 the most famous car in the world, the producers of The Saint, wanting to give Their new TV series a modern touch, contacted several European sports car manufacturers seeking a Saint trademark. As reported in Spy Television (Praeger, 2004), Volvo was so interested in having its P-1800 line on British television, the company flew in a white model from Sweden for the show as no other white Volvos were yet available in England. The Volvo with its license plate reading “ST1,” alongside Leslie Charteris’ haloed stick figure, became a signature icon for The Saint. The Volvo turned out to be a precursor to the similar uses of signature cars in The Avengers with Major John Steed driving classic Bentleys and Rolls--representing England's past--and Emma Peel's powder-blue Lotus Elan--representing the pop culture of the then flashy present.

In fact, cars had important roles in nearly every television show featuring secret agents. In the opening sequence of The Prisoner, Patrick Mcgoohan's unnamed agent was seen driving a Lotus Super Seven series III with the license plate, "KAR120C." This Lotus had special significance in one episode, "Many Happy Returns," in which viewers learned Number Six had built the car himself. (note 2)

When Gene Barry's Amos Burke moved from being a police detective in Burke's Law into Amos Burke, Secret Agent in 1965, viewers saw the millionaire's Rolls in each episode and as the backdrop for the closing titles. In the '60s, fans of old-time radio finally got to see "The Black Beauty," the armored conveyer of The Green Hornet, a TV spin-off of Batman, another series featuring its own special "Batmobile" designed by Chuck Barris. Some series, like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., had special cars created for the show, but ended up using them more for publicity than in the actual aired episodes. (note 3)

Even series set long before the advent of modern transportation--notably The Wild Wild West and the later Secret Adventures of Jules Verne--used fantastic machines to spice up the settings. James West and Artemus Gordon rode in their special train, "The Wanderer," equipped with trick pool tables, hidden telegraph machines, and guns in every nook and cranny. When Jules Verne took off for his 19th century travels in the astonishingly underappreciated 1999-2001 Sci-Fi Channel series, he flew in the dirigible, "The Aurora," a special airship equipped with a lavish laboratory and cozy living quarters.

Classic Motors

But back to Ian Fleming. To begin, like his twelve James Bond novels and short story collections, Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang: The Magic Car (1964) reflected Fleming's well-known interest in mechanical gadgets. In his introduction to his only children's book, Fleming said his story was based on the original Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang, a car built by Count Zborowski in 1920 on his estate near Canterbury, England. Fleming said the unusual car had a pre-1914 chain drive, 75 horsepower, and a Mercedes chassis installed with a six-cylinder military engine used in German zeppelins. It had a grey steel body with a large eight-foot hood and weighed four tons. According to Fleming, in1921 and 1922, this car won several racing awards until it was wrecked in an accident. Now that's the sort of information any Bond fan should recognize as trademark Ian Fleming. (note 4)

While I don't want to overstate the case, CCBB does indeed offer insights into Fleming's creative process. For example, with the exception of The Spy Who Loved Me (1962), a unique first-person narrative from a female point of view, all the James Bond stories were told from the third person. While CCBB is framed in the voice of a narrator retelling a story he has overheard, Chitty is also primarily a third-person narrative. To give his story a lighter tone than the Bond books, Fleming used onomatopoeia with a chatty, rambling, informal style. As many have said, Fleming's rich descriptions and use of meticulous details in his imaginative Bond books lent an air of credibility to his adventures despite the obviously fantastical elements. In Chitty, he merged this trademark eye for detail with lighthearted humor far different from his other, darker works.

But there is a slice of this in CCBB--the magic car and its owners didn't fly around and stop at enchanted places. Instead, the Pott family finds a cave full of explosives, are chased by "Joe the Monster" and his criminal gang, and are forced to help in a robbery. Beneath the innocence, the underworld finds its way into Fleming's entertainment for the young. Still, Fleming found an appropriate balance between danger and warm family themes. In this book, the descriptive language is toned down to avoid any details of scientific solemnity adding weight to a fantasy. Instead, John Burmingham's drawings and paintings, both small and full-page, enliven the reading experience.

From the beginning, Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang found favor with critics, parents, and children. Of course, the initial popularity of CCBB was supported by the then intense interest in the "Bond Bonanza" and the author who started it all. Still, the book earned praise on its own merits. In 1964, mystery writer Rex Stout claimed four out of five children would love the story, most preferring to trade in their parents for Commander Pott. Library journals universally praised the book along with John Birmingham's illustrations as a story for all ages. Some reviewers felt the story was more appropriate for boys.

Flying On Screen

But this critical interest in Fleming's book didn't carry over to the movie. In 1968, United Artists and Albert Broccoli, one of the producers of the James Bond films, decided to create a movie-musical version of Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang using the formula that had earlier made Disney's Mary Poppins a financial windfall and a critical success. Drawing from the Poppins cast, versatile entertainer Dick Van Dyke starred in CCBB along with singer Sally Ann Howes as Commander Pott and a non-Fleming character, Truly Scrumptious.

Merchandising included a popular theme song and soundtrack record album. Random House issued a print movie tie-in version of the story, The Adventures of Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang, illustrated with photographs from the film. Writer Albert G. Miller's book version of the screenplay kept the Fleming tone and flavor but added new characters and adventures, including Grandpa Pott and Truly Scrumptious, a romantic interest for the widower, Commander Pott. Also in 1968, Random House issued Meet Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang: The Wonderful Magic Car by Al Perkins targeted for readers under the age of ten.

But virtually every critic of the decade panned the film, saying the project didn't deliver much of the magic and humanity of the original book. Ironically, decades later, the film helped renew interest in Fleming's effort in 1993 with the video issue of the musical. In 1996, it was reported that one scene in the movie, in which Jemima Pott refuses candy from a dangerous criminal, helped teach children the dangers of accepting gifts from strangers.

But the saga wasn’t over. On April 16, 2002, Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang debuted as a stage musical at the London Palladium theatre with six new songs by the
Sherman Brothers who’d written the original academy award
nominated title and score for the film. The London run ended on September 2005 after a
Broadway production opened on April 28 of that year at the
Hilton Theatre in New York City. Nominated for six Tony Awards, winning none, this production closed on December 31, 2005. Touring companies continued to do shows throughout the UK.

By this time, it seemed clear super-cars belonged to children’s entertainment and no longer spy adventures for adults. In 1977, we saw Roger Moore’s Lotus Esprit S1 turn into a submarine, and in 2001 Bond had a BMW Z8 he could control with his cell phone. But when Pierce Brosnan’s 007 raced around in the Aston Martin V12 Vanquish equipped with a cloaking device that made it invisible in Die Another Day (2002), reviewers and fans agreed—it was time for James Bond to find a new direction. It had become time to get back to the basics, the fundamentals created by Ian Fleming.

The Book

For those who haven't read Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang, here's a synopsis:

In the first pages of Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang, we meet the eccentric Pott family. Jeremy and Jemima are eight-year-old twins living with their mother, Mimsie, and their father, Commander Pott. He's a dreamy and unsuccessful explorer and inventor known in the neighborhood as "Crackpot Pott." We learn they have a lineage going back to the Romans and that they live beside a lake near a turnpike near Canterbury, England. They are poor and can't afford a car.

Then, the remarkable Commander invents "Crackpot's Whistling Sweets," a toy/candy he sells to a candy maker, Lord Scrumptious, who buys the invention for one thousand pounds. With the funds to buy a car, the Potts discover an old wreck on its way to the junkyard, a car that was clearly once so special the entire family falls in love with it on sight. Magical properties can't be missed when the car's license plate says "GENI." Commander Pott repairs the car, and hears the characteristic start-up noises of "chitty chitty bang bang" which becomes the car's name. The special car can go up to one hundred miles an hour, but the Commander worries when he finds the car can make improvements on its own at night. Chitty has sprouted rows of knobs Pott cannot explain.

On their way to a picnic, Chitty and the Potts get bogged down in slow traffic. The personified car gets irritated and gives the Commander instructions on the mysterious knobs. Commander Pott does as the car asks, and "Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang" suddenly grows wings and flies over the other cars.

In part two, the delighted Potts land on a sandbar in the English Channel. After picnicking, all five family members, now including Chitty, doze off and nearly drown until Chitty warns everyone. The Potts flee as the car becomes a hover-craft, skimming over the water to France where they find shelter in a handy cave.

The Potts explore the long cave, full of traps designed to scare visitors away, which leads to a secret underground warehouse full of boxes containing guns, bombs, and weapons. They find a paper saying the vault belongs to a famous criminal named Joe the Monster. Frightened but determined, the Potts light a fuse, drive out of the cave, and leave the explosives to blow up. Outside, Joe the Monster and three gangsters wait for them, but the car sprouts its wings and flies away to a hotel in Calais, France.

Part 3 begins in France where the gangsters find the Potts and kidnap the twins. The children are forced to participate in a robbery of a candy store. The full family shows resolve and cooperation, and the twins are alert and trick the gang while their parents and "Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang" capture Joe's gang. The family earns rewards and flies off for new adventures.


1. See Richard Osbourne's Clubland Heroes (London: Constable and Co., 1953) pages 68 and 80.

Peter Wolfe briefly looks at cars in Eric Amblers fiction on pages 21-22 in Alarms and Epitaphs: The Art of Eric Ambler (Bowling Green: Bowling Green UP, 1993). In Wolfe's opinion, Ambler uses cars and car crashes as a symbol of worrisome science and technology in the modern world.

2. According to Prisoner fan "Wolfe, "KAR120C" was originally registered to the Lotus Dealer and "rented" for the opening credits of the show filmed for "Arrival". The super seven seen in "Many Happy Returns" was actually another Super Seven that used the same plate number, as the plate was property of the dealership - not the car. Wolf" says that the car used in "Arrival" ended up somewhere in South Africa but its actual whereabouts are unknown. Lotus no longer makes the Seven as it sold the rights to an American company in Georgia and its now called the Caterham Seven with the same basic design with a few modern changes (engine and suspension).

For information about a new Canadian version of the car, see:

There are several models available - a build it yourself kit and a good sized 1:18 scale die-case Super seven from a company by Kyosho. More info is at:


"KAR120C" was also important in the Prisoner novel, Number Two by David McDaniel. See discussion in "Novelizing TV Spies" file at this website.

3. An article with great photographs about the little-used Man From U.N.C.L.E. car can be found at:

It discusses how AMT designer Gene Winfield was asked to come up with a futuristic car with gull-wing doors and special accessories intended for the series. Like the "Saint" Volvo, manufactures hoped exposure on television would promote their "Piranha" line of specialty models and kits. (Thanks to Bob Short for this info.)

4. Much of this information came from my article on Chitty, Chitty, Bang-Bang for Masterplots II: Juvenile and Young Adult Literature (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 1996). For those interested, that article stresses the educational value of the book.

For related articles, see

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