Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Car

The aspirational vehicles of my youth were largely fantasy constructs, George Barris' "Batmobile" being the prime example.
Or "Bat Car," if you'd rather.
As a Trudeau kid in the (Nixon-Carter) '70s, I devoured library books devoted to "future cars," in which Barris' Batmobile usually earned a mention (and photo), primarily for its atomic batteries and rocket propulsion. Factually speaking, there was nothing even remotely futuristic about the car itself. Barris built it in '65, using a gas-guzzling concept model (the Lincoln Futura) from ten years earlier.
A little polyfilla, a little paint...
Perusing these heavy-on-photos, light-on-text books, I did not realise just how much Barris' aesthetic modality provided the stock template for the publisher's speculations. And Barris in turn was just riffing off a modality set out by Detroit in the 1950s -- the Cadillac Cyclone! the GM Firebird! the Ford X2000! --  hastily abandoned in the wake of Ralph Nader and the OPEC crisis. The future I beheld was already nothing but "a shining artefact of the past," to borrow from Leonard Cohen.

Great lines, though.
Cadillac Cyclone, 1959 (hate to get rear-ended by that!)
GM Firebird II, 1956. Again, note the lack of bumpers.
Ford X2000, 1958. Potential impact points again at the fore.
Among these aspirational models, my favourite of the bunch, Gene Winfield's "Spy Car," was introduced to TV viewers via The Man From U.N.C.L.E. the same year as Barris' Batmobile.
A star is born!
Rather than retrofitting a model from the past, however, Winfield created the star car from whole cloth -- or rather plastic.
Winfield, far right, introducing Robert Vaughn to the new star of the show
(note pained expression/sadistic smile).
The AMT Piranha was a nearly all-plastic vehicle -- even the frame was made of fibreglass (the motor, drive-train and chassis were another matter). This gave the show designers unparalleled flexibility to develop a car for their purposes. Mock features included flame-throwers, machine guns, rocket launchers (note the "barrel" in the open gull-wing door), laser beams, a radar screen, a parachute and "various hidden interior devices."
Or, if all else fails, open door and fire revolver.
Precious few of these features made it to the show's "bible," however, so writers never capitalised on the new "character."

To make matters worse, the car came to the show with a personality all its own, which the actors disliked right from the git-go. To begin with, one could lower oneself into the car with relative dignity, but there was no graceful way to climb out of it (a difficulty particularly critical for female cast members).
"I'll give you six reasons why I'm not getting in!"
Head-room was enough of a problem that the designers eventually "bubbled" the plexi-glass door-windows to accommodate the (frankly diminutive) statures of the show's stars, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. Worst of all, it proved to be a temperamental lemon -- McCallum says anyone looking for the car was told to simply follow the trail of oil.

Stephanie Powers, demonstrating a woman's preferred seating option.

Another lovely woman pointedly NOT inside the car.
Still, it's television, a medium with which we are so familiar, we no longer conflate projected artifice with the disappointing dross that truly sets it alight. In my mind, the U.N.C.L.E. car remains an objet de désir -- worthy of reverential contemplation, but something I should never get my hands on.


This guy bought one -- a dream come true! -- until he took it for a spin.

The AMT model is back on hobby store shelves. There is even an U.N.C.L.E. modkit. I considered buying -- but the vicarious thrill of this unboxing was enough to dissuade.

"Be photographed with Bat Car!" Fifty cents from 1966 would be roughly $3.75 today. A similar shill was parked to fleece the rubes at Toronto's FanExpo last summer -- $20 for the privilege. Another "dream" deferred, thank you.

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