Dream Machines

26th September 2018

The fantasy cars of cartoons and kids’ TV have taken many forms over the decades, from Knight Rider’s KITT to Dastardly and Muttley’s Mean Machine. Fun, fantastical, silly – and an inspiration to real-world car designers

Words by Oliver Bennett


As children, many of us wasted our time watching cartoons. But were those long hours really lost? For you could argue that cartoons and children’s TV shows acted as an unofficial R&D wing for the automotive industry, allowing the imagination free rein to consider the vast potential of the vehicular form. Take Inspector Gadget ’s Gadgetmobile, which boasted an array of voice-activated functions; or Knight Rider ’s KITT, with its sardonic talking computer; or The Jetsons , with their in-car videophones. In the age of Siri, FaceTime, talking satnav and driverless cars, it seems that life has caught up with art.

Indeed, some of the vehicular gadgets that once seemed far-fetched are now not just possible but, in certain cases, dated. The original 1966 Batmobile – which was based on a 1955 concept car called the Lincoln Futura – had dashboard monitors and a phone between the seats: revolutionary in the 1960s, but standard issue in luxury saloons a few decades later. Looking back at the fantasy vehicles of our youth, the 1960s-70s emerges as the golden age of cartoon cars. One particularly fertile source of inspiration was Wacky Races . Take Dick Dastardly’s purple Mean Machine rocket-car. It had the capacity to adapt to different terrain – a feature now seen in military vehicles (DARPA’s Reconfigurable Wheel Track technology allows a Humvee to transfer from wheels to off-road-friendly tracks in a matter of seconds, while in motion).

Looking back at the fantasy vehicles of our youth, the 1960s-70s emerges as the golden age of cartoon cars.

One of the best-loved vehicles featured in Wacky Races is Penelope Pitstop’s Compact Pussycat, a pink racing car with red-lip radiator grille, eyelashes over the headlights and a builtin parasol. Looking at it now, it’s easy to see why cars are so beloved of animators. They have obvious anthropomorphic attributes: headlights or windshields become eyes, radiator grilles are mouths, badges are noses and wing mirrors are ears. Car designers have taken note, especially when it comes to Japanese special projects like Nissan’s Figaro and S-Cargo, but also retro-styled fun cars like Volkswagen’s New Beetle and the Mini Cooper. While these cars are clearly designed to be cute, provoking the same emotional response as puppies, they are also tapping into our subliminal sense – gleaned perhaps from fictional automotive creations – that cars can be our best friends.


Lady Penelope’s FAB1 – not  as outlandish today as it was in 1964

Enter Herbie, Disney’s sentient 1963 VW beetle, which not only had a personality and a sense of humour, but a penchant for practical jokes. Legend has it the producers experimented with various cars before fixing on the Beetle, noting that people would reach out and stroke it like a pet. Indeed, many of our favourite fictional cars possess this same best buddy quality. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang might have been able to fly but more importantly, it was a “fine four-fendered friend”.

Part of a special category that spans both cartoon and live-action, Chitty is joined by Thunderbirds ’ FAB1, the pink Rolls-Royce owned by Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward. When Thunderbirds was first aired, Derek Meddings, the special effects director, remembered FAB1 for its “outrageous styling, which bore no resemblance to any Rolls-Royce ever produced”. Today, however, you wonder if the marque’s designers might have had a picture of the fantasy vehicle pinned up on their wall. Indeed, as the years roll on, life keeps imitating cartoons. The Jetsons cartoon from 1962 featured a flying car set in a fictional 2062, but just this summer Audi did a deal with the German government to work on tests for flying air-taxis. And where once the space-age family’s vehicle might have looked sci-fi, with driverless cars of the future proposing pod-like interiors stripped of all instrumentation, it seems less and less outlandish.  So keep watching those cartoons for futuristic inspiration and heed the words of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s inventor, Caractacus Potts: “It’s talking to us. All engines talk.”


Dick Dastardly  and Muttley go off-road in Wacky Races.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Autumn 2018 issue

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