By the mid 1960s, participants in the traditional street-driven custom car scene had splintered off in many directions. Some custom enthusiasts shifted to muscle cars and drag racing. Two of the original architects of custom car style, George Barris and Dean Jeffries, were pulled into the world of Hollywood to create custom cars for television.
When 20th Century-Fox and Batman producer William Dozier needed a Batmobile in 1965 (the pilot episode was to premiere on ABC in January 1966), his first call went to Jeffries, who starting working on a 1959 Caddy. Jeffries had to bow out when he realized he couldn't meet Dozier's three-week deadline.
Barris subsequently accepted the job, probably because he already owned the 1955 Lincoln Futura, a bubble-canopy concept car that Barris had saved from the Ford crusher some years earlier by handing over one dollar.
With a suitably low, wide chassis, as well as flaring fins, a wide-mouth grille, and swoopy bodyside lines already in place, the Futura was the platform Barris needed to quickly deliver an outlandish, photogenic TV custom car that met the producer's expectations.
Inside, the Futura dash was altered only slightly to accommodate prop gadgetry such as a "Bat Phone," "Detect-a-Scope," and an "Emergency Bat-Turn Lever."
Claims about the number of Barris Batmobiles vary. Barris' crew pulled fiberglass molds off the original car to make duplicates for car-show tours. Most likely four or five were made, including a drag race exhibition vehicle.
When William Dozier readied another superhero show, The Green Hornet, for a September 1966 ABC start, he got back to Jeffries, who was now free to deal with another three-week schedule.
Jeffries fashioned the Hornet's intimidating, gadget-packed Black Beauty cruiser from a 1966 Imperial Crown hardtop sedan. He stripped off the bumpers and other chrome, including the door handles and side mirrors, and added a reshaped, angular nose and a boxed, out-thrust aluminum grille.
Fanciful accessories included rotating license plates, green headlamps, a hidden clothes closet, rear-seat gun storage, and a pop-up "spy scanner" in the decklid. The dash included a hidden phone and other devices. The Imperial's stock 440-cid V-8 and drivetrain remained untouched.
Jeffries built two Black Beauties, with car #2 (intended for promotional duty) completed on schedule just three weeks after car #1. Version #1 was a regular on the show, while the promo car appeared in just one episode, "Corpse of the Year," when the Hornet races after an imposter.
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Another show that debuted in September 1966, NBC's The Monkees, brought more work for Jeffries: the Pontiac GTO-based Monkeemobile.
Although fondly recalled by custom car fans, the Monkeemobile underwhelmed Pontiac, which had hoped for a marketing splash with a modestly customized, instantly recognizable Goat ragtop. Pontiac even provided the shop with concept drawings of a hunky, squared-fendered custom that was clearly a GTO.
But Jeffries was responsible not to Pontiac but to producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, so he went his own way and tweaked the proportions of the concept sketch to more-outlandish dimensions.
Up front, the custom car announced itself with a sharklike nose and repositioned GTO grilles sunk between dramatically speared front fenders; the "GTO" grille badge remained.
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The trunklid was removed and the interior was extended into the trunk area to include a third seating row. The windshield was angled upward to meet a 1920s touring car-style convertible top.
The stock 389-cid V-8 was fitted with a supercharger and the rear axle was solid-mounted so the Monkeemobile would be able to pop wheelies. The car turned out to be too powerful and unruly, so the blower was replaced with a lightweight fake that hid a carburetor.
As with the Black Beauty, two Monkeemobiles were made, one for practical use and the other for promotion. According to Jeffries, both custom cars were built within a month.
These TV custom cars were a boon for ratings and also pulled in huge crowds at custom car shows. Soon, even more-exaggerated, cartoonish rods and customs were being built solely for the show circuit, with no pretense of street drivability.
While the TV custom cars and show rods were popular with the general public, they stole the spotlight from traditional street-driven customs, pushing them further into obscurity.