To this day, when you see a picture of the 1955 Lincoln Futura, you can't help but get a sense that it was something special. Indeed it was.
The Futura was the most dramatic, and some say the most successful, Lincoln concept car ever built. As the Futura, the car no longer exists. But reincarnated, so to speak, it lives on: You know it as the Batmobile from the campy Sixties TV version of the Batman saga.
It's regularly seen on tour by thousands of people around the world. To car buffs it hurts to have to acknowledge that the Batmobile is more famous and commercially successful than the Futura, but it's true.
The Futura was the brainchild of Bill Schmidt. As Lincoln-Mercury Division's chief stylist from 1945 to 1955, Schmidt was also responsible for the update of the 1950 and 1951 Lincolns, the design of the 1952 Lincoln, the 1953 Lincoln XL 500 concept car, and the 1956 Lincoln. Schmidt was a talented and progressive stylist who got his start at the old Ford Trade School in 1940 and then went to work in the Ford styling studio under Bob Gregorie beginning in about 1942.
At the time he designed the Futura, he was an old hand -- if someone in his early thirties can be referred to in that way. He was not only the leader of the Lincoln-Mercury design team, he was as prolific a stylist as any of the people under him, and as can be seen from the Futura, on the cutting edge or a little beyond it.
Schmidt was responsible for the concept and initial design of the Futura, and with the assistance and suggestions of the other stylists and engineers on the project, he shepherded the dream car into finished form. The Futura, however, was not the product of one person any more than any other concept car has ever been the product of a single person.
The Ford public relations department claimed that Schmidt got the idea for the Futura as a result of a 1952 diving encounter with a shark while he was vacationing in the Bahamas. That's true, but there's more to the story.
That same year, during a cold Michigan winter, Schmidt and Bill Mitchell -- then Harley Earl's second-in-command at GM styling -- vacationed together in the Bahamas. Both men were fascinated by the tropical sea life they saw, and especially by the shimmer of the fish they observed under water.
The trip turned out to have a profound impact on auto history; not only did Schmidt take inspiration from the abundant sea life of the Caribbean, but Mitchell also drew upon the experience when creating the Corvette XP-755 Shark concept car and the production 1963 Corvette Sting Ray.
Find out what other factors played a role in the Futura design on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura Influences
Bill Schmidt, the mid-century Lincoln-Mercury chief stylist who died in 1990, acknowledged that a mako shark and a manta ray get some credit as the 1955 Lincoln Futura influences. But that is only part of the story.
The "gills" on the decklid of the finished Futura concept are the most predominant features that look like they were copied from the anatomy of a shark. Interestingly enough, the original drawings of the car done by Schmidt in 1952 have no gills or other features (except possibly the hooded headlights) that are attributable to any sea creature. The gills first appeared on the 3/8-scale clay model of the Futura that was completed in 1953. (Schmidt's first drawings of the Futura show a car with taillights much like those that appeared on the 1955 Lincoln and with rear-bumper exhaust exits much like those on the 1956 Lincoln.)
Schmidt, who usually spent his spare time sketching, had drawn three or four renderings showing his ideas for a "Futura" concept car. At that time, 10 percent of the Design Center budget was available for discretionary projects. General approval was obtained and the Futura became one of those discretionary projects. Engineering also had money in its budget for experimentation, some of which was earmarked for the program.
Because the Futura was to be a full-size concept car, it was necessary to have an agreement between styling and engineering that what the stylists wanted to build could actually be carried out. The team that Schmidt assembled to work on the vehicle included John Najjar, who was in charge of body development all the way through to the finished full-size plaster model, and Martin Regitko, who was in charge of engineering. (They were acquainted from having worked together under Bob Gregorie on the original Continental project in 1938-39.)
All staff designers who worked on the Futura contributed to the final design of the car, but if a consensus could not be reached on some aspect of the design, Bill Schmidt made the final decision.
Regardless of what Ford news releases said, the predominant influence on the design of the Futura was the same one that was the rage for all car design during the 20 years following World War II -- modern jet aircraft. The twin-canopy passenger compartment, the front and rear fins, the grille, the air intakes at the front of the rear fins, the rear-end treatment, the interior, and the ventilation system were all inspired by the ever more sophisticated and faster jet fighters developed for the American military.
Since other automobile manufacturers were also drawing inspiration from jet fighters, it may well be that Ford, by publicly emphasizing the influence of a shark in the design of the Futura, was trying to differentiate its show special from those being turned out at GM and Chrysler.
Another influence on the design of the Futura was the social climate in the United States during the early Fifties. The U.S. was the world's leader, and the sky was literally the limit for what Americans believed they could do and produce. The Futura's very name brazenly and unapologetically looked forward to the limitless future most Americans saw spreading out before them.
The years during which the Futura was conceived and built were marked by faster and more powerful automobiles with lots of chrome and bright colors. Each car make was distinct from the rest of the pack.
The Futura outdid them all, and therein lies its appeal. From the perspective of 40 years later, some of the finned excesses of the Fifties and early Sixties -- even to people who liked them at the time -- are now an embarrassment. In contrast, the fins on the Futura are in perfect harmony with the rest of the car.
To find out more about the Futura design process, continue reading on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura Models
In the process of designing the car, the 1955 Lincoln Futura models included a 3/8-size clay, a full-size clay and at least one partial clay model of the interior. By late 1954, a full-size plaster model of the Futura, a complete set of plans and blueprints, a chassis, and running gear were sent to Ghia in Turin, Italy, to be used for construction of a fully operational Futura.
At $250,000 for the finished product, Ghia's bid undercut all comers for the contract, but Ford Motor Company got a lot for its money. Ghia craftsmen were famous for their workmanship (at the time, Ghia probably had the best panel beaters in the world) and they preferred to work in metal rather than fiberglass.
Because the Italian custom body builders had a reputation for being inclined to do things their own way once they got started on a project, Ford designer Don DeLaRossa, who was then working in England, was assigned responsibility for follow-up. He reportedly visited the Ghia factory several times to make sure there were no surprises. (The only major problem that developed during construction was with the design of the Futura's wheel openings, which had to be slightly modified.)
Bill Schmidt, Lincoln-Mercury chief designer, also went to Italy to check on the progress of the car. In those days, the Ghia facility had an open courtyard with trees in the middle. Some of the trees had died or been cut down, and Schmidt noticed that the stumps had odd shapes to them.
Ghia's old-time craftsmen, used to doing things the way they were taught, were using the stumps to shape the Futura's metal panels. The irony that part of a futuristic car was being hammered out on tree stumps wasn't lost on Schmidt.
There was no beating about the bush when it came to forming the car's Plexiglas canopy and the complicated interlock mechanism that operated it. That task was done in-house at Ford under Regitko's direction and sent to Ghia for installation on the Futura.
As for paint, Schmidt had his heart set on matching the iridescence of the fish he had seen on the Caribbean vacation that inspired the car, and he got it. Press releases and contemporary news accounts described the Futura's color as "pearlescent, frost-blue white." The finish presented each of the viewer's eyes with a slightly different color.
The conflict of color between both eyes causes what is known as retinal rivalry and leads the viewer to see the object in a third color. The colors are also affected by the light around them. This is why a color photograph of the Futura looks flat and cannot capture the iridescent shimmer. It also accounts for why no two eyewitnesses could agree on exactly what color the car was.
To get the iridescent effect Schmidt wanted, Ghia ground and pulverized the scales from thousands of fish to mix in with the paint. (Incidentally, Schmidt's first drawings of the Futura were of a black car with red upholstery and a blue car with gold upholstery.)
To learn what Ghia used under the skin of the car, continue reading on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura Chassis
Most original records on the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car were burned in the fire that struck the Ford Rotunda in 1962. Except for the public relations press releases from the time the car was introduced and an article in the June/July 1955 issue of Ford Times, very little documentation still exists.
Together with original press releases, and the first drawings of the Futura that chief designer Bill Schmidt donated to the Ford archives, there are about 80 original pictures of the Futura scattered between Ford Photomedia and the archives. Several pictures of the car while still at the Ghia shop in Italy, where it was built, have recently surfaced in England, but none can now be located in Ghia's archives.
Non-Ford publications have reported that a prototype Continental Mark II frame and running gear were used for the Futura. (According to some reports, the frame was also reinforced with tubular cross-members.) Judging from the low profile, the location of the exhaust exits, the size and configuration of the drive shaft tunnel, the fact that the Futura shares the wheelbase and track of the Mark II, and by process of elimination, most people have assumed that the frame under the Futura came from a pre-production Mark II. That's only partially true.
When the styling studio went looking for a chassis to use for the Futura, there was less interest in its pedigree than if it would fit under the show car. The chassis that filled the bill was one of six that had been built by Hess and Eisenhardt of Cincinnati, Ohio, for the Continental project.
It was anticipated that two operable mechanical prototypes for a proposed Mark II retractable hardtop would be built. Because of budget constraints, only one was built. John R. Hollowell, chief engineer for the retractable effort, arranged to sell the extra chassis, which was cobbled from a 1953 Lincoln, to the Lincoln-Mercury Division for $17,000. That was the chassis used for the Futura.
Given Ghia's practice at the time, the sides of the engine compartment of the Futura were probably finished with polished aluminum panels. The engine in the Futura was rated in press releases at 330 horsepower and as "an advanced version of Lincoln's present overhead valve V-8."
The Futura's engine had an unusual oil bath-type air cleaner that, because of the low profile of the car, was mounted to the side of the engine. The engine also had twin fans and modified carburetion.
Again, by extrapolation, some have assumed that a pre-production Mark II engine was used in the Futura. The chassis Hollowell sold to Lincoln-Mercury for use on the Futura included stock 1953 Lincoln running gear, and the 1953 Lincoln engine was advertised at 205 horsepower. It's unknown what, if anything, was done to achieve a horsepower rating of 330.
The car had many unique features. Find out what some of them were on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura Features
The early Fifties were heady times at Ford Motor Company, when the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept was built.
From Henry Ford II on down the line, those at Ford thought they could overtake GM as the industry leader. By 1952, Ford was not only planning to match GM model for model, it also hoped to surpass the General in total vehicle sales by the end of the decade.
In that climate, Ford executives saw the Futura as an exceptional design that would be a functional, fully operational laboratory on wheels and also get them a lot of good press. The Futura represented the very direction in which Ford executives thought they wanted to go. So on the Futura, unlike most other concept cars, everything but the windshield wipers worked -- and there were no windshield wipers.
In addition to knockout good looks, the Futura had some unusual and innovative features:
- When the car was in motion, the interior was virtually sealed off from the outside. To make sure sounds outside the Futura could be heard in the passenger compartment, there was a microphone in the center of the aerial on the trunk. (In pictures the microphone looks like a black ball.) The speaker inside the passenger compartment was located on a vertical chrome panel between and just behind the seatbacks.
- Instruments were located in a binnacle in the center of the steering wheel. The binnacle remained stationary even when the wheel was turned. In the center of the binnacle was a disc with the odometer; towards the bottom was a 150-mph speedometer and a tachometer. At the top of the binnacle were five chrome-bezeled "idiot" lights for fuel, battery function, and temperature. (There is no known explanation as to why five lights were needed for three functions.) Gear selection was made by pushing one of five buttons located near the driver's side on the center console. As a safety feature, the pushbuttons were of different sizes for each gear, and the parking gear selector button was tied into an interlock system so that the doors and canopy could only be opened when the car was in park.
- The hubcaps, although similar to those on the production 1957 Lincoln, have no valve stem holes in them; the valve stems were on the inside of the modified 15-inch Lincoln wheels and accessible only from under the car. (So much for real-world functionality.) Tires were 8x15 Firestone gum-dipped tubeless deluxe Champions with 3 1/2-inch wide whitewalls. The spare was borne in the trunk.
- The gas filler was behind the rear license plate per standard Ford practice since 1952. The Futura had a full-sized gas tank mounted under the trunk floor rather than the small trunk-mounted fuel cell most concept cars came with.
- The hood of the Futura was hinged at the front, and the hood release was inside the passenger compartment, much like the 1957 Ford.
- A console parted the two bucket seats. Behind the console and in line with the seatbacks was a telephone.
For more cool Futura features, continue reading on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura Features, II
The 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car had so unique features they make up two full lists. The first is on the previous page; here's the rest of the features.
- Exterior door handles were in recesses at the tops of the doors. Interior handles were levers with chrome balls on the ends. The door jambs contained cam-type devices with micro switches on them. As a door opened, the interior lights went on and the complicated interlock system raised the top. When the doors were closed, the top automatically closed.
- In the curved area close to the windshield on the driver's side of the interior were five small round lights that indicated the gear that had been selected. Small triangular turn signal indicator lights flanked the gear selector lights. The directional signals were activated by buttons located in chrome pods hung from the arms of the steering wheel.
- The dash could be closed off by five roll-top desk-type chromed metal doors that, when down, hid the dash controls and closed off the glovebox. From left to right, the roll-down compartments contained air-conditioning controls; four knobs for the lights; the cigar lighter; temperature control and a dummy wiper switch; AM radio; and the glovebox. All but the air-conditioning controls were to the right of the steering wheel.
- The horn was activated by a pedal on the floor.
- The narrow vents inboard of the headlights helped to cool the engine compartment. Neither the grille opening nor the vents near the headlights did a very good job of cooling the Futura, and it always had a tendency to overheat.
- At the top center of the windshield was a vent to let in fresh air. It didn't work very well, even when the car was moving. An air exhaust vent about three inches high was on the package tray area. It extended from one side of the passenger compartment to the other.
- The air-conditioning system, when originally installed, had two clear plastic funnels rising out of the package tray area. The evaporator for the air-conditioning system was located in the trunk. The gills on the decklid were just for looks and had no connection with the air-conditioning system. The vents at the front of each rear fin were used to cool the rear brakes and as the source of outside air for the air-conditioning system. Sometime after the Futura was introduced, the plastic funnels were removed. Whether the air-conditioning system remained operable after that is unknown.
- The only other known change made to the Futura after it was introduced was the addition of 1956 Lincoln script towards the front on each side of the car.
- Standard Lincoln features on the Futura included power steering, brakes, and seats; ball-joint suspension; and dual exhausts. For some reason, Ford press releases also listed an automatic starter as standard equipment. Whether that meant that the Futura was started any differently than any other Ford products is unknown.
The interior design was functional and integrated. The upper part of the dash was covered with black leather and the lower part was in "blue white pearlescent." The area underneath the dash was a continuation of the upholstery extending almost to the floor before flaring out into heater openings on both sides.
The door panels were extensions of the dashboard design and included built-in armrests. The seats were highback buckets, padded with foam rubber and covered in blue-white pearlescent leather with pleated black leather inserts. The steering wheel was black, as was the carpet. The rear part of the console was a raised armrest. Power seat switches were set in the center console.
Learn how well some of these features worked -- or didn't -- on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura Unveiled
Ghia's turnaround time in building the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car was very quick. It only took two or three months to complete the Futura, and in January 1955, the finished product was unveiled at the 1955 Chicago auto show, which ran January 8-16. From there it went on to the Detroit show, which opened in late January.
The next showing of the Futura was slated for the New York auto show. On March 3, just before the show opened, Benson Ford and chief designer Bill Schmidt foreshadowed the car's future when they took it for a drive on the streets of Gotham from the United Nations Building to Central Park. It generated great publicity, and photographs and film of the event show a stunning contrast between the Futura and the other cars on the street.
If the purpose of driving the Futura in crowded New York City traffic was to show the public the Ford in their future, it was a success. The public was not told, however, that in this sojourn the air-conditioning and ventilation systems failed, turning the Plexiglas-covered passenger compartment into a sauna.
For a portion of their drive through New York, Ford and Schmidt were able to override the safety relays that prevented the roof section and the doors from opening when the car was moving. Most of the time, especially when the press was around, the roof and doors were closed, even though the Futura's two passengers were sweating profusely. In the pictures, at least, Ford and Schmidt looked like they were having the time of their lives.
The Futura continued on a very busy schedule after the 1955 show circuit, appearing at auto events, fairs, races, and selected dealer showrooms for the next several years. When not on tour, it was usually displayed at the Ford Rotunda.
By 1959, however, the four-year-old Futura was considered to be a little long in the tooth. Ford Motor Company was also in the middle of the Edsel fiasco. Budgets for concept cars all but dried up at Ford, and product planners were beginning to play a bigger role in gauging public opinion. It was then that Lincoln's stage ingenue headed for the bright lights of Hollywood.
Enter one George Barris, perhaps the most famous member of Southern California's "kustom kar" kulture -- uh, culture. Barris claims that it was at his urging that the Futura came to Hollywood. Nonetheless, in 1959 the Futura wound up in the movie It Started With a Kiss, starring Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford. (The Futura was cast as a one-off concept car won by a U.S. Air Force non-corn serving in Europe. The film shows the engine compartment.
When the car was screen tested for the film, its iridescent blue-white paint came out looking flat. The only system then available that could have recorded the nature of the Futura's paint with some degree of accuracy was 3-D, which was never seriously considered. Needless to say, MGM elected to have the Futura repainted a color that filmed better; it was repainted red -- at Barris Kustom City.
After the movie, the Futura sat for a time in the studio lot, and then in the yard next to Barris' shop until about 1965. During that time, the tires went flat, the paint faded, one or two of the wheel covers were lost, and the car generally deteriorated.
To find more information about how Barris acquired the car, continue reading on the next page.
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There are many stories about how car customizer George Barris won ownership of the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept, and some of them have even achieved the status of folklore. The most common of them has Barris foreclosing a storage lien against the Futura and buying it for $1, and then being sued by Ford. In these tales, Barris always wins the lawsuit, sometimes after a trip to Dearborn to make his peace with Ford executives.
Barris dismisses such stories as totally untrue, and there are no records of a lien foreclosure or a lawsuit involving Ford and Barris in Los Angeles County, where such records would be if they existed. What really happened is not as exciting as folklore, but it probably makes a lot more sense.
During the Sixties, Ford and Barris worked together on several projects. In 1964-65, Barris was involved in the Lincoln-Mercury Caravan Of Cars, in which corporate show cars and California custom cars were displayed around the country.
It was during this time, Barris says, that he bought the Futura from Ford for $1. (The Futura had never been a titled vehicle, so there are no motor vehicle records to check.) Ford had no further use for the Futura by then, and Barris says that if he had not purchased it, Ford intended to destroy it due to liability concerns.
It is unclear if, at the time the Futura was sold, Ford knew of or Barris already had plans to convert it into the Batmobile. Because of the limited time Barris was given to create a car for the television show, it is doubtful.
Ford did know of and encouraged Barris's efforts to get the Futura on TV and in films, and there is no credible evidence that anyone there objected to conversion of the Futura into the Batmobile. It's much more likely that Ford executives believed any publicity that came from having one of its "special" vehicles used -- in whatever form -- in a TV series was a benefit.
(Between 1965 and 1970, Barris built some of Ford's show cars, including the 1970 Lincoln Mark III Dual Cowl Phaeton. He says he worked closely with Lee Iacocca, Ford's president; Gene Bordinat, who was in charge of the Ford styling studio; and David Ash, one of Ford's leading stylists. The working relationship between Ford and Barris during this time is a fairly strong indication that whatever Barris did to the Futura was with Ford's knowledge and approval.)
To learn more about how the Futura was converted into the Batmobile, keep reading on the next page.
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Futura as Batmobile
Contrary to popular belief, customizer George Barris was not solely responsible for designing the Batmobile, which was built on the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept. He made sketches of the Batmobile that were submitted to Twentieth Century Fox Television and Greenway Productions, the show's producers, and studio artists revised the drawings.
Barris's original drawings, the revisions, and a "list of requirements" for the Batmobile were included in a 13-page contract signed September 1, 1965. (Contract language referred to the Futura as the "proto-Lincoln chassis.") The requirements for the Batmobile included a "Bing Bong Warning Bell," a "Batscope," something called a "Bat-Ray Projector Mechanism," and nine other special effects. The deal required that the Batmobile be completed and delivered by October 11, 1965.
The producers paid Barris Kustom City $5,000 to convert the Futura into the Batmobile for use in the Batman pilot, plus a promise of $5,000 to $9,000 more depending on merchandising rights and completion of the pilot. If the series went into production, there was also a provision in the contract guaranteeing the right to rent the Batmobile from Barris during production for $150 a day.
Barris also agreed to build a second Batmobile, if needed, for $10,000-$12,000. In the contract, Barris very wisely retained the design rights and exclusive right to publicly display the Batmobile.
Bill Cushenberry, a talented auto body craftsman noted for his metal work, had a North Hollywood customizing shop several blocks from Kustom City. Barris took the trim off the Futura, then subcontracted the metal work required to convert the Futura into the Batmobile to Cushenberry, who remembers the Futura as he received it as very solid but weathered. (He also says the original metal work on the car was extremely well executed.)
Cushenberry was given no written plans but was told by Barris what he wanted done. The rest was left to Cushenberry's imagination. After the metal work was finished, the Batmobile was returned to Barris's shop, where it was painted the gloss black it is today.
To make the Batmobile, the center section of the top was removed and a new Plexiglas cover was fabricated, leaving what would have been a normal car's window area open on both sides. (The original Plexiglas center section that had been removed from the Futura was later cut into two sections. One half of it was used on a custom rear-engined speedster built for Richard Boone of Paladin TV series fame. The other half was later owned by a collector in Wisconsin.)
When the Futura was converted to the Batmobile, the steering wheel was cut into a U-shape, with handles at the top of each side. Adam West, who played the title role in Batman, disliked the steering wheel configuration so much that Barris removed the modified Futura steering wheel, binnacle and all, and replaced it with a standard Edsel steering wheel. To this day, the Edsel steering wheel remains a part of the Batmobile.
The Batmobile is still around, but there isn't much Futura left in it. Learn the rest of the saga on the next page.
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1955 Lincoln Futura's End
Hard use during filming of the Batman TV series, which ran between 1966 and 1968, took its toll on the Batmobile's frame and running gear. After cracks developed in the frame of the former 1955 Lincoln Futura and troubles arose with the transmission, customizer George Barris replaced the frame and running gear as a means of avoiding the risk of further breakdowns during filming.
As a result, there's a little Ford in your Futura: a Galaxie frame that was lengthened 11 inches, a 390-cubic-inch V-8 engine, and a Ford automatic transmission. In March 1966, Barris applied for a patent for his "new design" Batmobile. On October 18, 1966, the U.S. Patent Office granted him patent number 205998, which was good for 14 years.
After the series ended, the Batmobile gathered dust for several years at Barris' shop. In 1973, Barris held an auction to dispose of many of the cars he had built for the movies. Sale prices were not what Barris expected.
Although the Batmobile was included in the auction, it failed to garner any bids and went unsold. Immediately after the auction, Barris was offered a trade for a 1957 Thunderbird, at that time valued at about $1,700, but he turned it down.
At some point, Barris built five replicas of the Batmobile that were displayed and later sold. The replicas were built of fiberglass from molds taken from the original. (The molds later were said to be stored in the rafters at Barris' shop.) Stretched Galaxie frames were also used for the replicas, one of which got a 429-cubic-inch Ford engine and was apparently used for speed or drag racing events. The other replicas got 390-cubic-inch engines.
Barris later seemed more than a little puzzled by continuing interest in the Futura. When asked about parts removed from the Futura, he said that he usually gave them to anyone who asked for them.
Many of the parts from the Futura undoubtedly went on the scrap heap and were hauled away by the garbage collector. A few of the parts were used on other cars Barris built. Videotape of the Batmobile indicated that while it looked good on the surface, it had deteriorated over the years.
During the last 15 to 20 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the original Batmobile, no doubt aided by the release of a new series of Batman films dating back to 1989. With the renewed interest, Barris put the original Batmobile back out on tour.
At the time the Futura was turned into the Batmobile, only a handful of people even remembered the show car. Barris gained notoriety as the owner of the original Batmobile and made a good deal of money from it. It will be a long time before the Batmobile is forgotten. The sad fact is that the Futura no longer exists, except in the hearts and minds of those who remember what it once was.