This week’s League topic:
“Besides the Batmobile, what is the sweetest ride cruising the streets of pop culture?”
I’ve been lucky to see–and occasionally drive–some of the greatest cinematic vehicles ever created. Working at a memorabilia auction house has its perks. Here’s a short list of some of the cars that have come through my office:
- DeLorean Time Machine from Back to the Future III
- General Lee from Dukes of Hazard
- Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
- Bumble Bee from Transformers
- K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider
- Tom Selleck’s Ferrari from Magnum P.I.
- Laurel & Hardy’s 1918 Ford Model T
- Marilyn Monroe’s 1952 MG TD
- DHARMA Van from Lost
The automobiles above are certainly special in their own rights. However, there can be only one king, which is obviously a subjective choice. But to me, there is one car that is ahead of this pack. And that’s the “Black Beauty” from the original 1960s TV show The Green Hornet. Profiles in History sold the Black Beauty in Hollywood Auction 17 in 2003 for about $192,000. A huge bargain. We had a 3-page layout in the catalog devoted to this awesomeness. Here is the original catalog description:
THE HERO BLACK BEAUTY CAR FROM THE GREEN HORNET. (ABC-TV, 1966-67) This is the No. 1 or “hero” Black Beauty car, specially fabricated for close-ups and special effects work, and seen in every episode of the classic Green Hornet series as well as the 1974 feature film.
The Green Hornet featured Van Williams in the title role, and introduced a young Bruce Lee to American audiences as Kato, The Green Hornet’s highly skilled right-hand man. This was Bruce Lee’s first major U.S. acting role, and his unique style of martial arts made him an instant star. His trusty nunchaku weapon and amazing physical speed and agility enlightened Americans to the elegance and lethality of the Asian martial arts, and his Jeet Kun Do hybrid style of fighting became one of the most imitated of all of the Asian fighting disciplines.
The Black Beauty car itself was literally the third star of the show. It is based on a 1966 Chrysler Imperial, powered by a 440 cu. in. V8 with 350 bhp and 480 lb. ft. of torque @ 2800 rpm. Power is transferred to the wheels via a three-speed automatic transmission. To transform it into the Green Hornet’s specialized crime-fighting vehicle, Twentieth Century Fox employed custom car maker Dean Jeffries, who would go on to build the Monkee Mobile for The Monkees, the vehicles for Logan’s Run, the Landmaster from Damnation Alley, and the futuristic cars for Death Race 2000 among many other engineering credits.
Jeffries began by stretching the inside of the vehicle to accommodate the control panels and provide more room for filming. Though the inside of the car was stretched, the outside dimensions remained the same to retain the car’s stealthiness. The car was cut at the back end, and Jeffries added 14 in. to the top. He then re-designed the doors, removing the door handles and replacing the opening mechanisms with electric switches.
Then came the fun part. Jeffries added trap doors on the front and rear of the car, which housed rockets, along with a center gun barrel that spewed non-lethal Green Hornet gas in the front. The back had similar rockets on each side and a center gun barrel that could lay down grease to foil pursuers. Retractable girders/rams were also added at each front and rear corner which held the car to the rotating garage floor, allowing it to be flipped and hidden from sight. The hood of the trunk was modified to contain a small homing/tracking device, which ejected from the top of the trunk. A rotating rear license plate disguised the Black Beauty’s identity, as well as retractable brooms behind the rear tires, which were designed to wipe away the tire tracks (this function was never used in the series). The front windshield was replaced with a “Hollywood” windshield, specially made with no tinting to allow filming from the outside of the car. A small trap door in the rear window allowed the Green Hornet to fire on pursuers from the safety of the back seat, and the front headlights – perhaps the car’s most distinctive feature – flipped to reveal dual green lamps.
Inside, the modifications are even more dramatic and well-constructed. The passenger side of the front seat has retractable consoles underneath the dashboard, housing a monitor and control system for the trunk-mounted surveillance device, as well as a retractable control panel to operate all of the exterior features, replete with toggle switches and indicator lights. The glove compartment opens to reveal a rotary phone, with Green Hornet logo on the dial.
In the back seat, the Green Hornet is presented with a similar tracking control module for the surveillance device, as well as a control panel in the passenger-side armrest with toggle switches and indicator lights for the exterior functions, and two concealed gun compartments behind each rear door.
When the series was cancelled in 1967, the car was relegated to Fox’s back lot, where it sat for years before being purchased by a Santa Monica woman. It then sat for several more years until she passed away in the mid-1990s, when it was re-sold and transferred to Dean Jeffries’ shop on Cahuenga Blvd. in Hollywood for restoration.
Suffering neglect for so many years, the car underwent a complete bumper-to-bumper restoration by Jeffries, who returned it as close to the exact, screen-used condition in which it was built and delivered to Fox.
The car is accompanied with the following paperwork:
- Original California Department of Motor Vehicles paperwork from Twentieth Century Fox
- Dean Jeffries contract to build both the No. 1 and No. 2 Black Beauty cars
- Letter of Authenticity from Dean Jeffries
This fully-operational “hero” car remains in excellent, fully-drivable condition, and ready for battle on your local highway. A fantastic part of television history, this car is one of the great customized television vehicles of the 1960s, and will forever be associated with its driver – Bruce Lee – the new American celebrity that it spawned.
Aside from the car’s spectacular techno-gadgetry, what really made the Black Beauty great was that my boyhood hero, Bruce Lee, was behind the wheels. Anyone who watched The Green Hornet will agree that Bruce was the show. In fact, in Asia the series was called “The Kato Show,” albeit there was clear bias. Nor am I not claiming bias by choosing the Black Beauty over every other pop culture cars. Bruce was an icon who crossed every social border. In the 1960s & 1970s! He did so with an intensity, swagger and coolness factor that few, if any, have duplicated since. He was an intellectual who developed a comprehensive and cohesive set of philosophies that he expressed not only through a physical artform but also by the way he lived. Like all the great ones, his was a life that ended too soon.
The Black Beauty car, I would like to think, was a mechanical personification of Bruce himself, or at least his Kato character. The car was sleek, nimble, powerful, indefatigable and full of hidden surprises.
The car is now part of the permanent collection at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, CA. For your viewing pleasure, here are some rare closeup images of the Black Beauty:
Go over to the League site to check out what everyone else has chosen for their coolest ride.
UPDATE: Shawn Robare of Branded in the 80s got his picks in first and had chosen Street Hawk, Airwolf and Condor as his favorites. Cheater! Not only did he picked three, none of his choices are even cars.
UPDATE: Chris Tupa’s choices are quite original: the car from Condorman, Bandit’s car and a Speed Bike from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Yowza!
Lefty Limbo’s choice of vehicles are some of the most fearsome that ever roamed the Earth: the Landmaster, the Car, Mad Max’s beast, and Sly’s ’50 Merc from Cobra.