Like many a children’s tale going back to the Brothers Grimm, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang might initially come across as airy, innocent, and fantastical — it features a singing and dancing Dick Van Dyke in it, after all — but emerged from a background of real-life dangers rather unsuitable for little ones. As the 50th anniversary of the film approaches, the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, U.K., has put together an exhibition dedicated to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang that takes those darker aspects into account.
The story of the fictional flying and swimming car long predates the 1968 film or the 1964 book on which it was based. In fact, it goes back to the years just after World War I when surplus aviation engines became readily available and often found their way under the hoods of many a racing machine. The first such machine, according to a circa-1967 William Boddy article, came from the Higham Park workshops of Louis Zborowski, an American who spent much time in England racing Grand Prix cars.
As Boddy noted, Zborowski — who inherited vast swaths of real estate on Manhattan — could very well have afforded whatever racing machine pleased him, and in fact he owned a number of fast and expensive cars, ranging from a Bugatti Type 30 to a Mercedes Grand Prix racer to a 2-liter Miller he exported to England. Yet he decided to “slum it,” so to say, with a 23-liter Maybach six-cylinder from a Gotha bomber plane stuffed into a lengthened prewar Mercedes chassis. Clive Gallop oversaw the installation of the 300-hp engine into the 75-hp chain-drive chassis, which debuted in March 1921 at Brooklands.
For somebody whose father died racing automobiles — in 1903, no less — Zborowski had a rather insouciant attitude to the deadly machines he piloted. Legend has it that Brooklands racing officials turned down his initial moniker for the aero-engined racer — Cascara Sagrada — so Zborowski instead chose Chitty Bang Bang, “generally excused as denoting the noise made by the engine as it idled over, but in reality based on the theme of a lewd war-time song,” Boddy wrote. “(The name) has become a household term for anything uncouth and enormous.”
Boddy’s explanation of the name’s origin as a bawdy song — one celebrating the “chits” that soldiers used to take leave from the front lines and the rowdy times in brothels that resulted — might fit with what we know of Zborowski’s character, though there’s no evidence that Zborowski served in World War I (he would have been in his early 20s during the war) and researchers have yet to find any evidence that such a song actually existed.
Zborowski won his first race in Chitty Bang Bang, lapping Brooklands at more than 108 mph, and went on to build or design three successors: Chitty II, powered by a 230-hp 18-liter Benz overhead-camshaft six-cylinder; Chitty III, powered by a 160-hp 15-liter Mercedes six-cylinder aero engine; and the 27-liter Higham Special, which John Parry-Thomas bought and rechristened Babs.
Though his aero-engines machines were built for courting death, Zborowski managed not to kill himself at the wheel of a Chitty Bang Bang; instead, he died in 1924 after crashing a Mercedes into a tree at the Italian Grand Prix in Monza. According to Boddy, the first and third Chitty Bang Bangs were eventually parted out, the second restored, and Babs buried beneath Pendine Sands. Babs has since been dug up and restored.
While some accounts had James Bond creator Ian Fleming witnessing Zborowski racing a Chitty Bang Bang as a teenager, it’s more likely Fleming became familiar with the cars due to the proximity of Zborowski’s Higham Park to Fleming’s home in Canterbury. Either way, he had more than a passing familiarity with the aero-engined cars and decided to base the bedtime stories he told his son Caspar on them.
According to Jon Gilbert’s account on IanFleming.com, in the early 1960s, Fleming became tired of writing about the sexually charged and violence-laden exploits of his “cardboard hero” so, while convalescing from a 1961 heart attack, he began to write down some of those bedtime stories, changing the car’s name to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and presumably sticking to the noise the car made as the source of its name. Zborowski didn’t figure into the early stories; instead, Fleming made the car a Paragon Panther, the sole product of the Paragon automaker, and gave it the registration number GEN 11.
In total, the stories formed three volumes, though Fleming would never see them published: He died of another heart attack in August 1964; the three volumes were published between October 1964 and January 1965, then again as one volume in July 1968.
The stories proved so popular that Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who had already produced multiple James Bond films based on Fleming’s novels, turned to Roald Dahl in 1967 to have a screenplay prepared. Songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, fresh off their success with Mary Poppins, put together the music for the film, while another key to the success of Mary Poppins, actor Dick Van Dyke, signed on to play family patriarch Caractacus Potts. Julie Andrews was reportedly offered the role of Truly Scrumptious, but turned it down.
As for the car, Broccoli’s EON Productions turned to sculptor Rowland Emett to design it and to Alan Mann Racing to build six examples: one roadworthy example, licensed with registration number GEN 11 and powered by a Ford V-6; a second roadworthy example used for studio shots and not licensed; one that sprouted wings; one that was built to be dunked in seawater; a fiberglass shell mounted to a speedboat called the “hover-car”; and an engineless “trailer” built for filming the occupants of the car while in motion. The hover-car was destroyed after filming, but the rest were reportedly fitted with engines and put on the road as promotional cars for the film’s December 1968 release.
The National Motor Museum has long had the second roadworthy car on display and will include it — along with the 8-hp 1909 Humber driven by Truly Scrumptious in the film — in the 50th anniversary display in addition to original props and costumes from the film. To further tell the story, the museum will also display the exhaust and a leather bonnet strap from Zborowski’s first Chitty Bang Bang, first editions of Fleming’s book, and original concept and storyboard art from the film.
The exhibit will run from October 20 through November of next year. For more information on the exhibit, visit Beaulieu.co.uk.