The world’s favorite crime-fighting car is alive and healthy in the Midwest!
Brad Bowling - July 18, 2013 10:00 AM
Logansport, Indiana, is 722 miles from Batman’s Gotham (New York) City and 2,133 miles from Hollywood, where the Dark Knight’s stories have been filmed since 1943.
So how is it I am standing in a room full of 1966 Batmobiles during a visit to this picture-perfect Midwestern transportation town?
It is a question worthy of the Riddler himself, and the answer is Mark Racop, an independent filmmaker whose Fiberglass Freaks produces turnkey replicas of the most famous car in history.
It is a dream job Racop has been pursuing since before he was old enough to walk.
“I fell in love with movies and television when I was two years old,” he remembers. “As a kid, I was always reading books about how my favorite films and TV shows were made.”
Pouring fuel on the fire of his pre-adolescent enthusiasm was the 1960s Batman TV series starring Adam West, big-name Hollywood celebrities and – above all else – that car. Holy boyhood crush, that car! The amazing Batmobile, with the double-bubble windshield, jet exhaust and sexy finned body burned itself into the brains of every male in Racop’s generation.
What young Racop did not know is that the black paint and bat logos hid one of Ford Motor Co.’s legendary experimental cars. The Lincoln Futura was the most exciting concept car of the 1955 season when it debuted at the Chicago Auto Show on January 5. Unlike most dream cars from the Big Three automakers, it featured a steel body and had a complete drivetrain. The Futura’s long, gorgeous body, jet fighter-inspired canopy and predatory face hinted at (and overestimated) how awesome cars would soon look. When its usefulness as a gee-whiz generator was over, Ford sold the Futura to Hollywood car modifier George Barris for – according to some reports – a dollar. If true, it was the best George Washington anybody ever spent.
Barris had no idea he was creating an icon for all eternity when he hired Bill Cushenberry to rework the Futura’s sheetmetal to look like a bat in flight. Barris delivered Batman’s car in October 1965, and the first of 120 Batman episodes ran on January 12, 1966.
In high school, Racop and friends produced what today we would call a “fan film” around the characters Batman and Robin. The 60-minute Super 8 feature won many accolades when he showed it in 1980, so he followed that with a 30-minute Batman short before heading to Ball State University, where he majored in telecommunications. A third film about the caped crusader’s adventures won a $3,500 scholarship sponsored by BSU alum David Letterman and featured – holy movie magic, Batman! – a full-size Batmobile.
“We had everything working against us, but we built one,” Racop says. “In 1983, I had no air tools or auto body experience.
“Here’s what we had to go on when we started building: a Corgi 1/43-scale model, which I now know is very inaccurate, some pictures of the drag-racing Batmobile [one of three fiberglass-bodied replicas Barris built] and my own recollections about the car. Necessity is the mother of invention, and our first Batmobile had a good mother!”
Over a period of three summers, Racop’s Bat crew stripped a 1974 Chevrolet Monte Carlo down to the frame and fashioned a new body out of wood, steel, foam and fiberglass. Amazingly, what resulted from the nine-month gestation was a passable Batmobile replica that was a bit chunky around the grille with too much rear overhang. Still, Racop had his dream car.
During the next two decades, Racop pursued his career as a moviemaker, but the Batmobile was never far from his thoughts. Around 2003, Racop discovered that a gifted and ambitious car builder named Marty Martino had created a Futura buck and had made his own replica body of the experimental show car. Racop paid $2,125 for the badly deteriorated buck on eBay.
The trip from Martino’s Futura buck to Racop’s Batmobile mold only takes a few sentences to describe, but a half-year to accomplish. Racop’s first Martino/Futura-based effort sold at auction for $83,500 and for $216,000 at a later event.
When I visited Racop at his bustling 8,300-square-foot Fiberglass Freaks shop, there were six Batmobiles in various stages of completion. The demonstrator I would test drive is the 15th car in Racop’s series. It is awaiting a few gadgets before delivery to its buyer. The other cars on the assembly line were headed to California, Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma and Australia.
“Right now, every Batmobile at our shop starts as a Lincoln,” Racop says. “The Town Car from that period has the perfect 127-inch wheelbase, unlike my first Monte Carlo Batmobile, which was 116 inches and doesn’t look quite right.
“It’s getting harder to find good used Lincolns from that period, so we plan to start building custom chassis and save ourselves a lot of prep time.”
Once repainted and fitted with new suspension, steering and brake components, the Lincoln chassis is mated to a fiberglass body that comprises 22 separate molds. That number doesn’t count the molds for the Futura-replica seats, center console, overhead arch and other details. Racop’s bodies are much thicker than the industry standard 3/16-inch, which contributes to the feeling of sturdiness. Fiberglass production recently switched to an outside company so Racop’s crew can shave days off of each car’s six-month build time and concentrate on assembly. It currently takes 1,000 hours to create a Batmobile.
Because these are custom-ordered, hand-built cars, no two will ever be identical.
“We can put in anything from a 350 GM crate motor on up,” Racop says, “but we prefer the small-block installations because the Bat hood does not give us a lot of room to work.”
When I took my tour, Matt White was completing a 383 Chevy that registered 432 horsepower with a FAST electronic fuel-injection system – the first FI application scheduled for one of Racop’s Batmobiles. By customer request, the 383 also wore a pair of “Wayne Industries” valve covers and the series’ first-ever Vintage Air compressor. Racop told me that one buyer ordered a 700hp 514 stroker motor, which means you should never underestimate a Batmobile’s acceleration potential.
Sculpted seats are adjustable in relation to the steering wheel and pedals, but each Batmobile seat and floorpan is built around the buyer’s size. The original Futura/Batmobile interior was not engineered for ultimate comfort, so driver and passenger sit fairly close to the floor, but no more than in a Corvette. One car in the Fiberglass Freaks shop is going to a buyer who stands nearly seven feet tall, which required the floorpan to be lowered several inches.
After many rounds of sanding and body work, each car’s Bat paint is applied in a dedicated booth. The red striping is laid on first, followed by days of scuffing, wet sanding, masking, gallons of black and still more sanding. The exterior finish is remarkable, surpassing many mega-dollar hot rods I’ve had the opportunity to drive.
Authentic gadgetry, lights and switches are everywhere and recognizable to any fan of the series. Fiberglass Freaks builds all of them from scratch, including the famous jet exhaust. Should you get the urge to reproduce the disappearing roll-top desk-like covers in Racop’s Batmobile, you’ll need to individually cut 110 pieces of billet aluminum, then mill and polish them; assembly requires another two weeks. The signature double-bubble windshield comes from an aviation company in Ohio.
Riding in the Batmobile must be what Tom Cruise feels like when he pretends to be a normal guy in public. People stare. They wave. They run over to ask a dozen questions. They don’t even pretend to be adults anymore.
After lunch, it was my turn to grab the aircraft-inspired steering wheel and test drive Batmobile number 15. All Logansport-built Batmobiles so far have had automatic transmissions, and my test vehicle featured a solid black B&M shifter that was invisible in the shadow of the dash.
I was not surprised to find that it drives like a very large 1970s Lincoln-based convertible, but with better acceleration and handling. The power steering is as precise as one would expect from a big Lincoln, meaning it feels over-assisted at highway speed. Front discs and rear drums are authentic to the TV Batmobile experience, and they are more than adequate for everyday driving. The low seating position and long hood make it hard to see short objects like curbs or trash cans when turning, so Batmobile owners adopt the tractor-trailer swing-out method when driving the 18-foot, 10-inch car around corners.
The only negatives I observed about the experience are factors not in Racop’s control, such as the wide blind spot created by the center arch, lack of visibility to the rear and my inability to comfortably reach the brake and throttle pedals of a car designed for a customer much taller than my five-foot six-inch height.
Stepping back from the vehicle that probably ignited my childhood love of cars, I could see why a Baby Boomer with deep pockets would spend 150 large to put one of Racop’s creations in his garage … or Bat Cave. I can also see why Fiberglass Freaks was one of the first vendors Warner Brothers Consumer Products approved under a new Batman TV show licensing program in October of 2010.
The DC Comics reps probably had the same thoughts I did as I left Fiberglass Freaks and drove through the flat cornfields that make up this part of rural Indiana: How in the world did the center of the Batmobilia universe come to be here?
Elementary, Boy Wonder. The answer is Mark Racop, a two-year-old with a dream.