Fifty years ago today, a very special movie car did a lot more than just turn people’s heads, it had them looking toward the sky and across the water. Based on a novel written by the same man who created James Bond (that would be Ian Fleming), United Artists’ musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opened in U.S. theaters on December 18, 1968.
Fleming said the iconic car was based on the aero-engined race cars of the early 1920s, and the fictional Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—named for the unusual sound of its engine—has a successful racing background. Once a motorsports champion that was destroyed by fire, the car is rescued from the junkyard by eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts (Dick Van Dyke), at the urging of his children.
After several failed attempts to raise money to get the car running again, Potts stumbles into a song-and-dance act and performs so well that spectators shower him with tips—providing plenty of cash to resurrect the car. When Potts is finished tinkering, the motor car with the unusual name can do it all, including flying and floating.
Potts’ “fine four-fendered friend” features retractable red and yellow wings all around, and it flies by using two horizontal propellers attached to each of its larger side wings. It can also transform into a boat by deploying huge flotation devices. Potts, his two children (Jeremy and Jemima), and Potts’ love interest (Truly Scrumptious) take advantage of every available option in order to save the cherished car from the tyrannical Baron Bomburst.
Six vehicles were produced for the movie; most being used only as props in various scenes. It is believed that only one was roadworthy—a two-ton, 17-foot-long mechanical marvel powered by a Ford V-6. It wears license plate GEN11. The car, designed by Ken Adam and built by the Ford Racing Team, features a polished aluminum bonnet and a cedar boat tail. The dashboard is from a World War I fighter plane.
Joe Maddalena, of Profiles in History, once called Chitty “the most recognizable car in the world… it takes your breath away.”
According to theFlorida Times Union, Ralph Tyler Spencer owns one of just two roadworthy Chitty cars from the film. Spencer bought the secondary vehicle for $505,000 in 2007 and spent an additional $575,000 to restore it over 30 months. The Times Union reported that the Lord of the Rings film producer Peter Jackson bought the primary film car for more than $700,000 in 2011.
While movie critics generally disliked the film’s name, many gave it overall positive reviews. And try getting that song out of your head: