This sci-fi superfan recreated the “Japanese Batmobile” not once, but twice
A friend of mine is deep into tokusatsu and kaiju, the genre of Japanese sci-fi movies and television shows that gave us the likes of Godzilla and Ultraman. In 1967, the Tokyo Broadcasting System commissioned producer/director Eiji Tsuburaya to create a sequel to Ultraman. The spinoff was eventually named Ultra-Seven, for the team of seven astronauts (the Terrestrial Defense Force) that protected the Earth from alien invaders, sometimes with the help of superpowers and Earth’s monsters. Forty-nine episodes of the serial were broadcast, and the show remains popular.
This was the era of the original James Bond films as well as the campy Batman series starring Adam West, so, naturally, the Ultra-Seven team had a special car at its disposal. Knowing my interest in movie and television cars, my friend brought over a 1:32 scale model for me to check out.
That car was labeled the “TDF PO-1,” familiar to Ultra-Seven fans as the “Pointer 1” and known to those both inside and outside Japan as the “Japanese Batmobile.” Like George Barris’ creation for the Caped Crusader, the radically shaped Pointer was equipped with superhero-worthy options, including twin retractable Ultra Missile launchers in the back windows, each loaded with three rockets; some kind of advanced lighting called the Perspective Ray Light, which was mounted to the front of the Pointer along with a Ray Gun; and, of course, an auxiliary jet engine that allowed the car to fly for short flights and hover over land and water. As far as defensive measures went, the Japanese Batmobile sported a lightwave barrier system, a smokescreen generator, and bullet-resistant tires. Top speed was supposed to be more than 225 mph (in autopilot mode).
Since Ultra-Seven was a live-action show, the show producers had a full-size Pointer fabricated to use on screen. As with the Barris Batmobile, which started out as the 1950s Lincoln Futura show car, the Pointer was also based on a large American luxury car from the previous decade—in this case, a production 1957 Imperial by Chrysler. Since the donor car was 10 years old when the movie car was built—at a time when many cars were worn out at half that age—the resulting car wasn’t much of a runner and often had to be pushed into position for static shots by the production crew.
The original Pointer was fabricated by a bodyman at a Yokohama collision shop, based on a design by Toru Narita, a Japanese artist of some note who created the design for Ultraman and the shows’ other characters. As the Pointer could, ostensibly, travel on land and in the air, the rear fenders were shaped into horizontal wings with a vertical fin, creating a Tatra-like side profile. The front end was extensively modified, and while Narita may today be considered a highly regarded artist, the Pointer’s front end can most charitably be described as a hot mess. Despite the mashed-up Nipponese-American styling, the Pointer was popular.
So popular that if you were a Japanese boy in 1967, you were more likely to have a toy Pointer than a scale-model Toyota 2000GT. Yasushi Shiroi was one of those boys and by the mid-1980s he had a job, no dependents, and a burning desire to recreate the Pointer. The original movie car disappeared sometime after the series was canceled in 1968 and it was donated to a kindergarten. If that donation sounds a bit strange, the community center where I went to school for K-9 here in the U.S.A. had a vintage 1927 Ahrens Fox fire pumper and a decommissioned F-86 jet fighter as playground equipment. The past, as they say, is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
Getting back to the Pointer: Keeping any vintage car on the road in Japan is a challenge. Anything more than 10 years old must undergo an expensive, extensive safety inspection. In 1985 Japan, finding an almost 30-year-old American luxury sedan would not be easy, so Shiroi decided to use a Japanese car that had a similar profile, even if it lacked the Imperial’s majestic scale.
As mentioned, Japanese motor vehicle standards are rigorous, and modifications to the basic structure are generally not permitted. Meeting those standards while creating an accurate replica was costly and time consuming; Shiroi sometimes went without food to pay the bills. He was determined to recreate the car of his childhood, so he tracked down the original fabricator to determine the correct details. Finally, he finished a slightly smaller-scale replica of the PO-1.
Still, he wasn’t satisfied. Shiroi wanted a true replica on the correct Imperial chassis. Six years after he started the first replica, he started hunting for a correct donor car. Surprisingly, it only took him three months to find a ’58 Imperial. It wasn’t a ’57, but since those two were separated only by the ’58s dual headlights, it was close enough; the headlamps would be removed in the modifications anyways. Shiroi bought the car.
He assembled a like-minded team of Ultra-Seven fans and solicited donations for the project. Again, he scrimped to cover the bills—once living on a pound of chocolate for a week while waiting for the next paycheck. The project took a year. Despite his own devotion, Shiroi is quick to credit the members of his team. “We were all in it together. This was a dream car for all of us.
Everyone cooperated to accomplish a goal. For our generations it’s like an homage… or more like… a sacred object,” he told theAFICIONAUTO.
Meeting Japanese regulations was still a problem. All the revised body panels were fabricated from steel and, when mounted to the original Imperial, nudged the car’s weight towards the 2.5-ton mark. Top speed wasn’t anywhere near the stock Imperial’s, let alone the movie car’s 225 mph. Auxiliary jet engines weren’t in the replica’s build sheet, but that doesn’t stop people from recognizing Shiroi’s Pointer. The car gets thumbs up and photos snapped whenever he takes it out for a ride. One of the original stars of Ultra-Seven even sent Shiroi a letter of authenticity, saying that it was even better than the original, which barely ran.
Keeping the PO-1 on the road isn’t simply a labor of love for Shiroi. To encourage fuel savings, Japanese registration fees are based on engine displacement, and the ’58 Imperial’s 392 cubic-inch V-8 puts it in the six-liter-and-above class. That costs 110,000 yen a year (about $1000 U.S. today). To encourage new car sales by Japanese automakers, there is also a 16-percent surcharge for vehicles over 13 years old. Shiroi, however, believes that owning and driving the Pointer 1 is worth the cost.
His Pointer 1 isn’t Shiroi’s only vintage TV car replica. He also has a Mazda Cosmo decked out in the livery used in The Return of Ultraman, the 1971 sequel produced by Eiji Tsuburaya’s son Hajime.
Similar to some folks who own Batmobile replicas, Yasushi Shiroi often dresses the part, wearing an Ultra-Seven costume when showing the Pointer at car shows. When he first started displaying his Pointer back in the 1990s, Shiroi even hired a model to dress as the female Ultra-Seven astronaut, Ann.
Shiroi’s original plans were to enjoy the car for a while and then sell it after a couple of years. After realizing how much his Ultra-Seven replica had enlarged his circle of friends and how much others enjoyed it, though, he decided to keep the Pointer. He had even met one particularly special friend because of his superhero car.
At a 1997 show in Tokyo, the model who regularly played Ann couldn’t work the show, so her sister went in her stead. Shiroi and the sister hit it off, fell in love, and married. To this day they go to car shows dressed in character.
I was once at a concours, trying to get my standard dozen photographs of every car that my OCD demanded, when I stopped to chat with an owner. As I listened to his fascinating story, I had something of an epiphany. Cars are cool, and they have great stories, but the people who make and own them have even better stories. The Pointer 1 replica is a special car, but it exists only because Yasushi Shiroi is a very special person.