7 car-themed cartoons that shaped young enthusiasts before cable TV
This story originally appeared on Hagerty Media in the fall of 2019. It is reproduced here with updated video links and no other changes. Grab a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and enjoy! —Ed.
If you remember Speed Buggy, the Mach 5, or Thunderbolt Grease Slapper, no doubt you remember the Saturday-morning cartoon race-car drivers who drove them. After all, odds are you were a child at the time.
Before cable TV dominated America, and when there were only three broadcast networks, Saturday morning TV programming was given over to animated cartoons beginning in the mid-1960s. The brainchild of Fred Silverman, who was the head of daytime programming for CBS-TV at the time, the idea gave animation producers an outlet for their shows.
Until then, cartoons were mostly distributed to television stations via syndication. With so much time to fill, producers went beyond the anthropomorphic animals that had been producers’ stock in trade, creating adventure shows aimed at members of the viewing public with Y-chromosomes. Here, then, are the shows you remember, the ones that revved our imaginations every week.
Speed Racer (1967)
The premise: Teenage race-car driver Speed Racer seeks to become one of the world’s top racing drivers in the Mach 5, a race car built by his father and aided by the masked Racer X, who was really Speed’s brother.
The backstory: Created in Japan by Tatsuo Yoshida, and originally called Mach, Go, Go, Go, this is among the earliest of Japanese anime TV shows adapted for American audiences by Peter Fernandez, who also worked on such other Japanese imports, Astroboy, Marine Boy, and Gigantor. The dubbing was awful, but Speed Racer was among the few animated TV shows with realistic human characters. The Mach 5’s design was derived from the Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa, the Ford GT40, and the Aston Martin DB5.
Tom Slick (1967)
The premise: An oblivious but altruistic race-car driver (whose name plays on the name for racing tires, “slicks”) travels the world racing his car, the Thunderbolt Grease Slapper, and fighting the evil Baron Otto Matic.
The backstory: Arriving shortly after such movies as The Great Race and Grand Prix had proven to be big box-office hits, this Jay Ward creation was one of the three segments appearing in the George of the Jungle show and was easily the least interesting. Nevertheless, the show’s cocreator, Bill Hurtz, has said that Hanna-Barbera ripped off the idea for their show, The Wacky Races, which debuted the following year. But it differed from Tom Slick in one important respect: Its scripts were not amusing to both children and adults.
The Wacky Races (1968)
The premise: With a decided nod towards the movie The Great Race, not to mention Tom Slick, 13 racers travel America participating in races in their wild race-cars.
The backstory: This show’s concept started as a game show, with contestants betting on which team would win the race. Thankfully, CBS switched the concept to a Saturday morning cartoon, where it raised the ire of parents who disliked what they perceived as excessive violence in children’s TV shows.
That said, two of the show’s characters were derived from the movie. Penelope Pitstop seems to have been inspired by Natalie Wood’s character Maggie DuBois, while the evil Dick Dastardly was derived from Jack Lemmon’s character, Professor Fate. Both characters spun-off into their own Saturday morning show, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, a year later.
Motormouse and Autocat (1969)
The premise: Motorbike-loving Motormouse is the unwelcome resident of the Spin Your Wheels garage, where the race-car-loving Auto tries, and fails, to win speed competitions against his rodent rival.
The backstory: Spun off from the cartoon show Cattanooga Cats (what? you don’t remember it?!) this 16-episode Hanna-Barbera ABC-TV series is basically a Tom & Jerry/Pixie and Dixie rehash with motorized metal. It’s the first, but not the last knock-off of The Wacky Races, which in turn was copied from Tom Slick. But this series has fallen into obscurity, mainly due to its cynically unoriginal premise.
Hot Wheels (1969)
The premise: The show revolved around the adventures of Jack “Rabbit” Wheeler and his rear-engine, wedge-shaped sports buggy called the Jack Rabbit Special. Wheeler and his friends’ outfit was called—surprise—Hot Wheels.
The backstory: One year after launching its new line of toy cars, Mattel signed off on a Saturday morning TV show based on the toys on ABC. Promoting toys through a TV show attracted the attention of the Federal Communication Commission, which declared the show nothing more than a 30-minute commercial, which it was, since the die-cast cars were featured on the show. By 1971, the FCC had the show removed from the air, but such regulations fell by the wayside in the 1980s.
Speed Buggy (1973)
The premise: Spouting such phrases as “roger-dodger!” and “vroom-a-zoom-zoom,” the sputtering anthropomorphic dune buggy named Speed Buggy travels to various races with his driver/mechanic Tinker and his friends Mark and Debbie, solving mysteries along the way. Speedy could fly as well as drive, making for some unique scenes.
The backstory: Produced by Hanna-Barbera, the show featured another group of “meddling kids” not unlike those in Scooby-Doo. However, some of Speed Buggy’s scripts were reworked versions of other Hanna-Barbera scripts, particularly Josie and the Pussycats. Nevertheless, after 16 half-hour episodes ran on CBS in 1973, it continued in reruns until 1975. After that, it was rerun on ABC in 1976, followed by NBC later that year into 1977.
Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch (1974)
The premise: Looking much like a bad VW Beetle knockoff named Wheelie, the anthropomorphized car—wonder where that idea came from—and his car girlfriend Rota Ree (… groan) are pursued by the Chopper Bunch, who include the motorcycles Chopper, Revs, Scrambles, and Hi Rise.
The backstory: This cynical NBC series produced by Hanna-Barbera proves that the one thing you can say about network executives is that they were not afraid to recycle an idea until it was bereft of any artistry, humor, or interest. This cartoon series is proof, showing what overzealous federal regulation, timid network executives, and uninspired producers create when all the wrong things coalesce: a TV show that fills airtime between commercials.
Larry Printz is a cartoonist and automotive journalist based in South Florida. He can be reached at TheDrivingPrintz@gmail.com.
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Anything from Jay Ward is funny–on several levels. Time to go to Whatsamatta U to look for Moose and Squirrel. To-om Slick! To-om Slick! Let me tell ya why, hes the best of all the guys…I can’t believe I remember the song!
I can still sing the entire Tom Slick theme song. And the Speed Racer theme song. (and George of the Jungle and Super Chicken…. I watched waaayy too much TV as a child.)
Mikes C and L- oh, me three. I often drum George of the Jungle to warm up, and remember the lyrics to all those toons and more. I won a bet on a coworker’s disbelief in SuperChicken, after he heard me singing the theme behind the boss’s back. Not car centric, but my fave was always Jonny Quest. God I hate being old.
SOOOOOPER Chicken! HE”s Everywhere, He’s Everywhere! 🙂
That was ‘Chicken Man’ frightening crime and/or evil.
Thanks Ryan, now I am tapping out George of the Jungle at my desk. The freaking power of suggestion.
I still watch Jay Ward’s Fractured Flickers.
Spot on. I was privileged to know his widow. His talent will never be equaled.
Yup, Ward was a genius! I remember the cartoons and Fractured Flickers.
I am sorry to report that I remember NONE of these shows. What planet was I raised on, anyway? I do remember the Flintstones and their car “courtesy of Fred’s two feet”, so I wasn’t totally cheated out of car-cartoons, I guess.
Me too. Maybe because on Saturday mornings my brother and I were trying to “hot rod” a riding mower. (we got it to do wheelies).
Watched most of these shows when I was a kid. But Speed Racer was it. Definitely my favorite cartoon of all time.
I’m offended. 😊
Cable TV was a thing by then. Not at my house though, I watched transformers at home and went to a friend’s place to watch MTV.
I was going to say M.A.S.K. Who didn’t want a big-rig toy after seeing that show. Transformers had Airplanes, Cars, Trucks. I had the Constructicons because of that show.
All predate me… These were late boomer/super early X cartoons, at best.
Occasionally Wacky Races and Wheelie would end up on USA Cartoon Express in the 80s. If you could get your parents to allow you to watch cartoons after school, instead of the traditional Saturday morning sfuff.
What about Turboteen or Cadillacs and Dinosaurs?
Cadillacs and Dinosaurs! I’ve had many conversations with my kids about that show lol.
I’m so old I grew up watching Supercar, which I guess wasn’t really a cartoon. More like a puppet show!
Me too. I always thought Supercar was a Thunderbird.
And Fireball XL-5! Man those puppets look creepy today.
They looked creepy back then too!
It is a phenomena known as “The Uncanny Valley”.
I couldn’t stomach Thunderbirds, then or now.
Yeah, me too! Looks like supercar was first shown over here in the US in early ’62 although it was created in the UK in ’60. It was my Saturday cartoon of choice. By the time Speed Racer aired I was off creating my own motorized adventures in home made go carts…
Why doesn’t the website remember cookie preferences? Bring prompted every time is a deterrent to clicking.
I grew up on all these great car theme shows, but the 2 that stick out are Batman’s Batmobile and Speeds Mach 5. Both iconic.
I was about 13 when the earliest of those came out and I thought them all too lame to watch. They didn’t look like real cars and the characters were unbelievable. I was busy trying to fix cars at that time! However, I do remember the show “My Mother the Car” starring Jerry van Dyke. And the Munsters were okay as long as it was an episode containing the cars. But don’t get me started on Starsky and Hutch and that POS Torino that needed front shocks…..
Absolutely Speed Racer. That was the only show I was allowed to watch after school, then had to go out side and play. On Saturday mornings it was Wacky Racers and Hot Wheels. I have a Mach 5 model and the DVD set. And when I was young I had a Pennelope Pitstop model. And of course who didn’t have Hot Wheels (though I preferred Match Box). But where I put the most miles was AF/X slot cars. Remember like it was yesterday, which is ironic because I don’t really remember yesterday.
Oh yeah Speed Racer. Not only cars but international intrigue and spy stuff. Also, like Johnny Quest, gun play. Funny how we watched all that violence back then and had no school shootings. It was a time when strong dads were in the homes and the country was not completely feminized.
I still play with AF/X slot cars. I’m more of a T-jet guy nowadays, but I did grow up with AF/X, Magna-Traction, G-Plus, Super Magna-Traction etc. A bit of a digression from the original topic, but thank you for the memories.
Ya gotta include Disney’s Goofy in a list like this. Most were originally theatrical release (yes bring back cartoons before movies) and the aired on Wonderful World of Disney. Motormania is probably the highlight
Oh that brings me back to my childhood. Another great amphibious car kids show was the “Banana Splits” you could buy their motorized, amphibious toy six wheelers. Unfortunately not great in salt water.
We have car cartoons today, only they are made for theaters… The “Fast and the Furious” franchise .
The Flintstones. They took advantage of their rusty floors
Speed Racer, Hotwheels, Johnny Quest and Bugs Bunny. These were my go to Saturday morning shows. We got our cartoon fix from the three US channels we got here in Canada, as the CBC and CTV didn’t have Saturday morning kids TV shows.
No fossil fuels used. Cars always started. Second only to Speed Racer who was quite simply, a great American
No mention of Inspector Gadget. He had 3 cars in one!
The Jetsons. We are almost there