“My Mother the Car” is the worst automotive TV show ever
If you think you’ve seen every car show on TV, odds are you haven’t seen what is possibly the worst car show ever produced.
Featuring a truly cringe-worthy title, the sitcom My Mother the Car concerned small-town lawyer David Crabtree, who buys a dilapidated 1928 Porter touring car only to discover the car is the reincarnation of his deceased mother. Only Crabtree can hear his mother talk, which she did through the car radio. As a result, he refuses to sell the vehicle, despite the best efforts of Captain Ranzini, an unscrupulous car collector.
Broadcast on NBC from September 14, 1965–September 6, 1966, it was created by Chris Hayward and Allen Burns, who cut their teeth writing Rocky and Bullwinkle scripts for producer Jay Ward. Given the hilarious scripts they created for moose and squirrel, you have to wonder how they came up with this dud. After all, that same year, the pair helped create Get Smart and The Munsters; they would go on to give us The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Get Smart, Rhoda, Room 222, and The Simpsons.
My Mother the Car was inspired by Noel Coward’s 1941 play Blithe Spirit, in which a man is haunted by the spirit of his deceased first wife, who tries to disrupt his marriage to his second wife. The twist? Only he can see or hear the ghost. In Hayward’s sitcom variation, the man’s wife would come back as a car, after dying in an automobile accident. The pilot, dubbed My Wife the Car, was sold to United Artists, but executives thought that the idea smacked of necrophilia, and changed the spirit to his mother, rather than his wife.
Executives then named Rod Amateau as the show’s producer. Amateau would enjoy a long career in both television and film, producing and directing such popular sitcoms as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Love That Bob, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Patty Duke Show, and Mr. Ed, a sitcom about a horse who would only talk to his owner. It was a takeoff on a series of films starring Francis the Talking Mule, a mule who talked exclusively to his owner. The show was financed by comedian George Burns.
The show starred Jerry Van Dyke, Dick Van Dyke’s younger brother, who landed the role after making what could be considered the worst career choice ever. Van Dyke joined the cast after turning down the Don Knotts role in The Andy Griffith Show and the lead role in Gilligan’s Island, a role his agent urged him to take. Van Dyke refused, choosing My Mother the Car because, as he said, “It read like Neil Simon compared to the Gilligan’s Island script.”
Hayward wanted Gypsy Rose Lee to voice the mother’s character, feeling she would give the role a salty, irreverent edge. Instead, it went to movie actress Ann Sothern, whom Amateau had worked with on the CBS-TV series Private Secretary from 1953–57.
As for the car, it was built by Norm Grabowski, who also built the “Kookie T” hot rod used in the TV show 77 Sunset Strip and was a true hot rod. It started life as a 1924 Ford Model T with a touring body, but it was powered by a Chevrolet 283-cubic-inch V-8 with Powerglide automatic transmission. The body was modified with a longer hood, brass radiator, Ford Model A wheels, an outboard fuel tank, and a spare tire mounted on the running board.
However, the studio soon realized that they needed a second car for stunts and special effects. So they contacted George Barris. The resulting stunt car featured a driver’s seat mounted below the rear floorboards along with levers and telescopic mirrors that allowed the car’s driver to remain hidden from sight, and make it appear as if the Porter was driving itself.
Although the producers tried mightily to give the car a name that didn’t exist, there actually was a Porter automobile. Based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, it was named for automotive engineer Finley Porter, who had previously designed the 1911–14 Mercer Raceabout. Porter died a year before the show aired.
Of course, accuracy was never a priority for the show, as 1928 cars didn’t have radios. The first car radio was invented by Galvin Manufacturing in 1930 and marketed as the Motorola.
A flop from the get-go, the show miraculously lasted 30 episodes.
“I became known as the guy who did the worst show in the history of television,” Van Dyke said in a 1993 People magazine interview, having finally found fortune starring as assistant coach Luther Van Dam in the sitcom Coach, which ran from 1989–97.
Yet you have to wonder if My Mother the Car was really so awful given the popularity of other shows of the time, such as The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, or Mr. Ed.
When asked if she found the role absurd, Ann Sothern reportedly said, “If a horse can talk, why not a car?” We’ll decline to comment.
Certainly, viewers would eventually warm to the idea of a talking car. By 1982, when the TV show Knight Rider debuted on CBS and starred a Pontiac named KITT, the idea that a machine could talk didn’t seem so far-fetched.
Just ask Siri or Alexa.