Musicars: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Take a road trip through musical land
Just as cars are essential to our real lives, they are important for fictional characters as well. Whether they are symbols or simply a setting for a scene, these vehicles act as plot devices that drive musicals forward. In this series, we’ll take a look at some live and movie musicals where cars steer the characters one way or another. So put your hands together and welcome to the stage: “Musicars.”
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Buckle your seat belts and start your engines. Everyone’s childhood dream car is one that flies and floats and takes you on endless adventures, and that might be because one particular car planted that seed of fantasy in our little heads. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a story of whimsical imagination and clever inventions. From fame to junk to a special apparatus, this fantasmagorical car takes us for a wild ride through faraway lands for a magical trip you won’t ever forget.
Fix Up Your Car Like Caractacus: Car Maintenance Basics
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
First, a brief synopsis of this 1968 classic (complete with pictures and songs) to help jog that childhood memory.
It starts off with the roar of an engine and a pitch black screen, leaving your mind to wonder what kind of racing beauty is making that wondrous sound. The answer: a racing beauty that wins.
The opening sequence of the movie shows a series of European Grand Prix races, and one car seems to keep winning them all — car number 3. Unlike the race in Grease, these events were slower yet grander, attracting hundreds of waving fans as cars crashed left and right.
Car number 3 easily takes the 1907 British Grand Prix, 1908 Grand Prix de France, and 1908 Grand Prix Deutschland. But disaster lies ahead at the 1909 British Grand Prix. Right at the finish line, with sweet victory in sight yet again, the grand racing car swerves off course to avoid hitting a girl and dog and erupts in a blaze of glory to mark the end of a glory age.
The racing car ends up in a scrapyard as a “heap of old iron,” where two young, sweet kids love playing in “her” (it becomes a her now).
A horrid, mean old man wants to buy her and “skwodge it all up” and turn her into “liquid iron.” The kids, Jemima and Jeremy Potts, accuse this man of murder and beg Mr. Corrigan to hold the car as they run home to beg their dad to buy it for 30 shillings.
They literally run home and they don’t look both ways as they cross the road, causing a lady in a yellow motorcar to drive into a lake. She reprimands the kids for playing hooky and takes them home, where we are introduced to eccentric inventor Caractacus Potts.
They talk and she tries to tell him how to raise his kids and as she tries to drive away but can’t, Potts makes the comment, “If women are going to drive motorcars around, they should learn to operate one correctly,” which is quite the comment indeed.
To raise the money for the car, Caractacus tries to sell his Toot Sweets to a man, Lord Scrumptious, who turns out to be lake lady’s father, revealing her name to be Truly Scrumptious. How fun!
But when dogs overrun the factory after hearing the high-pitched whistles, Caractacus is back to where he started.
Alas, do not fret, Jemima and Jeremy. Your father loves you two and completely ruins a guy’s hair for you.
After he gets the money from an impressively choreographed performance at the fair, he drives the car home (actually, it’s pulled by a horse because the engine isn’t working) and gets to working on her.
“Don’t overdo it, boy. You might exhaust yourself.” Oh, Grandpa Potts. Such wit.
And Potts proves the world wrong by turning the damaged racing car into a fantasmagorical machine.
As they drive off to the seaside for a picnic in their newly restored car, the engine starts to talk. The sound it makes? Chitty chitty bang bang. And thus, the title theme song is born, along with all our greatest dreams.
Of course, they run Truly Scrumptious off the road again. And as Caractacus wads into the pond like a gentleman to carry Truly and her stainless white dress from the evils of water, a romance is born as well.
So Truly ditches her day plans and tags along for the picnic, and then they start singing again. Because this song is too catchy to not sing as the engine goes along. Or even when the engine is off. Truly catches on fast.
As they enjoy the day on the beach, the kids fall in love with Truly and Truly falls in love with Caractacus and everyone just loves Chitty. No one wants the day to end, so Caractacus starts telling a story of the evil Baron Bomburst from the land of Vulgaria. The tide quickly surrounds them, but have no fear — drowning is not on the day’s agenda, as Chitty turns into a floatable car.
They power boat away from the Vulgarians who start shooting at them. Bomburst wants that floating car, and he sends two Germans to do the job.
Never send two Germans to do the job.
After first using a tunnel mural trick to capture Lord Scrumptious, they use a zeppelin to kidnap Grandpa Potts, mistaking him for the great inventor.
On the way back from the beach, the gang sees Grandpa being taken away, and they quickly drive after him. Caractacus is so baffled by this kidnapping of his father that he doesn’t see the end of the road. As they drive off a cliff and head toward water, it breaks to INTERMISSION.
A pleasant entr’acte of the iconic theme song commences as we are left with that literal cliffhanger (except not because they flew off the cliff).
When we return to the movie with the song fresh in our heads, we find out that the Potts and Truly avoid a certain imminent end as Chitty sprouts wings and propellers and starts flying after Grandpa.
While Grandpa is making the most out of his journey, enjoying his own little musical number about his posh life, Chitty speeds to save him — so fast that it turns to nighttime as Chitty navigates her way over the North Sea, driving herself so that the mortal humans can rest.
We arrive in the kingdom of Vulgaria, and Chitty gets confiscated by the Vulgarian soldiers. We learn Chitty has ejectable seats, which is useful when the Baroness is a mean, annoying lady, so annoying that the man who is married to her shoots at her to “help her down” with a level of glee not typically found in a happy marriage.
Meanwhile, Vulgaria is a land with no children, so that poses a problem for Jeremy and Jemima. But it’s easy to lure them out with some free candy and ice cream. So the creepy child catcher does his job, and that means Caractacus and Truly have to do theirs and save Grandpa and the kids — along with hundreds of other children just chilling in the grotto beneath the castle. They come up with a clever plan involving another amazingly-choreographed number featuring dolls that have some tension with unrequited love turned requited.
Eventually, they release the children, causing the chaos that is typically associated with freedom, and capture the Baron and Baroness. Amidst all the pandemonium of the liberation of children and the revolution against a snobby kingdom, Chitty drives herself into the castle to save the day. There really isn’t anything Chitty can’t do.
Then they fly back to England and live happily ever after.
Except then we cut back to reality and Caractacus botches things with Truly after the kids make a comment about marriage. But then Caractacus strikes it rich with his Toot Sweets for dogs, and he rushes to tell Truly, only to run her off the road and into the pond one more time. Because what’s romance without those special inside moments?
Caractacus and Truly rejoice and basically get engaged right there and then. And then they fly off in Chitty in an ending that is seemingly popular in announcing a happily-ever-after ending where love wins and happiness prevails for all eternity. Because once again, that is both romantic and realistic. But I’m more forgiving of this ending in a movie where the eccentric inventor ends the movie involving pirates and castles by ironically saying “you have to be practical” and it has been clearly established previously that the car actually flies. I’m looking at you, Greased Lightning.
So that is the “brief” summary of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Now that I’ve gotten the song stuck in your head, let us dig deeper into Chitty.
Ace Ventura is me.
The Original Car(s)
So what is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?
The beloved vintage racing car Ian Fleming created was based on Count Louis Zborowski’s series of aero-engined racing cars, known as Chitty Bang Bang. He built three Chitty Bang Bangs, affectionately named Chitty 1, Chitty 2, and Chitty 3.
Chitty 1 was equipped with a pre-1914 war 75 horsepower Mercedes chassis and powered by a six-cylinder 300 horsepower Maybach aeroplane engine that could reach a top speed of 135 mph with minimal braking power. This racing car with a crude, oversized exhaust pipe fitted with four seats made its racing debut in 1921, winning two races at Brooklands. It would later crash, taking off three fingers of a timing official, and Chitty 1 was retired soon after. I wonder why.
Chitty 2 was powered by a Benz aero engine, while Chitty 3, based on a modified Mercedes chassis with 160 horsepower, was fitted with a six-cylinder Mercedes aero engine and was referred to as the White Mercedes.
Though Zborowski died during the Italian Grand Prix in 1924 at just 29 years old, his legacy as a motor racing pioneer was enough to inspire Ian Fleming to write a book about a wondrous car in 1964.
The 1968 musical adventure fantasy film was loosely based on Fleming’s novel.
For the film, six versions of the car were created, though only one was fully functional. It was equipped with a working Ford V6 engine with automatic transmission and properly registered with the GEN11 license plate. The other versions included a second, smaller road-going version, a hover-car, a transforming car, a flying car, and an engineless version used for trailers.
Built by Rowland Emett, his interpretation of Dick Van Dyke’s character’s inventions and the work he created as a result is the reason Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is such an affectionately remembered movie. From the breakfast machine in the windmill to the wings on the car, Emett’s mechanisms and devices left a lasting impression on cinema props.
All these cars have found their way across the world, usually showing up as auction items. The original functional car was auctioned off in 2011 and went to the top bidder, film director Sir Peter Jackson in New Zealand. One was displayed in a Chicago restaurant before being sold to a Florida resident, while one made an appearance in a Public information film (PIF) in the UK.
Live Musical Adaptations
The Chitty version built for the British stage production of this musical debuted at the London Palladium in 2002. It cost £750,000 to build (over $1 million), and remains the world’s most expensive stage prop to date.
The original Broadway production premiered in 2005, with Raúl Esparza as Caractacus.
According to a 2005 review of the Broadway production when the car takes flight, “Chitty sails over the stage and the first few rows of the theater, while the audience responds with deservedly enthusiastic cheers and applause,” creating that magical moment live before the audience’s very eyes.
The prop car is a full-sized vehicle fully equipped with working features that make this car distinctively Chitty, such as extensive stage lighting, retractable wings, and spinning 45 degree tilt tires. A retired NYPD police sergeant, Tony Garofalo, bought the US National Broadway Touring Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Prop Car in 2014.
While the flying car gimmick is a massive challenge to pull off and poses some problems for local productions of the musical, there are plenty of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s in the world today.
However, some replicas are better than others.
Oh hey, look who it is again. Probably Chitty’s biggest fan. As if owning an actual prop car used on Broadway wasn’t enough, Tony Garofalo spent five years and more than $100,000 building his own fine four-fendered friend. Since seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at Radio City Music Hall in his childhood, he promised his mom he was going to build that car one day. In 2015, he fulfilled that promise in loving dedication to his mother.
Garofalo bought a vintage 1914 Overland Model 79 Coupe and replaced the Model 83 engine that was in there with a 1928 Ford Model A engine to get that perfect signature engine sound (albeit, without the “bang bang” part). Paying intensive attention to the movie to copy every detail of the car exactly, he got custom-designed chassis and body parts made, such as the passenger body compartment built from a boat, while searching for vintage accessories, which included lantern-style headlights from old Cadillacs and a serpent-shaped horn from an old Mercedes. Complete with retractable red and yellow wings, Garofalo captured the essence of the world’s most iconic movie car.
Other replicas include a MGM licensed replica in the United Kingdom with a 3-liter V6 Ford engine and a BorgWarner automatic gearbox, a copy built on a 1970s Land Rover chassis and engine, and a three-wheeled version based on a Reliant Rialto chassis. Many of these replicas are used to be displayed at events or to raise money for charities.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang makes everyone’s dreams come true, from Jemima and Jeremy to Mr. Tony Garofalo. A flying, floating vehicle offers a perfect escape from reality as it takes us on an imaginative journey many people discourage today. This brilliant car is a simple reminder that sometimes, our heads belong in the skies because only then do fantasies take on a life of their own to change the life we’re actually living.
Join us next time as we continue this road trip through the land of musicals.
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Angela Lin is a Dayton native who is currently a student at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) majoring in English and the Environment. She is a copy editor for The Michigan Daily, an arts reviewer for [art]seen, and an indie music blogger for downinthepit. When she isn’t reading and writing for fun or for school or for work, she enjoys listening to any and all music, going to see musicals, playing the piano, spontaneous adventures followed by peace and quiet, and talking about wombats. Seriously, ask her about wombats.