The original Black Beauty – Click above for high-res image gallery
A derby-and-mask shod Seth Rogen and a mask-wearing Jay Chou owned the weekend box office reprising roles that were originally created in 1936: The Green Hornet and Kato, a superhero and his martial-arts-maven sidekick that began as a radio show in the 1930s. If the trailers are to be believed, this is the first superhero film in which the sidekick is more badass than his boss. It actually makes sense, though, because the first actor to play the role of Kato onscreen was none other than Bruce Lee in his first big American role. But what is perhaps most important about our current duo is the wheeled fiend they'll be driving: a Chrylser Imperial called Black Beauty. A supercar long before there were Murcielagos and Veyrons, Black Beauty is so significant to the story that it gets just as much time and space as the superhumans in the trailers and on the billboards.
For The Green Hornet television show of 1966 and 1967, with Van Williams as the stinger leading Bruce Lee, two Black Beauties were built by star Hollywood carmaker Dean Jeffries, both based on 1966 Imperials. The first of those cars, the driving car, has disappeared into the void that we assume also contains Amelia Earheart and the aliens who made crop circles. But the second car, the hero car with all the gadgets – that still work, mind you – that one is parked in The Petersen Museum in Los Angeles. And because Autoblog enjoys doing its homework before going to see a film, we went to see it.
Photos copyright ©2011 Jonathon Ramsey / AOL
From The Shirley Bassey Files, this being "just little bits of history repeating," 40 years ago there was a huge interest in superheroes. Batman's popularity on ABC in the 1960s kicked it all off (this following the monumentally popular Superman series from the 1950s), and the show known for its BIFF! and KABOOM! fight scene cuts led to shows you've probably never heard of, like Mr. Terrific and Captain Nice. But it also spurred 20th Century Fox Television to create The Green Hornet, which meant they needed to create Black Beauty.
Dean Jeffries was given the job and 30 days to get it done. The series had just two Imperials (whereas the modern-day movie had 29), and because the studio didn't want to spend a fortune recreating effects, the hero car had to be able to do all of them. The whereabouts of the #1 car is another rendezvous with oblivion, the story of the #2 car is another tale of Hollywood props: after the show was canceled just two seasons in, the car was left to rot on the 20th Century Fox backlot, then an anonymous woman in Beverly Hills bought it – no one knows how or why – and it rotted on her estate, then a Southern California man bought it, gave it back to Dean Jeffries in 1993 to restore, and left the restored car on Dean Jeffries lot, and finally it was bought by the Petersen.
"It" is an Imperial with a 440-cubic-inch V8 turning out 350 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque running through a three-speed automatic. There were 13,752 such sedans made by Chrysler, and this one got to live a more fruitful life than any other. Believe it or not, just four purely cosmetic changes were made to the exterior of the car: the greenhouse sail panel was extended 14 inches to make the sedan look more like a limo, the door handles were replaced with electric switches, the rear lights were redesigned to run up the trunk, and the gas tank filler flap was moved to a spot on the back deck ahead of the trunk, since the original spot in the center of the rear valance was taken by a gun.
Every other tweak was done to serve the show, down to The Green Hornet center caps in the Keystone alloys. In front, the grille is noted for a gun barrel that emits non-lethal Green Hornet gas. It's flanked by rocket launchers down below and, barely visible next to the launchers, there are retractable rams meant to hold the car upside down on the underside of the rotating floor in The Green Hornet's garage. Up above, the headlights rotate from a regular pair to a green pair, which provides Kato his night-time 'infra-green' vision. Kato would use a green plastic panel that flipped down from the sun visor in conjunction with the lights.
The sides are the barren black lengths they appear to be, which only emphasizes the fact that the car is as long as a Tolstoy novel, a whisper under 19 feet in length. It's also lowdown – the Imperial lords itself so close to the ground, the impression it gives is that if you replaced the fat sidewalls with some low profile rubber you'd have trouble getting over a speedbump. And when you're a filthy rich badass in a black limo, that's probably the way it should be.
The devices return in back: There's a homing and tracking scanner that emerges from the trunklid, another gun barrel in the rear valance that emits grease, smoke and oil, and rotating rear license plates flanked by more rocket launchers. To cover his tracks – literally – The Green Hornet has brooms that would descend behind the rear wheels... as if no one would notice...
Inside, the front of the cabin has the look of a regular '66 Imperial. Well, aside from the plaque in front of the passenger seat attesting to this being the Black Beauty that worked in every episode of the series. But open the glove compartment and a double-length panel opens up that hides the glove compartment on the right and The Green Hornet's phone on the left, in the center of the dash. Beneath that, in place of the gargantuan ashtray is a scanner for the tracking system in the trunk. The sun visor hides the green visor for Kato's infra-green, and the steering wheel center cap clearly identifies the owner of the car.
It is in back where props meet reality. There is barely any room in the back seat because a cabinet of switches and props juts out of the back of the front bench. For effects, there are two scanners contained in the cabinet (The Green Hornet loved his green screens, apparently), there are compartments in the C pillars that hide guns, and there are flaps astride the rear window that open so he could shoot at baddies behind. Lower the center armrest and you'll find one of the oddest superhero accoutrement in one of the oddest places: a drafting set, complete with protractor and compass.
What really sponges up space is Mission Control: a deep panel of buttons, toggles and switches that emerges from another panel in the cabinet, and another two-rows-deep set of controllers in the passenger-side armrest. The dedicated battery and hydraulic pumps didn't help the legroom either. In fact, there isn't any legroom. But this is where the props were actually controlled, by men we imagine who were either sitting cross-legged... or amputees.
In spite of Bruce and Beauty, and verisimilitude, the show didn't do well enough to last beyond its 29 episodes (the last two episodes were movies that team Hornet up with Batman). Have a look at the high-res gallery for photos and descriptions of The Green Hornet's tricks and tools, and if you want to see them up close just head to The Petersen Museum – the Black Beauty is in the Hollywood Gallery in the permanent collection, in front of Michael Keaton's Batmobile and across from a wounded-in-action General Lee. We haven't seen the Rogen/Cho effort yet so judgment will be forthcoming, but based on Jeffries work, the good old days of superheroes look pretty freakin' cool.
Photos copyright ©2011 Jonathon Ramsey / AOL