When I set out to rank every live-action Batmobile in history I encountered a strange problem. Fictional cars are easy to evaluate. You judge them based on what you see. Even if what you see is the magic of film making and not real. Except that wasn’t an option with the first two Batmobiles to appear onscreen. There was nothing fake about either of them. Both were simply regular, everyday cars. In Bruce Wayne’s first live-action adventure, the 1943 Batman serial, the Caped Crusader drove a ’39 Cadillac Series 75 Convertible Sedan. In the 1949 follow-up serial, Batman and Robin, the masked vigilante used a maroon ’49 Mercury Convertible. The cars’ only special “feature” was it’s top. Open meant Bruce Wayne was in the car. Closed indicated Batman was on the job. Not exactly a foolproof system.
Obviously over 80 years the Batmobile has upped its crime-fighting capabilities. And it’s made monumental strides when it comes to style, safety, and protecting Bruce Wayne’s identity. But if I wanted to know more about the original versions I needed to speak with an actual car expert. So I turned to Eric Minoff, Senior Specialist in the Motoring Department at Bonhams in New York. He kindly answered all of my questions about what the first two Batmobiles offered—if anything—to a superhero vigilante at the time. As well as what either could offer to Batman fans today.
Nerdist: Did either car have any special abilities that might be helpful to Batman?
Eric Minoff: As far as I know, the first two Batmobiles, the Cadillac and Mercury, were essentially stock [factory] vehicles with no modifications.
How fast could each go?
EM: Both cars have adequate power from their V8 engines and are capable of reliably going about 70-80 mph. They can be modified to go up to 100 mph.
How safe was each car for a normal person driving them? What about for a crime-fighting vigilante?
EM: Safe? I mean, they are relatively quick by the standards of their time. And the Mercury was a very popular basis for hotrods both then and now. A “ Lead Sled‘ is typically a Mercury. That being said, they have leaf spring suspension, are body-on-frame, and have unassisted drum—albeit hydraulic—brakes. They don’t handle or stop very well. Airbags? Seat belts? Crumple zones? Tempered glass? Laminated windscreens? Ha! Not a chance. The interiors are also full of beautifully crafted metal: Bakelite switches, knobs, and dials. All of which will eviscerate flesh. Outside, both have toothy grills and substantial hood ornaments that will tear into any pedestrian Mr. Wayne hit.
By the standards of the day, they were adequately safe. By today’s standards they are not. Especially when you consider that everything else on the road can out-accelerate, out-brake, and out-turn you. But again, if we are talking about when the serials first premiered, they weren’t any less safe than anything else out there.
How much is each car worth on the market right now?
EM: A nice 1939 Cadillac Series 75 Convertible Coupe is about $100,000. A really spectacular one can be $200,000. A nice 1949 Mercury Convertible is about $40-50K, while a spectacular example can be $75-100K.
A legendary hotrod version can sell for more.
How much do you think each would they be worth if you had the actual car used in filming the Batman serials?
EM: If the cars were actually used in the [serials], they would certainly carry some premium over another example of the same vehicle that had no such provenance. How much is that worth? Hard to say. But I would expect the premium of about 60-120%.
It is of interest that it was used in the filming. But on the same note, neither model is particularly well associated with Batman.
How easy would it be to own either car right now and drive it as your everyday vehicle?
EM: Both are amply capable of keeping up with modern day traffic. But, as mentioned, they can’t stop or handle as well. So you have to worry about people cutting you off since your stopping distances are much longer. Additionally, older cars are generally, well, older. They are more likely to overheat because the basic cooling systems—no electric fans, no steel radiators—take longer to warm up, aren’t as reliable, and are less comfortable. And your phone won’t connect either. Although an AM radio was available in both.
The driving position and experience is similar to today’s cars. But both have 3-speed column shifted manual transmissions. And obviously there are no electronic driving aids (traction control, stability control, ABS, etc). Also, climate control is limited. You could get a heater, but it won’t do a whole lot. And you’re A/C is composed of lowering the top and windows. Don’t drive them in the winter, either. The salt will cause them to rust.
But in a place where there isn’t a huge amount of traffic to get caught in (in which case the car might overheat) and you don’t have to do much parallel parking (chrome bumpers get damaged easily), with regular maintenance, you could easily drive either cardaily. And no one would ever steal them because most people couldn’t figure out how to start them. Even if they could, so few folks know how to drive a stick shift it wouldn’t matter.
When I set out to learn about every live-action Batmobile the original two seemed like the least interesting. They’re just cars and not the stuff of superhero lore. But after talking to Eric Minoff they’re among my favorites. Not because they’re great at fighting crime. And not because they’re both classic cars with interesting histories of their own. It’s because they’re specific to the era when the public first saw Batman onscreen. They’re a fascinating part of the character’s development. And like Batman himself, the Batmobile has evolved into an important and enduring part of pop culture history despite its humble beginnings.
But I still don’t recommend Batman ever again use one of these as the Batmobile. Not unless he thinks the Joker will only commit crime in big open spaces on nice sunny days. These cars are better off in Bruce Wayne’s vintage car collection.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings. (Now you can also look for him wherever someone is ranking Batmobiles.)