Back in the day I was a huge fan of the Volkswagen Beetle.
I learned to drive in one and I owned a ’76 for more than 10 years, on which I wasted way too much time and money.
An old German bloke, probably as old as I am now, talked me into hot rodding the car.
He had been a VW apprentice and knew his stuff. The result was staggering.
My old Beetle, the last of its kind in this neck of the woods, was transformed.
That’s what hot rodding is all about. It’s taking the mundane and turning it into something extraordinary.
The reason I’m telling you about Wolf — I think that was his name — is because it reminded me of another guy who took a Beetle, pulled it apart and and recreated it as something entirely different.
I’m talking about American hot rodder Gene Winfield and the fibreglass-bodied Bubble car for the 1973 Woody Allen movie Sleeper.
Winfield created many cars for Hollywood productions, including the spy toys for Maxwell Smart’s Sunbeam Tiger (really an Alpine).
Then there was the Reactor, a car that got a run in no less than four television series: Bewitched, Batman, Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.
It was initially commissioned to promote an indoor rod and custom car show in Hartford, Connecticut.
Promoter Joe Kizis gave Winfield $20,000 to build an aluminium-bodied show car named the Autorama Special.
Designed by Ben Delphia of The Art Center College of Design, it was later renamed The Reactor and entered The Reactor in the 1966 Grand National Roadster Show where it won the Tournament of Fame Award.
The car featured a four wheel fully independent self-leveling suspension from a 1956 Citroën DS and a 425 hp flat six engine from a Corvair.
The flat pack six allowed an unusually low hood.
It was a front wheel drive vehicle, and it ran inboard spot disc brakes.
The car could be raised and lowered with a load leveling device which allowed a minimum ground clearance of four inches up to nine and a half inches.
The hand built car featured electronically-operated doors, hood and roof.
Completed in 1965, the first version was painted in metallic green and gold metal flake.
The second version, The Reactor II, was copper orange.
It ran on 910 x 15 Firestone tyres, made for racing at the Indianapolis Speedway.
The tyres were mounted on wheels of special design with air vents for better cooling.
“I put the car in an open trailer and I towed it straight to Hollywood,” Winfield said.
“I didn’t know anybody, but I found 20th Century Fox Studios and I went up to the gate and conned them into letting me in to show my car to their transportation department.
“From there, the transportation coordinator gave me the names and addresses of all these other studios, and for two days, I took the car around and handed out my business card.
“Two weeks later, Bewitched called me and said that they wanted The Reactor on their set.”
Soon Hollywood would be calling on Winfield to build cars specifically for their shows.
- In 1967 the Reactor appeared as the Reactor Mach II in a Bewitched episode called The Super Car (S3 E19). Endora sees Darrin admiring an exotic car in a magazine and zaps it ont to his driveway as a gift. Turns out she appropriated the wild ride from a car manufacturer’s development lab.
- 1967, Batman, The Funny Feline Felonies (S3 E16) the Reactor appears as the “Catmobile”, driven by Eartha Kitt who plays Catwoman. She picks up the Joker (Cesar Romeo) and the two drive off in the car together.
- In 1967, The Reactor featured in an episode of Star Trek, Bread and Circuses (S2 E25) as the “Jupiter 8”, a two-seat sports car marketed to the inhabitants of the planet 892-IV. At least 18 different publicity photos were taken with The Reactor and William Shatner.
- In 1968 it made an appearance in an episode of Mission: Impossible The Freeze (S3 E11). The IMF team convince convince a convict he’s suffering from a terminal illness. In desperation he turns to a cryogenics doctor (Phelps) and blackmails him into freezing him until a cure can be found. Barret wakes up in what he thinks is “the future” but quickly discovers the ruse.
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