Long before Knight Rider’s KITT, back in the mid 1960s there was a television show about a car that talked. I’m not sure just how they pitched the idea to the network, my guess is that it had something to do with the popularity of the Mister Ed show. If a horse could talk, why not a car? Anyhow, the 1965 show was called My Mother The Car and it’s generally acknowledged to be one of the worst tv sitcoms ever. Some feel it may even be the worst television show, comedy or drama, ever, though it managed to last a full season, 30 episodes. The show starred Jerry Van Dyke whose character discovers, while shopping for a used car, that his late mother, played by Ann Sothern’s voice over the car radio, has been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter. Don’t bother doing a search, there was no 1928 Porter, unlike Jack Benny’s Maxwell. Though there has been a couple of car companies named Porter, Mother, the car, was fictional, created just for the tv show, said to be named after the show’s production manager. The car used in the show was originally made by customizer Norm Grabowski, who’d already made cars for the television industry, like the T Bucket Edd Byrnes‘ “Kookie” character drove in 77 Sunset Strip, which started a hot rod fad that continues to today. As with other tv cars, George Barris managed to get involved, in this case making a replica used for stunts. From Wikipedia:
For the TV show, assistant prop man Kaye Trapp leased the producers a 1924 Ford T-tub hot rod he recently bought from his friend and its builder, Norm Grabowski. Both Grabowski and the car had earlier appeared in the B movie comedy Sex Kittens Go to College (1960).
The 1928 Porter touring car sported diamond-tufted naugahyde upholstery, oversized white tonneau cover, plush black carpeting, chrome windshield braces and half-moon hubcaps. Trapp and studio special effects man Norm Breedlove (father of land-speed-record-setter Craig Breedlove) modified the car to give it an elongated engine compartment, palladian-style brass radiator with “Porter” script, a spare tire mounted on the running board, outboard fuel tank and antique cane-clad trunk. (It was later fitted, as needed, with special effects hardware, such as an oil tank drip to simulate a smoking engine and “tear ducts” in the headlamp bezels.) Off-camera operation of electrics was by umbilical cable. The signature features gave it an anachronistic look, resembling cars of earlier eras.
The power train was the rod-grade 283 cu in V8 (Chevrolet small-block) engine mated with Powerglide automatic transmission. The “Porter” was registered (as a modified Ford) in 1964 with the contemporary yellow-on-black California license plates PZR 317 evident throughout the show’s run. Though it bore a few design similarities with the FRP Porter, which may have suggested the television car’s moniker, it is rumored that the car was named after the show’s production manager, W. A. Porter.
When series production was approved, the Grabowski rod was retained as the “hero” car, and a second — “stunt”, or special effects — car was commissioned and built by celebrated car customizer George Barris, whose Barris Kustom Industries licensed it to AMT for model kit production (an inaccurate rendering) and also toured it after series wrap with other of his creations. The stunt car, not conventionally driveable, was ingeniously equipped with apparatus to let Mother “drive herself” via a system of levers and mirrors operated by a short human driver concealed on a tractor seat below the removed rear floorboards. It also had other special mechanical features, such as gimbaled headlamps.
Both cars had the dashboard-mounted radio head with flashing dial light through which Mother “talked” (though only to her son). These scenes were filmed with a stand-in; actress Ann Sothern’s voice was dubbed to the soundtrack in post-production. Generally, the hero car was used for driving shots and close-ups, and the stunt car for long shots and special effects sequences. Either was available as a stand-in in case of mechanical breakdown on set. Though made to represent one car, they can be distinguished by minor details, and actually appeared together in one episode.
Even though the Porter in My Mother The Car was fictional, and even though the show is just about as bad as reported, you still might want to watch the video above of the first episode, if only to see Hollywood’s idea of a used car lot circa 1965. Yes, that’s Sammy Davis Jr. singing the theme song. It’s worth noting that Alan Burns, the show’s creator, went on to have a hand in some of television’s most successful shows, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoffs Rhoda and Lou Grant. James Brooks, who produced Room 222 and Taxi and is the executive producer of The Simpsons, got his start writing an episode of My Mother The Car. There were talented people who worked on the Edsel and Pontiac Aztek too.
If you can sit through the entire episode you have a higher tolerance for bad comedy than I do, but I encourage you to check out the video below about Dave Bodnar, of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Bodnar bought and restored Mother, the “Porter” that Grabowski, Trapp and Breelove put together. As you might expect about someone who would buy an artifact of such a notorious failure, Mr. Bodnar is a bit eccentric, but endearing. In a way, he’s funnier than the sitcom.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS