There have been lots of Batmobiles since Batman first appeared in print in 1939. In addition to the comic books, starting in the 1940s there have been movie serials and feature films, as well as television shows both live action and animated. I suppose, based on the many replicas that have been made (enough for the rights to have been litigated) that the Adam West era Batmobile fabricated at the direction of George Barris is the most famous, and next in line would be the Batmobile from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns or the Tumbler from the Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan. The first Batmobile, or rather the first car called the Batmobile, is less well known. The term “Batmobile” first appeared in Detective Comics #48, in 1941 and has been attributed to writer Bob Finger. Batman’s car was described as a supercharged red roadster with a reinforced hood that could be used as a battering ram. Most online sources, including batmobilehistory.com and this popular infographic say that Batman artist Bob Kane based his drawing of that car on a 1937 Cord 812, but I’m convinced that while the Cord may have influenced Kane, so did a lesser known supercharged American car from the late 1930s, the Graham “Spirit of Motion”, also known as the Sharknose.
It’s understandable why people have thought that Kane modeled the first Batmobile after a Cord. To begin with, it’s one of the more famous prewar American cars, and for the 1937 model year you could indeed buy Errett Lobben Cord’s eponymous front wheel drive car equipped with a supercharger. It was also available in a roadster body style. The car Batman uses in Detective Comics #48 has headlights mounted into the fenders, and one of the Cord’s best known features were retractable headlights mounted in the fenders. Batman’s roadster is a fairly low slung car as is the Cord. However, what is perhaps the Cord’s most distinctive feature, the one that earned the car the nickname “coffin nosed Cord”, designer Gordon Buehrig’s distinctive prow, was not used by Kane.
Far less well known today than the ’36-’37 Cords are the 1938 and 1939 Grahams, named by the company “The Spirit of Motion” but it’s obvious why they’ve become known as the Graham “Sharknose”. I’m not sure when exactly I first became aware of those Grahams, but it’s a face that you wouldn’t forget and a couple of years ago when I saw the infographic about Batmobile history, I took one look at Kane’s drawing and said to myself, “That’s no Cord, that’s a Graham Sharknose”. I showed the drawing and photos of the Graham to a few other folks and they agreed with me, so I posted about it at Cars In Depth. Similarities between the Kane Batmobile and the Graham Sharknose include the shape of the hood and fenders, and the fact that Kane’s car, which is only pictured at night in that issue, has obviously square headlights that are flush to the fenders.
Apparently some people have a lot of emotion invested in the topic of the Batmobile and that post of mine caught the attention of the publisher of batmobilehistory.com, Bill, who put together a page specifically devoted to refuting my suggestion about the first Batmobile being a Graham, not a Cord. He attributes most of the forward leaning look of the car in Kane’s drawing to the artist’s attempt to indicate motion and speed (a case of technology influencing art – the way early camera shutters worked could make moving locomotives and cars look like they were leaning forward).
Bill then lists some bullet points laying out why he thinks it was based on the Cord, not the Graham:
- Cords had creased front fenders
- Grahams had extra bulges on the fronts of the fenders, blending into the headlights; the Batmobile does not have these
- Cords had very distinctive wheels (a byproduct of a poor brake design, where holes had to be drilled in the full-disc hubcaps); the Batmobile clearly sports these
- Grahams had distinctive square-topped wheel openings, while Cord fender openings were smooth curves like the Batmobile
- Cord front fenders tucked in at the rear bottom corners like the Batmobile, while Graham fenders had a wider skirt
- Grahams had a boattail trunk lid that mirrored the nose; the Batmobile had a flat trunk like the Cord
To Bills list, I’ll add the fact that the Graham has full fender skirts for the rear fenders, while Kane’s Batmobile had fully exposed wheels. Contra his list, I’ll point out that he used a diecast model of the Graham convertible to make his point about the boattail. Photos of the actual Graham built convertibles show that the boattail is not nearly so pronounced as on that “scale” model. The rear end of the Cord convertible and the actual Graham convertible are not terribly dissimilar.
To be perfectly frank, I hadn’t planned on revisiting this topic. This kind of analysis of some drawings in a comic book is a bit silly. Kane could have based his first Batmobile on the Cord, or on the Graham, or on a combination of the two, or he might have just drawn it from scratch. He was an artist, wasn’t he?
Again, to be perfectly frank, I don’t really care what the first Batmobile was. I’ve never been a huge fan of the comic books or movies (I preferred the Flash and Aquaman myself), though I can appreciate the high camp of the Adam West / Burt Ward television series and its own Batmobile, notwithstanding my personal distaste for George Barris’ sense of aesthetics and ability to claim credit for others’ work. The purpose of this post is to give me an excuse to tell you about the Graham Sharknose, not debate finer points of comic book art. However, since I’m already on the topic, I might as well carry the debate forward. You can see my original points here.
In Detective Comics #48, there are drawings of the car from both sides and the text made a point of saying that the Batmobile was supercharged. While it’s fairly well known that the Cord was supercharged, that was an option in 1937. Stock Cord 812 (the 810 was the model designation for 1936) models were naturally aspirated. Visually, there is a difference between the regular models and the supercharged models. Cords with blowers have exposed flexible exhaust pipes coming out of the sides of the hood and running down into cutouts on the proximal side of the front fenders. Kane’s Batmobile has no such exposed exhaust pipes and neither does the Graham Sharknose.
Kane’s Batmobile doesn’t have exposed exhaust pipes but it does appear to have vestigial running boards, something featured on the ’38 Grahams (optional on the ’39s). Gordon Buehrig’s revolutionary Cord never had running boards.
The top of the Cord’s split windshield is one continuous curve. The split windshield on the Graham has two flat elements meeting at a center peak. Kane’s Batmobile has a peaked windshield.
As mentioned above, all of the scenes portraying the Batmobile in Detective Comics #48 are nighttime scenes. In both drawings that show the headlights, they are clearly square and flush to the surface of the fenders. When exposed, the Cord’s round headlights were nowhere near flush with the fenders.
Finally, if you notice, in one of Kane’s drawing of the original Batmobile it appears as though the rear tires are kicking up dust, something that couldn’t have happened with the famously front wheel drive Cord.
As mentioned, I wasn’t planning on revisiting this topic. Analyzing comic book art reminds me of something a customer once said about a particular vanity project of mine: “graduate school level work for high school dropouts”. What happened was that I was catching up on doing 3D processing of photos I shot last summer and the 1939 Graham Model 86 pictured here was at the 2013 Concours of America at St. John’s. I think the Sharknose is one of the coolest car designs ever and the Batmobile issue is as good an excuse as any to write about the Graham and the men who made it. We’ll take a look at the Graham brothers and how they came to make the Sharknose in Part Two.
Special thanks to Mischa Lohr, aka Zappadong, who graciously allowed us to use his photographs of the Graham Model 97 Convertible. Check out his enormous collection of photos of all kinds of cars (full size and toys) on Flickr.
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