Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Transits do not, as a rule, fly but when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang took off in the film of Ian Fleming’s little masterpiece, there was a lot of Ford van in it. Now Pierre Picton, who has campaigned Chitty for 50 years, is to sell it. The creation of Rowland Emett and Ken Adams, it was built by the Alan Mann Ford racing team for the 1967 MGM United Artists film, starring Dick van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes and Lionel Jeffries. Picton’s GEN11 was the original used in the filming, a 2 tonner with a ladder chassis, leaf springs, a 3 litre Transit V6 and Borg Warner automatic transmission. It had to be tough and reliable for film work, it had to climb stairs but it also had to look the part. Its cedar boat deck was specially built by a real boat-builder in Windsor and the spoked wheels were cast alloy painted to look wooden. The dashboard with its realistic oilers came from a World War I fighter.

A second car was built for dangerous and studio scenes, a no-brass no-copper one for getting immersed in the sea (you can tell it from the aluminium exhaust pipes replacing polished copper), which had no engine. A third was effectively a fibreglass shell mounted on a speed boat, for the chases written into the adaptation of Fleming’s novel by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes.

Ian Fleming was fascinated by the monstrous aero-engined Brooklands specials raced by the colourful Count Louis Vorow Zborowski. Like railway locomotives (see following blog) nicknames were coined for Brooklands racers; Old Mother Gun Bentley, the Aston Martin Bunny, the KN Vauxhall (Cayenne – hot stuff) so to imitate the slow-revving and occasionally backfiring power strokes of his first Higham Special Zborowski called it Chitty-Bang-Bang. At least that was the theory. A car’s name had to be approved for sensitive souls in the Brooklands paddock and the scrutineers had already turned down “Cascara Sagrada”, a herbal laxative. Zborowski turned instead to chitti chitti bang bang which, besides being onomatopoeic, had a racy association with a lewd World War I song. Officers on the Western Front obtained leave passes, “chits” in army parlance, for weekends in Paris, where they were entertained by ladies of the night. Chitty-Bang-Bang with the slightly altered spelling had a double entendre for male spectators at Brooklands, which would pass unnoticed by less worldly companions.

Zborowski, born 20 February 1895 made three Chittys before he was killed at Monza, when he crashed his Mercedes into a tree on 19 October 1924. Chitty 1 was completed in 1921 with a 23,093cc Maybach aircraft engine of the type used by German Gotha bombers. It had four valves per cylinder and developed more than 300bhp at a modest 1,500rpm. The chassis was principally Edwardian Mercedes and the body a rudimentary affair by Bligh Brothers of Canterbury. Handling was somewhat erratic owing to flexure of the chassis but it could do 120mph and was successful enough to encourage construction of Chitty 2

This was again a 6-cylinder, the 18,882cc Benz BZ IV with about 230bhp, could lap Brooklands at 113mph and with a touring car body was driven across France to Algeria and on to the edge of the Sahara by Zborowski and his boisterous chums. It still had chain drive to the back axle and was sold off to American collectors. Chitty 1 was bought by the Conan Doyle brothers, sons of the creator of Sherlock Holmes, after it suffered a big accident at Brooklands and it was broken up in the 1930s.

The third Chitty, again the work of Zborowski’s racing manager Clive Gallop, was a shaft-drive Mercedes-engined car which the Count drove only briefly before his death. In the meantime Gallop had designed a channel-section chassis frame, which was built by Rubery Owen, to hold the biggest engine yet, a 27,059cc V12 Liberty built in large numbers by the Americans to help win the First World War. This gave around 400bhp for what became the Higham Special, with final drive by side chains was a narrow strip of ⅜inch nickel-chrome steel to guard against breakage.

It was not enough. The Higham Special was bought for £125 by engineer John Godfrey Parry Thomas to tackle the world land speed record on Pendine Sands, Carmarthenshire. Renamed “Babs”, Thomas was driving it at around 175 mph on 3 March 1927 when the driving chain broke and 41 year old Welshman died in the ensuing accident. “Babs” was not forgiven and was buried on the dunes.

In 1969 it was controversially exhumed by engineering lecturer Owen Wyn Owen from what had become a military firing range. “Babs” was fully restored, a fitting tribute to the brave Parry Thomas. The original Liberty engine was replaced by a Lincoln Cars-built one, its twelve separate cylinders mounted on a Packard-Liberty crankcase.
Pictured at Broooklands in 2007, Babs is worked up for a demonstration run. The chassis is braced by strut and wire, much as contemporary Bentleys were, to improve stiffness. Plenty of batteries are needed to crank the enormous V12. Chain drives have substantial fairings.