Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Courtesy of RM Sothebys
RETRO REVIEW – this article originally appeared in JUST CARS No.271 – August, 2018
Hands up who had – or still has - a die-cast Batmobile in their toy car collection?
That’s a lot of you. It’s no wonder, really, as for JUST CARS readers of a certain age, the original Batmobile was the coolest car ever and still looks pretty damn awesome today.
Of course, everyone knows the original was built by George Barris, Bill Cushenberry and others at Barris Kustom Industries from the Lincoln Futura concept car. And most of you who know that will also know that the original sold for AU$4.4 million at a Barrett-Jackson auction in 2013.
But how many of you knew there was a series of Batmobile replicas produced - licensed by Barris - for display at car shows and other events?
What you’re looking at here is a fairly authentic Batmoblie replica, but this one wasn’t created by George Barris or the team at Barris Kustom.
Barris was responsible for three authentic replicas of the original, all of which were built to meet demand for the vehicle from car shows throughout the US, but the unit pictured was produced independently by Jim Sermersheim, a jeweller - of all things! - and custom car buff from the Midwest.
While the three Barris-built replicas of the original Batmobile were produced on extended Ford Galaxie chassis to match the dimensions of the large Lincoln Futura concept, Sermersheim based his replica on a smaller 1958 Ford Thunderbird, presumably using a convertible body to allow for the open top roof without the need for additional body bracing.
Built over a nine-month period in 1966, the same year that Batman made its US TV debut, Sermersheim produced all the bodywork for his replica in steel (and a ton of bog, apparently), where the Barris replicas were bodied in fibreglass.
Exterior touches, like the cable cutter, lighting and ‘Detect-O-Scope’ were all authentic to the appearance of the original, while Sermersheim made the rear ‘rocket tubes’ functional, using them to shoot out fireworks at shows. The interior carried a similarly impressive level of detail.
Sermersheim apparently never built the car for profit; he was just a Batmobile fan and wanted to not only build a replica, but share it with others.
As recounted on fan sites batmobilehistory.com and tothebatmobile.com, Sermersheim had his replica on display at an Ohio car show where it was spotted by a member of Barris’s team who had helped to produce the original.
While some fanciful stories claim that US marshals seized the Sermersheim car on Barris’s instructions, the reality was that Barris, despite already knowing Sermersheim on a casual basis, got his lawyers involved, threatening to sue unless the car was removed from circulation.
But, in a tacit acknowledgement of the quality of Sermersheim’s replica, and also recognising the chance to expand his own Batmobile fleet, Barris offered to buy the car. Sermersheim proved a bit too canny for that, so a three-way deal was eventually struck between Barris, Sermersheim and National Periodicals (later to become DC Comics) for the midwestern jeweller to continue to display his replica as Barris’s “East Coast Representative”. Profits from appearance fees for the Sermersheim car would be split between the three parties.
This arrangement worked well while the Batmobile was red hot, but when the TV show was cancelled in 1968, interest started to cool.
Fan history sites recount that Sermersheim sold his replica to National Periodicals soon after. It then came into the possession of Barris and was badged as ‘Batmobile #5’, being the fifth Batmobile in the Barris fleet.
After years in Barris’s possession, most of which were spent outside exposed to the elements, Batmobile #5 was sold to a Robert Butts for US$30,000 sometime in the early 1980s.
Butts completely restored the car (no easy task given its all-metal body), but in 1988 it was sold to a Mrs. Chinery, who gifted it, along with a replica Batcycle, to her husband, Scott. As a sidenote, Butts produced his own Batmobile, too, using one of the Barris replica cars to make fibreglass moulds.
After Chinery died in 2000, his wife continued to display Batmobile #5 at charity events in her native New Jersey
In 2016, it appeared at premium car dealership, LBI Limited, with a price tag of US$500,000. No doubt the price was inspired by the multi-million dollar figure the original had generated at auction three years earlier, but Sermersheim’s Thunderbird-based replica proved harder to shift and was eventually sold at auction in early 2017 for US$210,000.
As consigned for RM Sotheby’s Auburn Spring auction in Indiana (formerly conducted by Auctions America) in May, 2018, Batmobile #5 presented in good condition, with all the cool replica features, like the Batphone, Batchute, Batradar, Batscanner and more (or at least badges and labels suggesting them!) still in place.
Batmobile #5 was still functional, too, with what appeared to be a Ford 289ci V8 under the bonnet, capped with Edelbrock rocker covers and braided hoses everywhere.
Batmobile #5 generated plenty of interest in the lead up to the RM Sotheby’s Auburn Spring auction and went on to sell for US$165,000 (AU$218,720 approx.), including buyer’s fee.
While not a huge amount, especially compared to what past owners were asking, the price for the Semersheim creation was still respectable and proved to be the third-best seller at the auction, behind a 2006 Ford GT (US$297,000 – AU$393,700 approx.) and a 1931 Cord L-29 cabriolet (US$210,000 – AU$278,380 approx.).
For more details and information on other lots from this auction, go to https://rmsothebys.com/