The story of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is really an interesting odyssey, and an ongoing one. At the New York Auto Show—now in full swing—I encountered Tony Garofalo and his very faithful replica of the 1968 flying movie car (five were built for filming, but only one or two were drivable).
Tony is a retired NYPD sergeant, a real-estate agent, and also a storied John Lennon impersonator. He’s in a band called Strawberry Fields, which plays weekly at B.B. King’s club in Manhattan. For him, building Chitty was personal.
“My uncle worked for United Artists in the 1960s and 1970s, and he got us tickets for the movie premiere at Radio City,” Garofalo told me. “The car was parked outside, and the cast from the movie was there. I was four and very impressionable—and completely blown away.”
Since then, Garofalo has seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the movie) more than 200 times (though, oddly, he's never read the original book). And he vowed to his mother that one day he was going to build his own version of the car. That was a good idea, since the movie prop he saw at Radio City changed hands for $900,000—and that was during the recession. At one point Michael Jackson reportedly tried to buy it, offering $10 million. The original Chitty was in a Maine collection, last I heard.
The Dick Van Dyke movie is based on Ian Fleming’s children’s book, released in 1964. Fleming didn’t dream up the car’s name, though—it was already attached to a war surplus aero-engined, Mercedes-based race car from 1921. The car was built by Count Elliot Zborowski, who perished in a racing accident (not in that car) circa 1924.
Racers with airplane engines were briefly a thing in English racing. They were fearsome beasts, loud as blazes, scarily dangerous, and hardly the stuff of kids' literature.
Appearing at the Brooklands track in 1921, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (named after the noise it made) had a 32-liter, six-cylinder Maybach airplane engine. Imagine the size of the pistons!
Another competitor at Brooklands was the Fiat-based 1922 “Mephistopheles,” powered by a 21-liter, 320-horsepower aero motor. Its regular driver proclaims, “When I step out, my hands are always shaking. I’ve developed St Vitus’ Dance, too.” The Telegraph describes “the cacophony from the thrashing chains, rattling gears and banging engine on overrun. There’s also the prospect of negotiating the smokescreen Mephistopheles has laid down on its way up the track.” The car reached 146 miles per hour in 1924—a new land speed record.
I can confirm the hellish racket that an aero car makes, because my daughter, Maya, and I rode in the original aero-engined Chitty in 1999, when it was briefly resurrected (after a decades-long slumber) in Connecticut. Maya was five. It’s likely she was the first actual child to ride in the real Chitty, since I doubt they were allowed aboard during the car’s heyday on the track. If you don't believe me about the racket, listen to this aero-engined car, a 24-liter Napier Bentley:
Garafolo knows about the 1920s Chitty, but if he’d built a replica of that monster kids would look at him blankly, if they weren’t running away in fear. As it was, Garofalo’s mother died of cancer, he retired from the police force, and he got divorced. It was 2010, time to keep his promises. Fortunately, Garofalo’s father was a garage mechanic, and young Tony watched over his shoulder. He had the necessary skills to undertake what turned out to be a formidable project.
A fortuitous coincidence at the time was the sale of the movie car, which meant that it was moved from England to Los Angeles. “I flew out there and spent essentially the whole day with the car,” Garofalo said. “I photographed it from every angle. It’s a very difficult shape to get right—a guy who tried to make a replica in the 1990s ended up taking a chain saw to it. ”
“I had to find a donor, and I didn’t want it to be a restored $100,000 car I’d then have to strip down,” Garofalo said. “I was lucky enough to find, in a junkyard in New Jersey, a right-hand-drive 1914 Overland (before the association with Willys)." It was skeletal, but the parts he needed were there.
Building Chitty took Garofalo, mostly working alone, five years of very hard work. The frame, rear end, steering linkage and column, and the brakes are original to the Overland. The engine is from a 1928 Ford Model A (incidentally the same engine that produced the soundtrack for the movie cars, which were built in England by the Alan Mann racing team).
The build quality of Garofalo's Long Island car is impressive in person. If anything, it looks better than the restored movie vehicle. One of the most difficult tasks was reproducing the wood-paneled boattail, which was a feature of a very few coachbuilt Rolls-Royces and Lagondas back in the 1930s.
Retractable wings—operated by remote control—were installed, as was the essential serpent horn—sourced from a British-based Mercedes. The acetylene lights are from a 1912 Cadillac (the first gas car to have electric start).
Chitty, a copy of a movie prop or not, will enthrall both kids and adults who see it at the New York Auto Show (through April 3). Garofalo said he’d turned down $1.5 million for it. It’s not for sale. He’s invested about $100,000, plus 5,000 hours of time (and $11,000 for the Overland).
Vindication is arriving for Tony’s folly. The car was selected to ride around the Javits Center with a 10 other show cars, and with Governor Andrew Cuomo in attendance.
This must add up to quite a story to tell at B.B. King’s. Can you imagine John Lennon driving up in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Alas, the truth is that John Lennon could barely drive, and a 230SL Mercedes SL he owned from new went begging at more than $400,000 in Hemmings Motor News. Here's a look at the $900,000 movie car when it was on display at Brooklands in England:
And here's Garofalo and the other "Beatles" doing the Abbey Road walk of fame--in Times Square: