In the last few months I’ve written a couple posts on the world of plastic models in 1961 and one thing that struck me was how important it was for companies like Revell and Aurora to have impressive artwork on the boxes that contained the less than awe-inspiring unassembled and unpainted pieces of plastic inside. That’s when I discovered the artwork of Shigeru Komatsuzaki (1915-2001). The first pieces I discovered were for two plastic models by the Japanese company Nichimo depicting floating automobiles. I can’t tell you why, but I really like the way Komatsuzaki draws cars.
Although Shigeru Komatsuzaki’s art apparently dominated science fiction publishing in Japan during the 1950s, there is precious little of his early work available online. Almost all of his prewar work, including his personal collection was lost to wartime firebombing and the paper used for domestic printing for a decade after the war was done on the most perishable of paper. A fire at Komatsuzaki’s home in 1995 destroyed much of his remaining archives.
The format of his most renowned work in the Fifties was a double-page tableaux with some descriptive text portraying a variety of monster attacks, natural disasters and futuristic inventions. These works were not comic books nor were they any sort of proto-manga although the influence of his style is readily apparent in modern Japanese sequential art.
Starting in the late Fifties Komatsuzaki worked as a production designer on several Japanese films, including The Mysterians (1957) and Battle in Outer Space (1960) designing futuristic vessels and monsters. While Manga was undergoing a huge boom during the early Sixties, Komatsuzaki stuck to single-image paintings, mostly as the artist of hundreds of dramatic box illustrations for plastic model kits of subjects as varied as floating cars, giant robots, spaceships and the entire fleet of craft featured in Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds.
Forget the Batmobile; I’ll take Bobby Darin’s Dream Car.
Andy Di Dia was a clothing designer from Detroit who spent seven years and over $150,000 building a car that puts the Ford Futura concept car that evolved into the Batmobile to shame. Di Dia’s friend, singer Bobby Darin, bought the car from him in 1961 and drove it to the Academy Awards and in movies until donating it to the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, MO in 1970.
The car’s metallic red exterior is from 30 coats of paint with real ground diamonds for sparkle. The body was made from hand-fashioned soft aluminum. There are hidden headlights and tail lights that swivel as the car turns. Inside, the seats each have their own ash tray, cigarette lighter, and radio speaker. On the dash are oversized levers that control the air conditioning, heater and defroster. The car has a 125-inch wheelbase and is powered by a V8 engine.
Put someone like Bobby Darin behind the wheel and you’ve got nothing less than a double dose of cool!
Although Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck introduced American audiences to the romantic image of a young man zipping around cities and coastal roads with a beautiful woman wrapped around his waist, motor scooters weren’t really “cool” in the United States until the early Sixties. For one thing, Italian scooters like Vespa and Lambretta were re-branded and sold by Sears and Montgomery Ward. It wasn’t until 1961 that these Italian companies succeeded in attaching the cachet of the Italian Bohemian to their products through a combination of advertising and the release of a Rock Hudson film called Come September. Even then, the sense of fun and romance displayed in advertising everywhere else in the world was rarely employed in the United States. Instead, American ads touted fuel economy, avoiding traffic, affordability, and saving space in one’s garage for a proper Detroit leviathan.
The Amphicar was the first amphibious automobile mass-produced for sale to the public. First sold in 1961, the German vehicle was designed by Hanns Trippel and manufactured by the Quandt Group at Lübeck and at Berlin-Borsigwalde. The Amphicar was primarily designed to be marketed and sold in the United States, but many of the early adopters were in Britain and Germany. Several were purchased by the West Berlin police to patrol along and in the Spree River. Although only about 4000 were sold before the company folded four years later, the Amphicar is still the most successful amphibious civilian automobile of all time.
Yes! Another puppet post! This one is about a TV show that debuted in 1961 called Supercar. Supercar was produced by Gerry Anderson who, with his team of puppeteers and model builders, would later create Thunderbirds. Like Thunderbirds (1964) and Four Feather Falls (1960), Supercar utilized Anderson’s signature “Supermarionation”.
Supermarionation used marionettes suspended and controlled by thin wires. The fine metal filaments doubled as both suspension-control wires for puppet movement, and as electrical cables that took the control signals to the electronic components concealed in the marionettes’ heads. The heads contained solenoid motors that created the synchronised mouth movements for dialog and other functions. The voice synchronisation was achieved by using a specially designed audio filter which was actuated by the signal from the pre-recorded tapes of the voice actors; this filter would convert the signal into a series of pulses which then travelled down the wire to the solenoids controlling the puppet’s lips, creating lip movements that were precisely synchronised with the dialogue.
The one flaw in the system was that its simulation of walking was rather ridiculous looking. This weakness was likely the inspiration for a show where the hero spent most of his time sitting in a car. The hero is pilot Mike Mercury who lives in a secret base in Nevada with two scientists (Prof. Popkiss and Dr. Beaker), an orphan boy (Jimmy Gibson) and a weird monkey-like creature named Mitch.
The show aired on ITV in the UK and was syndicated to local channels in the US. The show spawned a comic strip in the British magazine TV Comics that outlasted the show itself by two years. In the US Gold Key published a Supercar comic book that lasted four issues.
Here is episode one (in two parts) in which Mike and the Supercar rescue young Jimmy and his monkey Mitch. Even if you’re not inclined to watch the entire episode be sure to, at least, treat yourself to the opening titles and the theme song sung by Mike Sammes.
Introduced at the 1961 Detroit Motor Show as a concept car, the Ford Gyron was a futuristic two-wheeled gyrocar. One wheel was at the front and the other at the rear like a motorcycle and the car was stabilized by gyroscopes. The two occupants of the vehicle were seated side by side and, when the vehicle was stationary, two small legs appeared from the sides to support it.
Alex Tremulis was the designer and the gyroscopic systems were based on the theories of aviation pioneer Louis Brennan. Alex Tremulis started his career at Wright Patterson Air Force Base working on the concept of Military flying saucers. He then became the chief designer for the ill-fated Tucker automobile company before joining Ford. He was also involved with Tuscan gyroscopic motorcycles and the Gyronaught XU1 gyroscopic car.
Here are some more futuristic cars from 50 years ago that Detroit never delivered on:
Ford Thunderbird Custom Roadster Thunderflite
Plymouth XNR Roadster Ghia
Chevrolet Astro III
Detroit, Michigan may have let us down, but at least Turin, Italy gave it a go with a production car called the Fiat 600 Y Aerodinamica (Pininfarina), 1961.