How James Bond Drove Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to the Big Screen

The announcement was made via a live webstream event: Ian Fleming’s James Bond character would return in the 24th 007 film, called Spectre . Daniel Craig would return in his 4th outing as the world’s most famous secret service agent. Details included casting, locations, storyline . . .

And then there was the car. An Aston Martin, of course.

Through the years, fast cars tricked out with remarkable gadgets have remain as much as part of the Bond mythos as glamorous women, dastardly villains and vodka martinis that are shaken, not stirred. The only other novel Ian Fleming wrote outside of the James Bond oeuvre featured a car as the title character. Called Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, it was later adapted into a hit family film and smash stage musical.

How the creator of James Bond came to write a children’s book that has delighted generations of children is quite a story in itself. It was the success of Fleming’s fictional superspy that directly inspired the writing of Chitty, although not in quite the way Fleming imagined.

The Spy Who Sued Me

It was 1960. Fleming was exhausted from failed attempts to produce a Bond television series, although he had written script after script. With another book due, Fleming wrote Thunderball, based on an unfilmed original Bond screenplay called Longitude 78 West, written with producer Kevin McClory and screenwriter Jack Whittingham. The screenplay introduced several elements to be used later in the immensely popular Bond film franchise, including an international criminal organization known as SPECTRE. (Sound familiar?)

In 1963, after two Bond movies had made millions, McClory sued. Fleming had to pay damages and court costs and assign McClory and Whittingham credit on the novel and film adaptation. McClory also won worldwide film rights to the book. The stress was so great it, Fleming suffered a debilitating heart attack. (His lifelong smoking and drinking didn’t help.) Fleming was at an all-time low, despondent and dispirited in the midst of worldwide success.

The Man with the Golden Pen

As he convalesced on the coast of England, Fleming was urged to write a bedtime story he told his son Caspar about a magical car as his next book. (For your child's very own adventure book, personalized with their name on it, check out the special holiday savings at iseeme.com.) For inspiration, Fleming was given a copy of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin

Fleming dove into the project with renewed vigor. He based the title car on a custom Mercedes raced by the legendary Count Zborowski, one of four cars that were nicknamed “Chitty Bang Bangs” for the sound they made rounding the track. (The engine was from a Zeppelin dirigible.)

Fleming's waning enthusiasm for writing returned full force, and Fleming wrote day and night in longhand to complete the tale. Unfortunately, he did not live to see publication. Fleming died in 1964. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was published posthumously, as were two more James Bond novels.

Live and Let Fly

But that was not the end for Chitty. A 1968 film was made by James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli, directed by Casino Royale’s Ken Hughes, and co-written by Hughes and Roald Dahl. Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, had also written the script for You Only Live Twice. Gert Fröbe, who had become famous as the title character in Goldfinger, played the villain. Desmond Lewellyn, who played Q in 17 Bond films, also had a small role.

Chitty was garaged for several decades before being revived as the star of a London stage musical in 2002. The Sherman Brothers, famed songwriters of Disney classics such as Mary Poppins, added six new songs to the film’s original musical score. (The title song was nominated for an Academy Award in 1968.) Chitty ran for more than three years at the London Palladium, the longest of any show ever. The Broadway product did not fare as well, although Chitty has toured ever since.

Goldringer

And what of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the actual car? The latest Chitty to be built was the one for the musical, listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive stage prop ever at a cost of over a million dollars. At one point, it flies out over the audience in a spectacular special effect. Many replicas have been built and displayed at car shows.

For the film, there were six cars built for different scenes, but only one is still on the road today. Chitty film star Dick Van Dyke reported it was like trying to drive a battleship, but it remained a popular attraction at charity races. (It was much sought after by Michael Jackson for his Neverland ranch.) It sold at auction in 2011 by Lord of the Rings and Hobbit director Peter Jackson. He can be seen motoring around in it on the streets of his native Wellington, New Zealand.

Licence to Sequel

Like his James Bond character, the estate of Ian Fleming  authorized the writing of three sequels to the original novel, written by accomplished children’s author and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. They are Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Over the Moon, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang  and the Race Against Time.  

As for Fleming’s original novel, it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in October 2014 and is available now in a commemorative edition from Candlewick Press featuring its full color original illustrations by beloved children’s book creator John Burningham. Half a century later, it seems Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will never run out of gas.

By: Dan

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