Picture a sleepy suburban community. Now imagine seeing your neighbour drive by in a 1960s-era Batmobile eating an ice-cream cone.
That’s just another night for Dr Phillip Latham’s neighbours in the American city of Sumter, South Carolina.
By day, Dr Latham is a dermatologist. Husband. Father. Flight surgeon at McEntire Joint National Guard Base and musician with the band Chief Complaint along with some other doctors.
But come nightfall, and during any other spare time he might have, he works on his Batmobiles – one that was completed six years ago, and the other that made its public debut at McEntire last June.
“They try to call me Batman, and I say I’m more like Alfred. I’m the guy that maintains the car,” he said.
Latham turned a childhood fascination with movie props and their detail work into an adult hobby of tinkering with robots and cars. At age 55, he describes his technique for design as “crude”, though prior to building his first Batmobile he had no hands-on experience with car mechanics or body work.
“I knew nothing about any of these items,” he said, of the tools used to build his cars. “Thank goodness, I had a bunch of friends who were willing to give their time to teach me,” he said. “I have an overactive imagination.”
The little details
About 12 years ago, Latham had just made a replica of the Lost In Space robot when he heard about someone building a Batmobile like the one driven in the late 1960s Batman TV show starring Adam West. While building the robot, he had learned how to use fibreglass and minimal metal working tools.
He thought, how hard could it be to make a Batmobile? Eight years later, he had discovered it was much harder than it looked.
“It’s the little details, like making sure the rain doesn’t pour in on your neck when you’re driving, so I had to build in drip lines around the car and make sure the seams fit. Then you realise you did something too soon and have to take it apart and re-do it again,” he said.
But with some much-needed “nerd-level help on the Internet”, he was able to transform a 1973 Lincoln Continental into one of the most iconic vehicles in cinema – and an eye-catcher around Sumter.
Just taking his Batmobile around town for a spin draws many looks, pictures and videos from passers-by. He’s even been pulled over by the police a few times – but just so they could get their picture taken with it.
“When I went to pick up lunch in it recently, I almost cleared the restaurant,” he said. “Everybody wanted to come out and get pictures with, in front of, or around the car.
“For them, it’s like spotting a movie star. The car. Not me.”
But that’s the extent of the joy he takes in the occasional spin around town in it.
“For me, the fun was in making it, not having it,” he said. “I’ve let Make-A-Wish use it. I’ve donated the services of it for other charities. That, to me, is much more rewarding than driving it around.”
A local elementary school once asked whether he would be willing to surprise a special needs student who loved Batman so much that his teacher’s assistant decorated the wagon he’s carried in like a Batmobile. Latham appeared, just not in tights.
“I found this motorcycle suit that looked leathery and put a vampire cape and a Batman hat on, and he thought it was the neatest thing. But all the kids thought so. That was a lot of fun,” he said.
Part of the fun in seeing the car is the detail work in it, too – right down to the flames that shoot out of the car. — Tribune News ServiceThe State/Dwaun Sellers