- Associated Press - Friday, March 13, 2015

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) - Lawrence resident Rich Johnson watched the adventures of Batman and Robin on TV when he was a kid. While he was rooting for the masked heroes as they battled the Joker and Catwoman, he was equally a fan of their souped-up bat car.

But it wasn’t until Johnson saw actor Mark Wahlberg driving a Batmobile in the movie “Rock Star” that he realized he could make one, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports (https://bit.ly/1MkNd2h ).

“It occurred to me you don’t have to be Batman to have a Batmobile,” he said.

Johnson, who owns Rich Johnson Automotive in Lawrence and has restored cars for more than 25 years, can be seen driving his custom-made Batmobile in parades or on the streets in Lawrence.

“It’s one of the most beautiful cars ever,” he said.

In 1992, Johnson and his wife went to a car show in Bartle Hall in Kansas City, Mo. On display was a Batmobile that was used as a stunt car. He told his wife to shoot photographs of the car from every possible angle.

“So I had these 5-by-7 pictures, and I’d combed through them so I knew how to build it,” he said.

However, his idea to build a Batmobile was placed on the back burner for nearly a decade. Then, in the summer of 2012, Johnson learned about a man in Ohio who had a mold for the original Batmobile and asked him to create a fiberglass shell of the car for him. When it was ready about three months later, Johnson drove to Ohio, laid it upside-down on a trailer and hauled it back to Lawrence.

Johnson said he used a four-door Lincoln Town Car as the “donor car” - he placed the fiberglass shell over its chassis to make the Batmobile. But there was a problem: The fiberglass shell was 127 inches long; the Town Car measured 117 inches.

“So, I cut the Town Car in half and stretched it out to make it fit,” he said, explaining how he placed a metal insert between the car halves to make it longer.

Johnson worked nights and weekends over five months to build the Batmobile.

“It was my time to play,” he said, explaining how he could be “dead tired” from working all day and yet feel rejuvenated when he went back to his shop to work on the restoration project. “It’s a happy thing. I love the creativity.”

Johnson said he turned the four-door into a two-door and “figured out the hinge geometry” that would allow a section of the doors to slide into the fender when they were opened. He installed a 1989 Lincoln Town Car engine that had been driven 54,000 miles. He added a polycarbonate canopy windshield and placed a flashing light on its hood.

Instead of installing flame-thrower tailpipes, he custom-made its exhaust system so steam would billow out. He used Cadillac tail pipes and red lights to mimic the Batmobile’s rocket launchers and placed a gadget on the hood that raises and lowers to simulate lasers.

He painted the Batmobile black with inch-wide red pinstripes and Batman logos on its doors. He hand-made a U-shaped steering wheel and put in a speedometer from a 1958 Edsel. The red-trimmed black vinyl bucket seats were made by Fat Cat Upholstery in Topeka.

Johnson said he debuted the Batmobile in June 2013 at a pre-party for the city’s annual Art Tougeau Parade. He was nervous and hoped he wouldn’t be ridiculed.

“It was just the opposite,” he said, describing how people huddled around the car. “So many people thanked me for building it.”

Johnson isn’t done restoring and customizing cars. He has a ‘67 Chevy and ‘65 Buick Riviera waiting in the wings and he plans to build a second Batmobile.

“It’s not like an addiction,” he said. “It’s like a passion.”


Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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