Holy nostalgia, Batman! An original Batmobile resides in Oconomowoc
"Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed. Roger. Ready to move out."
Pop culture fans of the 1966 television series "Batman" know what happens next. Flames shoot from the rear exhaust of the iconic crime fighting vehicle The Batmobile, and the Dynamic Duo begins their 14-mile journey into Gotham City.
While the campy but delightful TV show approaches a half a century since its network debut, the Batmobile remains an "it" automobile, standing the test of time in coolness and recognizable design.
Baby Boomers, Bat-Fans and beyond dream of cruising around town in noticeable style if ever given the keys to take Batman's ride for a spin. For Oconomowoc native Craig Schiefelbein, that dream is a reality, tucked away in his personal Batcave in Lake Country.
"It's certainly not a practical purchase," said Schiefelbein, who won't divulge the price tag of his limited edition vehicle, stating simply "It's priceless; it's the Batmobile!"
"There was a moment when my wife looked at me and said, 'You're really doing this,'" he recalled. "I have never regretted it. The look on people's faces, everybody is a kid when they see it. The adults remember the show and loved it. And really, the Batmobile was the star in that show."
A quick history lesson. When producers of the ABC concept requested the services of legendary car customizer George Barris, he built the original Batmobile in 13 days, using the concept and shell of a 1958 Ford Futura. Barris made three more for stunts, touring, even drag racing, then allowed two trusted outsiders to come in and create ten more using the originals molds from the Barris blueprint.
Schiefelbein is the owner of a Batmobile from that original second set.
"This is one of the first 14 in the world, and it was built from the mold of the original one," Schiefelbein said proudly.
Mind you, Batmobiles just don't turn up on some used car lot, so it was through connections, backchannels and a stroke of luck that Schiefelbein was able to grab a piece of unique nostalgia. In 2009, the previous owner – a car collector in Houston – began to purge his garage full of classic cars.
"I had a friend's wife, who worked with his wife, who told me this was going to happen, and he was getting calls from all over," Schiefelbein explained. "He had this one and a 1988 Batmobile from the Michael Keaton (Batman) film. The Branson Auto Museum took the other one, and I got this one!"
Schiefelbein recalls the goosebumps moment when his purchase arrived. It was shipped from Texas aboard an enclosed high-end car transporter. The Batmobile was nestled in among precious car cargo, one of a kind collectables worth millions.
"They unload all of these priceless cars in the parking lot, and people see the back end of the Batmobile ... people in cars just stop," Schiefelbein laughed. "There is this huge gathering, and no one even looked at the other cars, just the Batmobile."
It didn't take long for citizens in Wisconsin to notice their streets seemed safer, heads turning at every stoplight in Oconomowoc.
"I had this thing for 48 hours, drove it to The Kiltie, brought it home and everybody had pictures out there saying they saw it … it just went viral in a hurry," Schiefelbein said.
But after over four decades of crime fighting wear and tear, the Batmobile was due for some major maintenance.
"It needed some work, because it's an old car," said Schiefelbein. "I do have an 'Alfred,' and he's put a brand new motor in it because there is no ventilation in that nose. He installed a custom radiator because the old motor would just overheat.
"This car, like all of them, is a hodgepodge of parts. It's part Lincoln, part Chevy, part Ford and a lot of custom parts. The speedometer is actually from a '58 Edsel. Barris just kind of pulled it all together, and it's identical to the original."
Schiefelbein has done his best to keep his cherished car immaculate. Not a detail spared, this Batmobile is tricked out with the same contraptions as the one roaming the streets of Gotham City. The flame thrower is operable. Parachutes are packed tightly on the rear bumper in case a Bat Turn is in order. And every gizmo has a campy Bat Label attached to help sort out the high tech gadgets.
Schiefelbein gave the green light to a rebuild in 2014 that included a new paint job and new motor; he even had the Batphone brought into the future with Bluetooth capability. This semi-retired businessman, author and Oconomowoc resident since he was six years old has a toy that he wants the world to enjoy. To that end, Schiefelbein doesn't cover and cloak this car and hide it away, forbidden from being touched or driven.
"I've never been that guy … if I have something nice, I use it," Schiefelbein said. "I love to make people smile, and you can't have a bad time riding in the Batmobile because everybody is happy when they see it.
"They beep, wave, take pictures and go 'OH MY GOD!' I'll have people follow me, for long distances, waiting for me to stop eventually so they can come and get a picture taken. It's really a cool thing!"
The Batmobile is a beast on the road, measuring 19 feet from wing to wing. Schiefelbein can spin stories galore of his experiences at the wheel. At times, minor issues arise from all the commotion the Batmobile generates.
"On a couple of occasions, I've had the car in front of me look in the rearview mirror and slam on the brakes, jump out and say, 'I've got to get a picture with you!'" Schiefelbein said. "Then there's a traffic jam, in the middle of the road.
"It's a smile maker, and everybody can use a smile. Days are better because people will call other people and say, 'You know what I just saw?'"
That's the payoff for Schiefelbein. He calls himself the caretaker of the Batmobile, someone who manages the Batcave and only borrows the vehicle when it's not in use by the Caped Crusader. He knew right away that this was a gift meant to be shared amongst the fandom.
"There's a little Batman in everybody, so I started doing some parades and charity work where we auction it off to spend two hours in the Batmobile," Schiefelbein said. "It got to be so much that I could do it full time because the demand is huge. It's a lot of work, and it's a fair weather deal because you can only drive it around in the summertime.
"I didn't get it to hide it. I didn't get it for me. It's for everybody else."
There is a special audience where Schiefelbein turns the keys back over to Batman himself. The man behind the cape and cowl and crime fighting gear, someone very close to Schiefelbein, will accompany the Batmobile when kids with special needs are in line for a day brightener.
"If there's a sick child, or a special needs child or maybe a child from a broken home, I'll chose to seek those kids out and make a surprise visit," Schiefelbein said. "I love to have them in the car while crowds surround them to take pictures with them in the car.
"You see people light up, you're touching them, moving them in an extraordinary way. What can you compare it to?"
Schiefelbein arranged appearances for Batman and the Batmobile for over 100 special needs kids last year alone. Sometimes, school visits will pay eye-opening dividends to talk about bullying with kids on the playground. As the caretaker, Schiefelbein is cognizant that no matter the size of the group, each child gets the chance come up one at a time, get their picture taken and let Batman himself whisper to them, "You're my superhero."
"I got a call from Appleton and a woman who told me about a 56-year-old man with Down's Syndrome who knows his days are numbered," Schiefelbein recalled. "He's been a Batman fan since he was a child and wanted to come and see it. I said, 'See it? Have him come on down, he can ride in it!'
"He wanted to push the buttons and see things happen … he was crying saying, 'I like it, I like it.' It was the best day of his life."
The eyes get misty when Schiefelbein recalls these tug on the heart tales. This is the emotional attachment to the joy he brings simply by having the Batmobile roll up to give those less fortunate a jolt, a thrill and a moment to remember.
"I've always joked that I'm Batman … my wedding ring was a Batman ring, and I've always had fun with it," Schiefelbein said. "The thing that is great about Batman is that he doesn't have any super powers; he's just like everybody else but has made a choice to make the world a better place. Who can't identify with that?"
And even though this vehicle hails from the 1960s, it has staying power and jaw-dropping cache even today. Kids and young adults may equate the cinema version of Batman's ride the baddest to date, but they recognize retro, classic and cool too.
"People say to me, 'This is the original Batmobile; do kids get this these days?" Schiefelbein said. "Well, kids will have looks of half surprise, half smile. That's the deal; they just go crazy. And adults too because it brings them back to being a child."
Schiefelbein says bringing back memories and creating new ones will go on for as long as he is able to generate those kind of responses. But he will pick and choose his spots for allowing his Batmobile to make those grand entrances and appearances.
"The thing I'm really cognizant of now is that I don't want it to be out all the time," Schiefelbein said. "This is not a general purpose vehicle where I'm out on a weekly basis cruising around to get that fix. That's not what this is all about, and I don't want it to be cliché.
"It's got to be a surprise when it shows up. People may be bummed one year it's not in their parade, but then the next year, YES! But if there is the right situation to impact the lives of people, then yeah, I'm there."
Since nicer weather has sprung up in Wisconsin, the Batmobile will be making the rounds once again, sparking childhood flashbacks and bringing a jolt of joy to those who need it most. The owner of this particular Batmobile has never met the creator himself, George Barris. Schiefelbein's wish is to do so someday just to share one simple message.
"I just know how many smiles and laughs and pictures I've gotten over the years, and I'd just like to tell him that his impact in prompting smiles is going to go one way beyond his years," Schiefelbein said. "I'm an epic fan of his … he's the guy!"
At the moment, the guy with one of the original Batmobiles is this simple guy living in Lake Country. He's not a car hoarder or collector; this is it. And every single day, when Craig Schiefelbein catches a glimpse of his smile maker parked at his very own Wayne Manor estate, he smiles himself.
"It still surprises me sometimes that I have it. I go to open the door and go, 'Wow! That's the sh*t!'"
I know Craig and he's a very nice, generous guy. Keep up the good work and I'll start working on my Robin outfit today!
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