My Mother the Car

My Mother the Car is an American fantasy sitcom which aired for a single season on NBC between September 14th, 1965 and April 5th, 1966.  A total of 30 episodes were produced by United Artists Television.

Critics and adult viewers generally panned the show, often savagely.  My Mother the Car was an original variation on then-popular “gimmick” shows like My Favorite Martian, The Flying Nun, I Dream of Jeannie, and especially Mister Ed, all of which depended on a fantastic, quirky premise for their comedy.  Like these situation comedies of the 1960s, My Mother the Car is remembered fondly by baby boomers who followed the series during its one broadcast season.

Allan Burns, co-creator of My Mother the Car,  went on to create some of the most critically acclaimed shows in television history, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Rhoda.  Television producer James L. Brooks, who later collaborated with Burns on these series, also created Room 222, and got his start in television sitcoms when he was called upon to rewrite a script for an episode of the series.  The other co-creator, Chris Hayward, produced and wrote for Barney Miller during its first several seasons.  Burns and Heyward had better success with Rocky and Bullwinkle, The Munsters, and Get Smart, which debuted the same season.

The show follows the exploits of attorney David Crabtree (played by Jerry Van Dyke), who, while shopping at a used car lot for a station wagon to serve as a second family car, instead purchases a dilapidated 1928 Porter touring car. Crabtree hears the car call his name in a woman’s voice.  The car turns out to be the reincarnation of his deceased mother, Gladys (voiced by Ann Sothern).  She talks (only to Crabtree) through the car’s radio: the dial light flashes in synchronization with “Mother’s” voice.  In an effort to get his family to accept the old, tired car, Crabtree brings it to a custom body shop for a full restoration.  The car is coveted by a fanatical collector named Captain Manzini (Avery Schreiber), but Crabtree purchases and restores the car before Manzini can acquire it.
For the rest of the series, Crabtree is pursued by the avaricious Captain Manzini, who is determined to acquire the valuable automobile by hook or crook.  In a running gag characterizing his shifty nature, Manzini (who resembles a 1920s silent film villain) always distorts Crabtree’s name when speaking to him.  “Now, then, Crabapple…” “That’s Crabtree.” “Whatever.”

Others in the cast included Maggie Pierce as wife Barbara and Cindy Eilbacher (the sister of Lisa Eilbacher) and Randy Whipple as the kids, Cindy and Randy.  Veteran movie and television character actors played supporting roles, including Harold Peary, Byron Foulger, Bob Jellison, Sam Flint, and Willis Bouchey.
In an American variety show special that the brothers Dick Van Dyke and Jerry Van Dyke appeared together on, Jerry noted that his first program, My Mother the Car, did not even complete one season.  Jerry said that his final episode was interrupted by a special news report on the American NASA space program.  Jerry lamented that when the news special was over, his program was not resumed.  It would be many years before the final episode could be seen in its entirety.

The 1928 Porter used in My Mother the Car was not a production car, although real Porter cars existed.  The first was a steam automobile (Boston, Massachusetts, 1900–1901).  The second car was a powerful luxury car (Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1919–1922) made from parts left over from production of Finley R Porter’s FRP.  By the 1960s, no examples of either remained.

For the TV show, assistant prop man Kaye Trapp leased the producers a 1924 Ford T-tub hot rod he recently bought from his friend and its builder, Norm Grabowski.  Both Grabowski and the car had earlier appeared in the B movie comedy Sex Kittens Go to College (1960).
The 1928 Porter touring car sported diamond-tufted naugahyde upholstery, oversized white tonneau cover, plush black carpeting, chrome windshield braces and half-moon hubcaps.  Trapp and studio special effects man Norm Breedlove (father of land-speed-record-setter Craig Breedlove) modified the car to give it an elongated engine compartment, palladian-style brass radiator with “Porter” script, a spare tire mounted on the running board, outboard fuel tank and antique cane-clad trunk.  It was later fitted, as needed, with special effects hardware, such as an oil tank drip to simulate a smoking engine and “tear ducts” in the headlamp bezels.  Off-camera operation of electrics was by umbilical cable.  The signature features gave it an anachronistic look, resembling cars of earlier eras.

The power train was the rod-grade 283 cu in V8 (Chevrolet small-block) engine mated with Powerglide automatic transmission.  The “Porter” was registered (as a modified Ford) in 1964 with the contemporary yellow-on-black California license plates PZR 317 evident throughout the show’s run.  Though it bore a few design similarities with the FRP Porter, which may have suggested the television car’s moniker, it is rumored that the car was named after the show’s production manager, W. A. Porter.

When series production was approved, the Grabowski rod was retained as the “hero” car, and a second — “stunt”, or special effects — car was commissioned and built by celebrated car customizer George Barris, whose Barris Kustom Industries licensed it to AMT for model kit production (an inaccurate rendering) and also toured it after series wrap with other of his creations.  The stunt car, not conventionally driveable, was ingeniously equipped with apparatus to let Mother “drive herself” via a system of levers and mirrors operated by a short human driver concealed on a tractor seat below the removed rear floorboards.  It also had other special mechanical features, such as gimbaled headlamps.

Both cars had the dashboard-mounted radio head with flashing dial light through which Mother “talked” (though only to her son).  These scenes were filmed with a stand-in; actress Ann Sothern’s voice was dubbed to the soundtrack in post-production.  Generally, the hero car was used for driving shots and close-ups, and the stunt car for long shots and special effects sequences.  Either was available as a stand-in in case of mechanical breakdown on set.  Though made to represent one car, they can be distinguished by minor details, and actually appeared together in one episode.
Additionally, a third car was used in filming, representing both the dilapidated car-lot Porter of the pilot and, in another episode, a “1932 Porter”.  This car may not have been complete, and its existence and whereabouts are unknown.