How Chitty came to be: Jon Gilbert
Jon Gilbert, author of Ian Fleming: The Bibliography and internationally renowned dealer in rare Fleming-related material, explores the provenance of Fleming’s enchanting children’s story, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as we celebrate the book’s publication in a new Collector’s Library edition.
By the 1960s, novelist Ian Fleming had created a literary and cinematic phenomenon in the shape of British Secret Agent James Bond. Occasionally writing that he was tiring of his ‘cardboard hero’, Fleming would soon conjure up another unforgettable gadget-laden champion of literature and the big screen, though sadly he would not live to see the runaway success of his next great invention.
His only book for children, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was the written version of the fantastic bedtime stories he concocted for his son Caspar. It tells the adventures of a magical, flying car restored by Caractacus Pott, a retired Naval Commander and now family-man inventor, who bought the vehicle using proceeds from his ingenious ‘whistling’ sweets which he had sold to the aristocratic owner of a large local confectionery factory. The car, whose original registration was GEN 11, was soon christened ‘Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang’ after the ritual noises produced when her powerful engine burst into life. Fleming’s Chitty seemingly has a mind of her own and reveals her unusual abilities to the spell-bound Pott family, whisking them off on a crime-busting caper across the English Channel.
The author took his inspiration for the motor from a series of aero-engined racing cars built and raced by Count Louis Zborowski in the early 1920s at Higham Park near Canterbury. Zborowski was the son of a racing driver who died in a crash and an American heiress to the Astor family, and at the age of sixteen became spectacularly wealthy upon his mother’s death, inheriting a sizeable portion of Manhattan. He invested in designing, building and racing his own cars, each called Chitty Bang Bang, before he too was involved in a fatal accident, during the 1924 Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Fleming, who had experienced heart trouble from his late thirties, suffered a heart attack in April 1961 and was confined to bed at the London Clinic, subsequently convalescing on the south coast of England and Dieppe in Northern France. Doctors advised his coronary thrombosis was due to heavy smoking and recommended he reduce his cigarette consumption from sixty to twenty per day and cease golf and exercise for one year. Whilst recovering, Fleming committed these Chitty tales to paper, under the working title The Magical Car, informing his friend and publisher Michael Howard of Jonathan Cape – in typically playful style –
‘I can assure you that I will be firing on all cylinders again before long … [and] I am writing a children’s book, so you will see that there is never a moment, even on the edge of the tomb, when I am not slaving for you’
Fleming was known to borrow names from people he knew for his fictional characters and had plundered the roll of fellow students from Eton College when considering names for his James Bond novels (Strangways, Scaramanga, Hilary Bray, etc). A glance at the school list also reveals two pupils called Chitty and Chitty (Major and Minor), sons of Eton schoolmaster the Reverend George Jameson Chitty; these may also have inspired the Chitty-Chitty of the final title.
At the end of April 1961 Fleming advised Howard that his children’s story was nearly finished, and on 27th June he took Caspar to see the latest Walt Disney film ‘The Absent-Minded Professor.’ He was horrified to find it featured a flying motor car, built by a crackpot inventor in his own backyard, which was shown circling a church spire. Fleming, whose own tale included Chitty soaring over the spire of Canterbury Cathedral, was rightly frustrated, commenting to Howard: ‘This really is the limit. Would you ask one of your intelligence spies to have a look at this film and suggest what amendments we ought to make? Personally I think we could get away with cutting out the spire of Canterbury Cathedral, but it really is pretty maddening’. Fearing repercussions, Fleming did make this suggested change to the church-roof section of the story.
Written as three instalments, a proper manuscript was typed up in August 1961, corrected by the author and dispatched to Cape’s offices that October. From this, various typescripts were produced, one of which Fleming sent in May 1962 to his great friend the automotive and aeronautical designer Amherst Villiers. Villiers was famous for his pioneering work in superchargers which were fitted with great success to the ‘Blower’ Bentley race cars of the 1930s and which Fleming had chosen for James Bond to drive in his early adventures.
A covering letter requested Villiers read the enclosed stories with a view to providing illustrations for the motor car. The author’s instructions as to how the car should look were rather specific, but he trusted Villiers to give the car the right appearance mechanically, with vents and pipes and entrails all spilling out, as well as a snazzy dashboard displaying various knobs and buttons. He suggested visually stimulating drawings intended for children aged ‘about seven to ten’, and signed off the letter requesting that Villiers return the stories whatever the outcome, as they were the only copies to hand at that time. Although Villiers produced a few sketches, he could not commit to the project as he was busy developing Grand Prix cars for Graham Hill, but preliminary drawings were provided by artist Haro Hodson before the award-winning children’s author and illustrator John Burningham was commissioned in late 1963.
Fleming had originally suggested his friend Trog as the illustrator, Trog being the pseudonym of Wally Fawkes, cartoonist for the Daily Mail, who had created a spoof James Bond in his ‘Flook’ strip. A further script was typed in July 1962, and copy-editing was carried out in February 1963. The galley proofs were read for errors and the text was set for all three volumes in January 1964, before the bound proofs were issued in August. The first impressions of the three separate adventures of the magical car were printed, bound and delivered to Cape simultaneously, but their publication was staggered to maximise sales over Christmas 1964. Adventure Number 1 was published on 22nd October 1964, followed by Adventure Number 2 on 26th November and Adventure Number 3 on 14th January 1965. The first American printing, published by Random House as a single volume in autumn 1964, is an important edition marking the earliest published appearance of the entire text.
The book was an instant children’s classic, has remained in print ever since and inspired three official sequels by Frank Cottrell Boyce. The story was adapted into a screenplay by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes in 1967, and released as a film by the James Bond producer Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli in 1968 to great critical and commercial acclaim. Dahl, a wartime intelligence colleague of Ian Fleming, was by that date a successful writer of children’s stories himself, and introduced some of the darker elements in the movie such as the evil child-catcher. The story also became the basis of an Olivier and Tony-nominated stage musical, which premiered at the London Palladium in 2002 and at the Lyric Theatre on Broadway in 2005. The show has since toured around the UK and there have been Australian and German national productions.
The creator of Chitty would not experience any of this success, however. After his heart scare in 1961 Fleming had returned to a busy life of journalism, leisure pursuits and globetrotting – over the next two years he would travel to America, Japan, Venice, Zurich, Lake Geneva, Istanbul and Jamaica (three times). Tellingly, he continued to enjoy cigarettes. Over Easter 1964, Fleming was golfing when the heavens opened. Playing through the storm, he caught a severe cold and developed pleurisy from which he never really recovered. Following the death of his mother in July that year, a frail Fleming collapsed just two weeks later at his beloved Royal St George’s Golf Club in Kent. He died in the early hours of August 12th, on the twelfth birthday of his son Caspar, for whom the magical stories were first imagined.
Drawing on their rich heritage, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang is out now in the Collector’s Library series from Pan Macmillan, the original publisher of the paperback book in 1968. Rediscover Fleming’s classic story this summer, with charming illustrations by Joe Berger.