Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The evolution of the art

When Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was first published in 1964 it featured original illustrations by John Burningham. Burningham had been the recipient in 1963 of a Kate Greenaway Medal for his illustrations in his book Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers and he would go on to win many more awards throughout his long career, creating books beloved by generations.

The initial artist in the frame for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was Wally Fawkes, better known as ‘Trog’. Fawkes was the cartoonist for the Daily Mail and his work was far more in the mold of caricature and surrealism, which, whilst suiting the eccentricity of the Potts clan, may not have appealed to all ages. To Ian’s mind, the ideal reading group was children aged seven to ten and while Trog’s iconic ‘Flook’ character had started as children’s comic strip it had by the Sixties already begun to appeal more to parents, with its sardonic, satirical tone.

Getting the image of the car itself right was of utmost importance to Ian Fleming and to this end he himself sent the only copy of the manuscript he had available to his old friend Amherst Villiers. Villiers was an automotive and aeronautical designer and in addition to designing the car that broke the land speed record in 1927, he developed a supercharger that could be successfully fitted to a Bentley – which is exactly what James Bond drove in his earliest prose adventures. Fleming asked Villiers to try his hand at Chitty, with specific instructions as to the technology of the car and its appearance. Making this magical car a tactile vehicle – with gadgets and engineering based in reality rather than fairy land – was crucial to the character of Chitty. This distinction bases the car so beautifully in reality and gives children a relatable place to begin before they and the Potts family get whisked away to France.

Villiers could not commit to providing illustrations for the book, so the mantle then fell to Haro Hodson, a war artist and cartoonist working with the Observer when Chitty landed on his desk. Haro – who died in February 2021 at the age of 97 – shared a mutual friend with Ian Fleming in the form of Noël Coward. His sophisticated, Indian ink drawings still ooze style half a century later and he was able to offer some preliminary designs for the Chitty manuscript.

By the time John Burningham was brought on it was late 1963 and his artwork was what finally brought the magical car to life on the page. Ian Fleming died in May 1964, with the book first published in a staggered release in the UK from October that year until January 1965.

The film adaptation took flight in 1968, with the titular car designed by the legendary production designer Ken Adam, whose work was already synonymous with Fleming due to his James Bond movie sets. A novelisation of the movie was also published but not with illustrations.

In 2002 the stage production of the film used a car prop that has been listed in the Guinness World Records as the most expensive stage prop ever and now reportedly resides in film director Peter Jackson’s collection.

While the original novel was published with designs by different artists over the years, Chitty was reinvented on the page in 2011 in the official book sequel by Frank Cottrell Boyce Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again. The all-new illustrations for what became a trilogy of books were by Joe Berger. Berger’s line is dynamic, full of adventure but with wonderfully detailed technology that Amherst Villiers would no doubt pore over. Berger also illustrated a new edition of the original Fleming classic, offering 21st century colour and action to new readers.

The flying car would be in the garage for only a handful of years before she was reintroduced in 2020 in a beautiful hardback picture-book format, adapted by Peter Bently and illustrated by Steve Antony. Aimed at the younger readership of 3-5 years-old, the story has never been more accessible or more playful. The paperback edition – with its gift-ready foil cover finish – is published this month. The story in the pages is as fresh as ever and whilst the design of the car has evolved and adapted over the years, the character and spirit of Chitty has never altered. As he died before the book was published, what Ian Fleming would have thought of the finished artwork is impossible to guess but it is surely safe to say that he would have been amazed and delighted by the incredible legacy of his story. Much like the various reincarnations of James Bond onscreen, no matter which iteration has been drawn for the page, decades of readers have a version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in their own imaginations.