"The Chariot" from Lost In Space
Lost In Space was my favorite show as a kid in 1965 and later years, mainly because our local NBC affiliate blocked Star Trek (1966-1969) for the first 18 months of its three-year run. An overly emotional robot was the biggest star of this show--so when I was eight years old, running around on the playground with my arms flapping, and yelling "Danger! Danger! That does not compute!" like a bubble-headed booby, was considered quite normal at the time.
Back to reality. In investigating the Lost in Space Chariot some 40+ years after the show was cancelled, I came across a couple of unexpected and interesting connections. These include genuine outer space adventures, as well as a business partnership with a celebrated automotive legend.
But first, I'd like to spend a little more time talking about this campy, Saturday Morning-mentality show. The first season of Lost In Space was actually serious, dark, expensive to produce (including the then-most-expensive pilot episode ever made), and shown in black-and-white. Between Dr. Smith trying to murder everybody just to get a trip back to Earth, plus the group dealing with the normal pitfalls of intergalactic space travel, the Robinson family spent as much of their time trying to survive as they did exploring alien worlds.
The second and third seasons were in color and were too badly produced to even be called comedic. One particular episode, "The Great Vegetable Rebellion," may be the worst hour of network television ever presented. Even the cast had trouble keeping a straight face while filming this horribly-conceived adventure--two giggling cast members were cut out of the next two episodes for delaying production. That episode's writers later said that they had "simply run out of ideas" for the show.
"The Chariot" was a real, full-sized, fully operational vehicle, both in real-life and in the 1960s' fictional future. It was used to transport the Robinson family, pilot Don West, the robot, and the conniving Dr. Smith to virtually anywhere on whatever planet they would happen to be crash-landed on that week.
The Chariot was filmed on both the studio soundstage and at remote outdoor locations, which gave the show one of its few points of technical credibility. We never saw how the Robinsons stored the vehicle; I always assumed it folded neatly into the belly of the Jupiter II.
This futuristic "Family Truckster" began life as a Thiokol Snowcat Spryte, powered by a Ford 170-cubic-inch inline-6 with 101 horsepower. It had a 4-speed automatic transmission, plus reverse. I hope there were some alien gas stations along their way, as the stock vehicle got 4-8 miles per gallon and came with a 15-gallon fuel tank. That's a 120-mile range at best.
Weighing in at 3,200 pounds, the Spryte could carry another 1,000 pounds of personnel, cargo, laser guns, and model B-9 robots. The track is a 4-ply rubber-covered nylon belting with tubular steel grousers. I hope the Robinsons had a few spare grousers around when they needed one.
The Chariot's factory running gear was kept intact, but all of the bodywork was designed to look like what a space family of the future would drive in 1997, when the show takes (... uh, took?) place. A bulbous plexiglas enclosure, climate control, a safari rack, extra seats, superfluous blinking lights, spinning antennae, and a roof-mounted glass bubble were fitted, as well as a never-seen platform for the cybernetic robot to perch on. Though the group always fit inside the vehicle, sometimes I thought Dr. Smith would have best been placed under the Chariot. "Oh, the pain... the pain."
In the series, the Chariot was amphibious, just like the Swamp Spryte version of this tracked vehicle, shown at right. It would cruise along at 4½ mph on water, and up to 35 mph on dry land.
However, the Robinsons' craft was probably not built on this platform. On the show, the Hollywood magic of models and water tanks allowed the family to survive a gigantic whirlpool, scorching and freezing temperatures, and a rock-throwing colossal cyclops while en route to various destinations in the Chariot.
So, if you were a producer, what would you do with a vehicle like this after the show was cancelled in 1968? Well, luckily, the Chariot was still useful for ground snow hauling and transportation. The producers sold the Chariot to a Big Bear, CA, ski facility, which stripped the Chariot of its futuristic trappings and returned it to its original purpose.
The Chariot actually did have an association with genuine outer space adventures. The Chariot's manufacturer, Thiokol, later became Morton-Thiokol and in 1974 was granted contract to build the reusable solid rocket boosters (SRBs) for the space shuttles.
That's a pretty exotic space lineage, both real and fictional, for a snow-cat manufacturer, but the story doesn't end there--Thiokol's sci-fi ties morphed into an automotive association and, by extension, another popular science fiction franchise.
In 1978, former General Motors executive John DeLorean (yes, the guy that brought us the Pontiac GTO) purchased the Thiokol Snowcat operation and renamed it DMC (DeLorean Motor Company). He later built the stainless steel, gull-winged DMC-12 sports car in 1981 and 1982, which was famously featured in the Back to the Future movies, though the stock versions never offered a flux capacitor option or Mr. Fusion power. The company continued to make DMC snow cats until 1988, and then the company was renamed LMC (Logan Machine Company), which continued building snow cats until it went out of business in 2000.
The last known owner of the Chariot is Chris Tietz, of San Fernando Valley, Calif. In the mid-1970s, Chris was skiing at Big Bear and noticed a vehicle remarkably similar to the one from Lost In Space--of course, it turned out to be one and the same. When that skiing operation shortly thereafter went out of business, he bought the retired TV icon for restoration. But that's where the trail runs cold. I'd love to know where the vehicle is today.
The Chariot provided a realistic prop on an otherwise unrealistic show. It has been said that Star Trek was science fiction, while Lost In Space was science fantasy. Too bad the more serious stories in the first season of LIS had not been continued into the rest of the series. We geeks might have built as many Jupiter II models as we did NCC-1701 replicas.
In the "For What It's Worth" department, a young "Johnny" Williams provided the music for Lost In Space, including the action music for the Chariot. He went on to write movie themes for JAWS, Star Wars, Superman, ET, the Raiders Of The Lost Ark series, and many other mega TV and movie hits.
Oh, and here's some unaired, rare color footage of the Chariot!
--That Car Guy (Chuck)
The first Chariot image (reversed) is from cloudster.com. The second is from iann.net. The Thiokol Snowcat Spryte photo is from chameleonic.com. Thiokol's amphibious Swamp Spryte image is from Wikipedia. The shuttle image is from learning-to-fly.com. The DMC-12 image is from modernracer.com. Yours truly accepts the blame for the last picture. Special thanks to Marta Kristen and Mark Goddard for taking the time to talk with me and let me take their picture in 1978.