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The "Strakermobile" from UFO

In my recent post on Cars Of The Future, circa 1970, I alluded to (and linked to a photo of) the car that appeared prominently in the British TV series UFO--and a couple of the commenters also mentioned it. The UFO car is an interesting story in itself, and it seems like a natural follow-up to my piece on cars that looked like UFOs.

For those of you who aren't old enough to have been there, UFO was a 26-episode series made in 1970, the first live-action TV series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who'd previously given the world the fanciful "Supermarionation" puppet shows Supercar, Fireball XL-5, and Thunderbirds. Set in the distant future year of 1980, UFO was the story of a top secret international agency with the wonderfully British name "Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation"--SHADO, for short--and its struggle to protect us from hostile aliens. SHADO had two missions: keep the aliens off the Earth, and, to prevent mass panic and social disorder, keep the people of Earth from finding out about the aliens.

Here's the title sequence, which should give you a feel for what it was like. The car appears at 0:09 or so.

Intended for grownups, UFO was much darker in tone than the Andersons' kid-friendly puppet shows. The basic premise was rather bleak--the aliens were out to enslave humanity for use as involuntary organ donors, and SHADO really couldn't defeat them, only hold them off. The episodes tended to have downer endings and the main characters were generally unhappy people, discouraged by the futility of their job and haunted by their personal demons--none worse so than SHADO's head man, Commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop).

That description makes it sound better than it really was. UFO seemed very impressive if you were a ten-year old SF nerd starved for something more than Star Trek and Lost In Space reruns you had memorized because you'd already seen them twenty times each. If you take off the rose-colored glasses, UFO still has its moments, some of them good, others more on the order of "so bad it's good."

UFO is science fiction, in the sense that much of the "science" in the show is pretty fictional. The aliens come to Earth in giant, spinning, silver gumdrops and wear dorky red spacesuits--not exactly the stuff of nightmares. The 2001-ish spaceships and space scenes in general are well-executed, but the very plausible and realistic Moonbase is implausibly crewed by eye-candy moon-babes with purple hair. A submarine that launches a fighter plane from underwater is a cool concept, but in practice it looks like a cheap special effect. The character-development subplots are often more melodramatic than dramatic, and the actors play everything so grim and serious that the only one who seems to be having any fun is SID the talking radar satellite. Oh, and for an organization whose very existence is supposed to be a closely-guarded secret, SHADO has a very curious practice of painting its name in large letters on all its equipment.

StrakerInCarWell, this is "Car Lust," so we should talk about the cars. The car most prominently featured in UFO is the brown coupe which Commander Straker uses as his daily driver. That's the one you see in the video, and in the picture at right. It was identified in contemporary PR materials as being turbine powered, and a tubine sound effect was dubbed in for the engine noise. As portrayed in the series, it also has power-operated gullwing doors and a built-in mobile phone.

There is a second car also seen in the show that uses the same body shell, but has a different grille and headlight arrangement. It's painted a girlish pastel lilac (!) and driven by different characters in different episodes, most commonly by Straker's assistant Colonel Paul Foster (Michael Billingham).

Fans sometimes call the brown one "UFO-1," but if you bought the Dinky Toys version, the box just called it "Ed Straker's Car."  The cars are never identified in the show as being any particular make or model. Given the identical body shells, they would appear to be badge-engineered corporate siblings built on a common platform. Maybe Straker's car was an Austin and Foster's was its Rover counterpart, or vice versa, or maybe they're both the same make and model, but from different model years.

FostersCarWanda The cars were built in 1968 as props for the Anderson-produced feature film Doppelgänger, which is better known under its alternate title, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun. Three futuristic cars were built by putting a custom aluminum body on the running gear of a Ford Zodiac. They had a full interior, including an elaborate instrument panel made mostly from Rover components.

The bodywork was designed by Derek Meddings, the visual effects director on Doppelgänger, and constructed with the help of some German automotive stylists and race driver Alan Mann. The styling was more curvy than the usual Car Of The Future look, but still quite futuristic. After the filming of Doppelgänger finished, two of the three cars were repainted for use in UFO.

Those who worked on the production say that the cars were hard to drive. They were built as props, not as transportation, and the interior had been designed to look pretty on camera without regard for functionality. The pedals were so far from the non-adjuatable driver's seat that only a very tall person could reach them. The doors were unpowered, and not even counterbalanced, making them hard to open. To give the illusion of powered doors, a prop man would stand to the side, just out of view, and open them manually, and then the sound effects people would dub in an appropriate mechanical noise to complete the effect.

These weren't the only automobiles seen in the series. Two blue six-wheeled miniature minivans, called "SHADO Jeeps," had recurring roles. Here we see them next to Straker's coupe in the SHADO employee parking lot:

Employees only. Unauthorized vehicles will be disintergrated at owner's expense. Other vehicles used in the series to "fill out" scenes in streets and parking lots were "present day" (that is, 1969-70) cars; ordinary vehicles that might plausibly still be on the road ten years later, or sports cars that could pass for something from the future if you only saw them briefly or in the background. In one episode, a woman abducted by the aliens and turned into a sleeper agent drove a Porsche 914; in another, Commander Straker's 10-year old son was run over by a speeding Ferrari 275GTB. Note also the "raygun gothic" '63 Corvette barely visible behind the left-hand truck in the photo above.

After production finished on UFO, the gullwing cars passed through several different owners, and have been variously restored, neglected, and fixed up again several times. One owner even went so far as to make the "Fostermobile" street legal and use it as his daily driver! As best I can tell, both are still intact, but presently in need of restoration, and neither is on public display.

They almost became production vehicles, though. A startup venture called "Explorer Motor Company" was formed to sell a fiberglass reproduction of the "Strakermobile" called the "Quest." The project got to the point of making fiberglass molds from one of the UFO originals, but then Explorer ran out of money. No Quest was ever built, not even a prototype. A pity, that.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner

All the pictures used came from the very comprehensive UFO Series Home Page created by Marc Martin.

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Derek Meddings was also known for his work in the James Bond films. Among other special effects, he built the supertanker in "The Spy Who Loved Me," got a space shuttle into orbit two years before NASA did in "Moonraker," and after his passing in 1995, "Goldeneye" was dedicated "To the memory of Derek Meddings."

Those SHADO Jeeps look to me to rather foreshado (heh) the modern minivan.

I really liked that program, and I, too, was around 10 at the time. My brother "had" the underwater thingie while I "had" the moonbase ships which I thought were way cooler. I only remember one episode, where a human and an alien were both crash-landed on the Moon and they kind of developed an alliance/friendship to make it back to a base, helping each other out along the way. Of course, being a downer show, once they made it back to the moon base the humans at the base killed the alien while the human was trying desperately to tell them not to. Always stuck with me, that. Not original, by any means, but very provocative.

Although frankly I see nothing at all unusual about a moonbase staffed largely by purple-haired female hotties. But then, that's just me.

Wow! I can hardly wait until 1980!

Seriously, the fishnet uniform shirts are a bit weird.

This is really great. I was just thinking about this show the other day. The line about "a ten-year old SF nerd starved for something more than Star Trek and Lost In Space reruns" is spot on. I was a little Sci-Fi freak of about the same age and vividly remember watching this show. It seemed so futuristic at the time.

Perfect timing: I saw the second ep in the series last week. Someone else was driving Straker's car; apparently this was the preferred vehicle for SHADO. (You can have it in any color, as long as it's brown.) The car was attacked by a UFO, which had managed to cross the great interstellar void with pin-point precision but couldn't hit a car going 30 MPH down a two-lane road. The car ran into a gas station, which of course exploded, and the car blew up real good, too.

I assume it was a model, but it was a pretty good effect for a show that reused more footage than the Star Trek Animated Series.

How about the Moon Vehicles of 2001 next? Ed Bishop, who played Straker, played the pilot on the one that took them to the monolith.

"... but the very plausible and realistic Moonbase is implausibly crewed by eye-candy moon-babes with purple hair."

Dude, you have that so wrong. Circa 1980, I knew several girls with purple hair.

This show was on where I lived in 1972, when I was, indeed, a ten-year-old SF nerd. I didn't remember the car being that ultra-streamlined and futuristic. In my memory it looked something like the Matchbox toy I had of some European car--maybe a Pinanferina--that was also gold colored.

One thing I caught onto while watching the series was that it looked like they were using the same shot of the jet interceptor being launched from the water every time. I also thought they were repeatedly using one shot the car driving over a hill, though I'd have to see it again to be sure.

I also wondered how the interceptor got re-attached to the submarine. I don't think they showed that.

Gabrielle Drake (sister of Nick Drake) with her purple wig was my teenage fantasy. Great show - the opening credits are almost an Austin Powers trailer.

While we're talking Gerry Anderson, how about the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle? Now that was some weirdness on wheels.

Makes you miss the Bricklin.

"the wonderfully British name "Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation"--SHADO, for short"

Never heard of the very much for real Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers in Europe--SHAPE, for short--eh?

"The basic premise was rather bleak--the aliens were out to enslave humanity [...], and SHADO really couldn't defeat them, only hold them off."

Yes, the show started out bleak--as an allegory of (take your pick) WWII Britain after the German blitzkrieg victory over France in 1940 or the early years of the Cold War during which a shattered Western Europe and a demobilized USA had to hastily reconstitute a defensive line in Central Europe, stem Soviet subversion in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and build an intelligence apparatus in Eastern Europe, of course it would be bleak. Those were bleak days, maybe you're too young to remember.

Interestingly, in the background material for a later Gerry Anderson show, Space 1999, that was set in the same story milieu, the alien activity against Earth suddenly ceases. They were not defeated by SHADO forces, they just go away of their own accord--a premonition of the collapse of the Soviet Union, perhaps?

I'm still waiting for the polyester jumpsuits and silver mini-dresses to make a comeback...

Heh, I remember that show and still enjoy it when I see re-runs. Some of the episodes were cut into a single film which went out on VHS (I know, I rented it years ago) and there were at least two novelizations, using more than one script each, published (again, my personal library has copies of each). The show was decent science fantasy and had some good props and such (and some very attractive female actresses), but I can't say much for the science (hence the 'science fantasy' term) though, to be fair, some of the pulp work of the 1930s wasn't as good. The only other thing UFO might be remembered for is that "SPACE:1999" was supposed to be a sequel. I'll leave it to the individual as to whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

I know you understand the vehicles on this site, but for authenticity wouldn't it be good to get actors names correct also?
A quick search on any UFO TV Series site or IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) would give you Col. Paul Foster's name. as Michael Billington not MIchaerl Billingham.
Great articles but please do better research on the minor details.
And YES I am old enough to remember the series as well as a few others from the 60's

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