As moviegoers flock to theaters to see the latest James Bond offering, Spectre, it’s timely to remember the Ian Fleming’s other literary contribution. In 1964 his children’s book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was published. The book has a decidedly strong steampunk undertone, though I doubt Mr. Fleming would’ve used that term to describe his story. Many people are familiar with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from the 1968 movie.
That screenplay was written by Roald Dahl who produced other kidlit classics including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. Though the car remained largely unchanged, Dahl took great liberties with the story of an English explorer and inventor and his two children.
In 2012, the original book was re-issued in the United Kingdom, followed by a 2014 re-issue by Candlewick Press in the United States. I recently read the book for the first time and found several inspirational sections that warrant sharing.
Ian Fleming’s dedication referenced an original motorcar, built in 1920 by Count Zborowski on his estate near Caterbury. “She had a pre-1914 war, chain-drive, seventy-five-
horse-power Mercedes chassis, in which was installed a six-cylinder Maybach aero-engine – the military type used by the Germans in the Zeppelins.” He goes on to describe over-head valves operated by exposed push-rods and rockers on each side of the crank case and two Zenith carburettors.
“In 1921, she won the Hundred MPH Short Handicap at Brooklands at 101 miles per hour, and in 1922, again at Brooklands, the Lightning Short Handicap. But in that year, she was involved in an accident* and the Count never raced her again. *This is a polite way of putting it. In fact, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang suddenly went mad with rage about something and, with the Count at the wheel, got out of control and charged through the timing-hut, very fast, backwards!”
Fleming emphasizes the notion of the car’s consciousness and underscores the idea when Commander Pott is explaining the car’s modifications: “…I suspect that this motorcar has thought out, all by herself, certain improvements, certain very extraordinary mechanical devices, just as if she had a mind of her own…”
Later in the book he described the car’s characteristics as seen through the eyes of the children in the story — all in a unique style seldom used in kidlit today: “(Well, of course, Jeremy and Jemima weren’t in the least surprised. They knew CHITTY-CHITTY-BANG-BANG was a magical car. Just look at the way she could fly like an aeroplane and skim across the sea like a speedboat. And anyway, hadn’t they had their suspicions on the very first day, when they had noticed that the registration number GEN II could be read two ways? Do you see what they saw in the letters and numbers?)” Yes, that entire paragraph is written as a parenthetical and also employs the second-person point of view, addressing the reader directly. Fleming uses this technique frequently throughout the book, conveying the feeling of a storyteller sitting alongside the reader offering up this fantastic tale.
In fact, Fleming wrote the story specifically for his young son, Caspar, who was 10 years old at the time. Perhaps an effort to offer him a tamer version of the daring adventures made famous in the Bond stories? In addition to the remarkable car, the book also features explosions, gangsters and “mortal danger.”
My favorite quote from the book: “Never say no to adventures. Always say yes. Otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”