ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Holy hot rod, Batman! Gotham’s gorgeous gas-guzzler is all about giving.
Mike Esch of Albuquerque owns a screen-quality replica of the Batmobile from the 1960s TV series, and it’s his goal to use it to light up lives like the Bat-signal lights up Gotham’s skyline.
“Every time I drive the car in town, it always brings smiles – no matter what’s going on,” Esch says, then recounts a time when he drove by the scene of a fender-bender where a woman was crying into her cellphone but looked up and started smiling and waving as he drove by.
In addition to local appearances and charity events, Esch uses the Batmobile to give rides through the Make-A-Wish foundation, pick up soldiers from the airport upon returning from combat, and to hand out donated presents at Christmastime to kids at Joy Junction and other facilities.
In 2013 Esch and a few friends with other famous cars embarked on a West Coast tour to California and Oregon to raise funds and grant wishes to three teens with terminal cancer. Donations funded the trip, and Oregon police were very accommodating, allowing Esch to speed for the kids who desired to go fast.
One of the teens, 17-year-old Natalie Hill, played her favorite music on the Batmobile’s stereo as they sped down the Oregon coast. “She stood up and did the Titanic thing, and sort of crying she said ‘I wanted to feel the wind in my hair one last time.’ Things like that happen to me all the time, and it humbles you.”
Sadly, Hill passed away not long after her ride. Friends and family stumbled upon a photo in her phone showing her in the Batmobile, tagged with a note saying how much it meant to her. The family printed it and sent it to Esch, who has it framed on a wall in his Batcave.
‘Go have fun’
Back in 2001, Esch was looking to buy a hearse to display at his annual haunted house when he got word of a Batmobile going up for sale in the Pacific Northwest. He says he prepared a 30-minute speech with numerous bullet points to convince his wife to let him buy it, but only got 45 seconds into the speech before she blurted out “yes.”
Esch says, “She looked at me and said, ‘Honey, you work really hard; you don’t drink; you don’t go to bars; you don’t go golfing; you don’t do a lot. Just go have fun.'”
The Batmobile took two years to complete, so it wasn’t until 2003 that Esch brought it home to Albuquerque. The fiberglass and steel body was created from a mold taken from the original number three studio touring car, Esch says, and needed a chassis on which to ride. A 1970s Lincoln Continental fit the Bat-body perfectly, and the build was under way.
Once home, the car was still short of complete, needing paint and gadgetry details. Esch says the dashboard gadgets changed weekly on TV to suit the episode’s plot needs, and installed those most frequently seen in his own car.
The bat emblems on the door were added by legendary pinstriper Bobbo, who worked on the original car for the TV show, and was residing in New Mexico when Esch returned. The latest seat upholstery job was done by the man who did the originals for the show, and now also resides in Albuquerque.
Esch says the car originally cost him about as much as a modest modern sedan, but its value is now comparable to a nice house. “It’s been a positive investment. The (Batmobiles) have steadily gone up in value over the years.”
Complications from a traumatic brain injury required Esch to quit his job as an engineer and go on disability. The limited income restricts how much charity work he can do. He says the vintage 460 cubic-inch motor requires premium gas and “gets six miles-per-gallon on a good day,” and the custom replacement parts often cost “an atrocious amount of money.”
Fortunately, Esch’s reputation for charity work provides the car assistance when it’s most needed. “The minute the car breaks down the neighborhood comes to its aid,” he says. “Every time we run into a problem there’s a donation out of the blue … Albuquerque has shown its best to me. I’ve been very lucky.”
Esch says that contrary to popular belief, the car is not a moneymaker. He says people considering owning a famous car should get into it solely for the fun, because what little money you make from it goes right back into the cost of ownership. “As long as you’re not thinking about money, you’ll be compensated beyond belief.”
Even celebrities get star-struck by the Batmobile, Esch says. Peter Mayhew, known for his role as Chewbacca in the “Star Wars” films, asked to sit in the car at a convention, and then talked about what Batman meant to him for a long while before Esch thought to himself, “Holy crap! I’ve been talking Batman with Chewbacca!”
Other celebs have asked to have their photo taken in the car so their kids would think they’re cool, and a few literally jumped over their convention table and ran to the car after receiving permission to sit in it, Esch says. He was also invited to meet comedian Jeff Dunham on tour in Albuquerque, who also owns a Batmobile. Word gets around and Esch often receives phone calls from agents representing a wide variety of touring musicians and actors who arrange to stop by Esch’s house to see the car.
Esch currently attends charity functions with friends who own replicas of the “Breaking Bad” RV and Transformers’ Bumblebee, while two other friends are building Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine and “The A-Team” van to join in the fun.
With a playful smile and youthful glint in his eye, 51-year-old Esch says, “It always keeps you playing; it always keeps you having fun.”