The Wondrous Wacky World of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

It floats, it flies, and it carries adventure wherever it goes! Chitty was a marvelous, wondrous car that took Caractacus Potts and his children on exciting adventures. That is until they reached the town of Vulgaria, where kids aren’t allowed, and little wandering creatures are kidnapped and caged.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang / Dick Van Dyke / Sally Anne Howe, Adrian Hall, Heather Ripley / Heather Ripley.

This endearing musical from the 1960s is one of the more nostalgic, feel-good movies of all time. It’s been over five decades since it first graced our screens. Let’s dive deep into wild facts you may not know about this cultural touchstone.

Who Wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

In the spring of 1961, Ian Fleming had a heart attack. He was only 53. A heavy smoker and drinker, Ian, in a way, “saw it coming.” He was ordered to convalesce. Around this time, his son Caspar, who was scared his dad might die, complained, “Daddy, you love James Bond more than you love me!”

A promotional portrait of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Ian couldn’t remain indifferent to his son’s remark, so he decided to show his love for Caspar, his only child, whom he nicknamed “003-and-a-half” by coming up with a series of children’s stories he originally named The Magical Car.

The Magical Car Was About…

Ian wrote tales about a flying car built by an inventor and retired naval commander named Caractacus Potts. The story’s title was later changed to the name we now know and love: Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang. It was based on the real vehicles Chitty-Bang-Bang 1, 2, 3, and 4 that were built in the 1920s by Louis Zborowski.

A photo of Louis Zborowski at the wheel of Chitty Bang Bang I.
Photo by National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Ian suffered another heart attack a few years after his first one, in the summer of 1964. He was taking part in a long, fancy lunch at the Golf Club in Kent. This time, he didn’t survive. He died the following day, on Caspar’s 12th birthday.

He Never Saw the Printed Versions of His Stories

Tragically, Ian Fleming didn’t live long enough to see the printed versions of his children’s books, which came out in October of that very same year. Fleming’s death affected little Caspar deeply. His mother Ann complained once that “Caspar hates me and talks of little but matricide.”

A dated portrait of Ian Fleming.
Photo by Bradley Smith/CORBIS/Getty Images

On the 2nd of October 1975, at just 23 years old, Caspar Fleming took his own life by overdosing on barbiturates at his mother’s home in Chelsea. An eerie note was found in his pajama pants. It read: “If it is not this time, it will be the next.”

Roald Dahl’s Script Was Rejected

Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming knew each other for quite a while as they were both part of the same social circles during the Second World War. Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s producer, decided it would be a good idea to hire Dahl to write the movie’s screenplay.

A still of Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Roald Dahl’s daughter Lucy shared that her dad was candid about the fact that he agreed to it for the money. She later stated that he in fact hated the experience. In the late ’70s, Dahl sat down with The New York Times and told them that “they took my script and never used a word,” and that “directors are the writer’s curse.”

Roald Dahl Took the Money and Ran

In an interview with The Twilight Zone Magazine, Dahl was asked about the many changes done to his script. “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was ghastly,” he said. “Once you get a rotten director or an egocentric director, you’re dead. But they pay a lot, so you take the money and run.”

A portrait of Roald Dahl.
Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images

According to director Ken Hughes, Cubby thought Dahl’s script was “a piece of s**t,” and he didn’t shy away from saying that to his face. He asked Dahl to rewrite the whole thing. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he didn’t invite Dahl to the film’s premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London, which meant that Dahl missed out on the opportunity to meet the Queen!

Royalty Shmoyalty, Who Cares?

“I don’t give a damn whether we met the Royal Family or not,” Roald Dahl told his agent Swifty Lazar, saying that all he really cared about was Broccoli’s behavior and the way he had treated him. In Dahl’s letter to Lazar, he defended his worthwhile script.

A picture of Roald Dahl.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dahl said that the whole business of making the film had made him “very cross,” especially because, despite all of Broccoli’s complaints, he left a lot of Dahl’s creations in the film, like Vulgaria, and the character of the weird, long-nosed Child Catcher, who was completely his idea, as he didn’t appear in Fleming’s stories.

Phil Collins Appeared in the Movie as an Extra

Before making a name for himself with the band Genesis as a drummer and singer, Phil Collins was just an up-and-coming child actor. He landed the part of Artful Dodger in Oliver, as well as landing a role as an extra in The Beatles’ iconic movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Phil Collins performs on stage.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

At 16 years old, he was hired to be an extra in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as one of the Vulgarian kids who raid the castle at the end of the movie. Ultimately, his scene was taken out of the final cut because Broccoli didn’t like how the bandage near his eye looked.

Collins Was Upset by the Cut

“I can see why I wasn’t in the final cut,” Phil Collins later mentioned. “I was in the last scene with all these kids, but I had this pristine white bandage around my head because I had this big cyst on the side.” The future Genesis bandmember was terribly upset by the edit.

A promo shot of the film.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Unsurprisingly, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s daughter, Barbara, who was just seven years old at the time of filming, was also cast as an extra in the film. She appeared in the same fairground scene and, obviously, her scene wasn’t cut.

What Kind of Car Was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?

For the movie, six cars were created, including one that was powered by a 3.0-liter Ford 6-cylinder engine.

Several of the scenes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang were filmed in England’s most mesmerizing countryside. Since the movie’s release, these sites have become hot tourist destinations for fans of the film, such as the Cobstone windmill on the hill.

A movie still of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the sea.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

However, the troublesome weather in England during filming in the summer of 1967 had the filmmakers think twice about their locations. They decided to shoot several scenes on the Cote D’Azur. “If you look carefully, you’ll notice that in some places we are driving through vineyards and it doesn’t look much like the English countryside,” Dick Van Dyke admitted.

The Genius Behind the Music

Robert M. Sherman lived a crazy life. He earned a Purple Heart in the Second World War, was shot in the knee at the age of 19 and had to use a walking cane for the rest of his life. While recuperating in Taunton, Somerset, Sherman grew interested in the local culture of Morris dancing.

A still from the film.
Source: YouTube

When he returned to the State in the 1940s, his father, a songwriter who had written songs for icons like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, challenged him and his brother Richard to write some songs themselves. One thing led to another, and Robert and Richard became two of Hollywood’s most memorable composers.

Dick Van Dyke Wasn’t Very Light on His Feet

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was Sherman’s first project outside of the Disney empire. He created showstopping hits for the films, including Truly Scrumptious, Hushabye Mountain, and Toot Sweets. Of all the songs they had to dance to, Dick Van Dyke said that Me Ol’ Bamboo was the hardest one to perform.

A still of Dick Van Dyke dancing.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

The Morris dancing-based song centered around Sherman’s fond memories of England, when he walked around with a bamboo walking stick. “The bamboo sticks had metal poles inside and we had to jump over them and dance with them,” Dick Van Dyke revealed in a TV documentary about the movie. “Most of the dancers were 15 years younger than me and it took us 23 takes to get it right. In the last take, I only just make it. This was the hardest dance number I ever did.”

The Eccentric Inventor Was Real

The quirky fictional character, Caractacus Potts, was inspired by Rowland Emett, who worked on the technical aspects of the movie. Emett was a cartoonist who drew stuff for Punch magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. But he rose to stardom in 1951, when he crafted a real-life version of “Far Tottering & Oyster Creek Railway.”

A portrait of Van Dyke in the character of Caractacus Potts.
Photo by PA Images/Getty Images

More than two million people in Battersea Park rode the miniature railway that year! For Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he crafted a series of different machines, including Humbug Major Sweet Machine, the Little Dragon Carpet Sweeper, the Hot Air Rocking Chair, and Clockwork Lullaby.

The Most Memorable Invention of All…

“I had built a large number of rather pathetic inventions in the past,” Emett stated, “and I believe the filmmakers could see some affinity between the character of Caractacus and myself.” To celebrate the movie’s 50th anniversary, Emett’s machines from the film were put on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.

A photo of Emett’s inventions on display at the National Motor Museum.
Photo by Erin Combs/Toronto Star/Getty Images

The most memorable invention in the film is − hands down – The Breakfast Maker, a device that carries eggs and then cracks them open onto a pan for cooking. “That was my favorite device,” Van Dyke admitted, “but the Breakfast Maker gave us the most trouble. It’s marvelous, but it sometimes dumped plates on the floor and sometimes it would throw an egg across the room. We would go away while the special effects men fixed it…”

The Dad Was Younger Than the Son

Lionel Jeffries, who played Grandpa Potts, noted that “Dick Van Dyke was older than me and I was playing his dad.” Dick Van Dyke was born on the 13th of December 1925, six months before Jeffries was born in London in June 1926.

A still of Lionel Jeffries on a flying house in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Source: YouTube

Lionel went bald early in his life and blamed it on his time serving in Burma during the Second World War. He believed his hair fell out because he was sweating profusely in the jungle heat. “I was the only bald student at Rada. Of course, I was upset,” he pointed out.

They Remained Good Friends

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang also featured Benny Hill as a toy creator, as well as Barbara Windsor who starred in a minor role. Van Dyke, however, most enjoyed the companionship of his co-star, Lionel Jeffries. Van Dyke was quoted as saying that he was one funny guy.

A picture of Barbara Windsor.
Photo by Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

“Lionel is one of the funniest men I ever met, and we became close friends. But he was younger than me when he played my father and I never let him forget it,” he admitted. Together, father and son had a blast on set.

He Took His Own Teeth Out

The creepy voice that uttered, “I smell children…” made the sinister character of the Child Catcher one of the most famous baddies in the history of cinema. Over the years, the character has been played by several actors in various plays, including actors Paul O’Grady, Lionel Blair, Wayne Sleep, and Alvin Stardust.

Lionel Jeffries and Van Dyke in a still from the film.
Source: YouTube

However, the ultimate Child Catcher is none other than Robert Helpmann, the Australian who stole the show in the 1968 movie. Robert even took out his false teeth to appear scarier. His gaunt and frightening look sure got to us!

The Child Catcher Danced Ballet

Robert Helpmann was actually a renowned ballet star, part of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company who once danced with Anna Pavlova and Margot Fonteyn. In one of the film’s scenes, he races his horse-driven wagon over rough cobblestones. Tragically, he lost control and the wagon crashed. However, Helpmann was left unscathed.

Robert Helpmann as The Child Catcher.
Source: YouTube

“We could see he was a dancer by the way he moved with little steps,” Dick Van Dyke revealed. “But when the wagon tipped over, he jumped off like a ballet dancer. I have never seen anything as graceful in my whole life.”

James Bond for Kids

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was like a James Bond for kids. Apart from being based on Fleming’s book, having Cubby as producer and a car designed by Ken Adam, there were tons of other James Bond influences in the film.

Dick Van Dyke in a clown costume with Sally Ann Voak during filming.
Photo by Larry Ellis/Getty Images

Richard Maibaum, a screenplay writer responsible for a dozen Bond movies, was credited as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s co-screenwriter. In addition, stuntman Vic Armstrong, who played the 007 agent, performed many of the stunts for Dick Van Dyke.

Purple, Green, and White

Apparently, there were about six different versions of the phantasmagorical machine – the vehicle with the ability to fly and swim, driven by the one and only, Dick Van Dyke. The cars were designed by Ken Adam and were all automatic because Van Dyke couldn’t drive a manual one.

A still from the film.
Photo by Victor Crawshaw /Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The iconic car had a dashboard plate from a First World War fighter aircraft and was painted in the colors of the floating Chitty − purple, green, and white – which were the shades of the women’s suffrage movement.

Everyone Wanted a Piece of the Car

Graham Hill, the Formula One world champion, rode Chitty and managed to get it up to 120 mph during a drive in 1968 at Crystal Palace. He wasn’t the only one excited about the car. Michael Jackson tried to buy the original one!

A picture of the car on display.
Photo by John Keeble/Getty Images

The director of Lord of the Rings is said to own one of the versions, as well as Chris Evans, who reportedly bought one for £500,000 back in 2012. Several years later, two fans of Chris Evans’s Radio 2 show were gifted a fun wedding present, when the DJ drove them to their wedding in Chitty.

Caractacus Potts Then

Caractacus Potts was a multi-talented wonder. He was an inventor, a father, a singer, and a puppet. He was a witty, quirky yet loving family man who urged his children to be creative and encouraged their sense of wonder.

A portrait of Dick Van Dyke in the character of Caractacus Potts.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

The actor who played the character, Dick Van Dyke, was known for busting moves with charisma on the set of the film. But, apparently, the dance moves he had to learn didn’t come easy, and he would regularly be out of breath. I guess that’s what happens when you develop a habit of smoking around 40 cigarettes a day.

Dick Van Dyke Now

Apart from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dick Van Dyke starred in other musicals, including Bye Bye Birdie and Mary Poppins. Van Dyke was 41 years old when Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was released, and he hasn’t stopped working since then.

A photo of Dick Van Dyke on stage.
Source: Wikipedia

Well into the 1990s, Van Dyke starred his own son Barry in the series, Diagnosis Murder. More recently, Van Dyke handed Ben Stiller the job of his life in the film franchise A Night at the Museum. It was also really fun to see the actor return in the 2018 version of Mary Poppins.

Truly Scrumptious Then

Sally Anne Howe, who played the character of Truly Scrumptious, was already a huge theater and movie star before landing her big role in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In the film, the romance between Truly and Potts was a wonder to witness!

A portrait of Sally Anne Howe in a still from the film.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Their love story appeared in the novel, and, thankfully, the producers wanted the film to follow their blossoming romance. One of the most adorable scenes in the film is when Truly and Potts dance while dressed up like toys!

Sally Ann Howes Today

Sally Ann Howes was born to a talented family. She’s the daughter of Bobby Howes and actress/singer Patricia Malone. At 13 years old, Sally made her silver screen debut in 1943’s Thursday’s Child. Afterward, she continued working as a child star, including a role in an early adaptation of Anna Karenina.

A picture of Sally Ann Howes.
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

By 2021, she was semi-retired but still appearing at charity functions, lectures, and Broadway openings. She acted as artistic adviser for the Palm Beach Theatre Guild in Florida. In 1992, she decided to retire and spent the rest of her time living a calmer family life with her husband and kids. In December 2021, she passed away at the age of 91.

Jeremy Potts Then

Adrian Hall played blond-haired Jeremy Potts, who won the viewers over with his charming smile. He proceeded to appear in several television programs in the UK and performed on stages in London’s West End all throughout his teenage years in the early 1970s.

A still of Adrian Hall as Jeremy Potts.
Source: YouTube

Hall was only nine years old when he starred in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The actor revealed that he had absolutely no clue how big the movie was when he was filming it at Pinewood. He actually went straight back to school right after filming.

Adrian Hall Today

After some interesting acting gigs on the stage and on the silver screen, Adrian Hall went on to become a principal at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts. Fun fact – Adrian actually had to remove Chitty Chitty Bang Bang from his life resume. Why?

A current picture of Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley.
Photo by Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Because if he had the film on his resume, scouts would see him as “just another child actor.” Today, Hall claims that he finds teaching way more rewarding than acting. “If you are on stage for two hours you get a round of applause and that’s it,” he explained in regard to his love for his new profession.

Grandpa Potts Then

Despite playing a grandfather in the movie, Lionel Jeffries, who was born in London in 1925, was actually younger by six months than his on-screen son, Dick Van Dyke, who was born in 1925, at the time of filming.

A portrait of Lionel Jeffries as Grandpa Potts.
Source: YouTube

Already a well-known character actor, Lionel Jeffries had played in movies such as 1955’s The Colditz Story and 1967’s Camelot, starring as King Pellinore in the latter. To this day, his role as Grandpa Potts is likely the one he is remembered for the most.

Lionel Jeffries Today

After starring in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Lionel Jeffries, who was by then smitten with children’s movies, turned his attentions to writing and is responsible for creating 1970s The Railway Children and The Amazing Mr. Blunden (1972).

A portrait of Lionel Jeffries.
Photo by PA Images/Getty Images

The actor threw in his towel and retired from acting in 2001 due to his declining health, which came to a boiling point in 2010. Sadly, Lionel Jeffries passed away in 2010 after suffering from vascular dementia. He was 83 years old.

Baron Bomburst Then

The child-hating Baron Bomburst, played by Gert Fröbe, was one of the most loathesome characters in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The actor actually made a career out of playing the bad guy. Just four years before the film, he starred as Auric Goldfinger, the villain in the 1964 film.

A still of Gert Fröbe and Anna Quayle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Photo by RDB/ullstein bild/Getty Images

Born in Saxony, Germany, the actor starred in over 100 films throughout his career. When it came to politics, though, he was pretty controversial. He was a member of the Nazi party during the war. Understandably, accusations were tossed at him from all corners, even after it became known that at one point, he helped shield Jews from German police.

Gert Fröbe Now

In 1965, Gert was reported to have told The Daily Mail: “Naturally I was a Nazi.” However, he later denied his claims, saying, “What I told an English reporter during an interview was that during the Third Reich I had the luck to be able to help two Jewish people, although I was a member of the Nazi party.”

A picture of Gert during an event.
Photo by Helmut Reiss/United Archives/Getty Images

Putting aside Gert’s sketchy antics, he was also an ally for Mercedes-Benz in a few commercials promoting their coupe and sedan. Unfortunately, this famous villain died in 1988 from a heart attack while staying at a spa resort. The actor was 75 years old.

Baroness Bomburst Then

Actress Anna Quayle took on the role of obnoxious Baroness Bomhurst. In the movie, the Baroness is the one who hires the Child Catcher to try and steal Chitty. Before the film, Anna worked as a model. She also starred in the Beatles’ movie A Hard Day’s Night.

A still of Anna Quayle as Baroness Bomburst.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Her part in the 1963 production of the musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off granted her a Tony award. Her career peaked in the ‘70s, but she still remained a regular on screens throughout the 1980s as well, appearing on projects like Give Us a Clue.

Anna Quayle Today

In her late career, Anna Quayle took part in the long-running soap, Grange Hill for a whopping 85 episodes in which she starred as Mrs. Monroe. She stuck to the role until 1994. Sadly, this was her final role.

A picture of Anna Quayle attending an event.
Photo by Michael Crabtree/PA Images/Getty Images

As for her personal love and family life, Anna Quayle had just one daughter with her husband Donald Baker, whom she married back in 1976. The marriage ended in divorce. In the fall of 2019, the actress died at the age of 86. A few years earlier, in 2012, she was diagnosed with Lew Body Dementia.

Jemima Potts Then

Jemima Pott’s adorable smile was enough to make her father do anything in his will to buy her any old magical piece of junk. In the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, actress Heather Ripley put in an outstanding performance for a little child star of just eight years old.

A still of Heather Ripley as Jemima Potts.
Source: YouTube

Unfortunately, and to many people’s surprise, Heather Ripley doesn’t think back on her Chitty days fondly. While shooting the film, she was constantly harassed by the paparazzi, and things went to a whole other level when it was discovered that her dad was having an affair.

Heather Ripley Now

Heather Ripley has kept out of the limelight for most of her adult life. Instead, she invested her time in other meaningful and life-changing endeavors, becoming an enthusiastic anti-nuclear activist and environmentalist.

A picture of Heather Ripley today.
Photo by David Harrison

Instead of living in a flashy mansion, Heather Ripley makes do with her simple, minimalistic makeshift peace camp. Ripley was also arrested once during a protest. Nowadays, the actress has come to terms with her Chitty past and is making peace with the famous figure she once was.

Toymaker Then

The citizens of Vulgaria were completely taken by the wondrous devices made by the resident Toymaker. Despite the fact that he’s a bit grumpy and very suspicious, he has contributed tremendously to the town. And in any case, being a Toymaker in a place where children are illegal is no easy feat.

A portrait of Benny Hill as the Toymaker.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Benny Hill, the actor who played the Toymaker, was first invited onto the project to rewrite a few scenes at the request of his co-star, Dick Van Dyke. However, after a few meetings with the producers, he was quickly hired to play the Toymaker.

Benny Hill Now

Before appearing in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Benny Hill was already an icon in the UK thanks to The Benny Hill Show, which was full of good humor. Interestingly, despite having a lot of money, he never became a big spender.

A portrait of Benny Hill.
Photo by TV MAGAZINE/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

He never owned his own home, always preferring to rent a flat. He bought the cheapest food at the grocery store and preferred walking for miles rather than catching a taxi. He never married and had no children. Sadly, his health declined in the ‘80s, and in 1992, he suffered a heart attack but survived, only to die a week later from kidney failure at the age of 68.

The Child Catcher Then

This character is as iconic as he is frightening. Wearing a wonky hat, this pointy-nosed fellow is terrifying! His cage on wheels is disguised as a friendly treat-wagon, which is exactly how he lures kids and then locks them in for life.

A still of Robert Helpmann in the character of The Child Catcher.
Source: Copyright: United Artists

Surely, he became the cause of many children’s nightmares at the time. Fun fact – the actor who played him, Robert Helpmann was actually a world-renowned dancer and choreographer! He was also the director of the Australian Ballet Company.

Robert Helpmann Now

After years of contributing to Australia’s culture and art, Robert Helpmann passed away in 1986 at the age of 77. The dancer\actor died of emphysema and took his final breath in Sydney, surrounded by his loved ones.

A portrait of Robert Helpmann.
Photo by Anthony Lewis/Fairfax Media/Getty Images

This memorable man was given a state funeral which was held on October the 2nd at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney. This ceremony was noted as a rarity, and it was said by reporters that “it is only in exceptional circumstances that motions of condolence are moved for distinguished Australians who have not sat in the Parliament.'”

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