Whether you’re eight years old or 80, it’s hard to keep yourself from staring when James Benken cruises the streets of Mattituck.
With his trusty sidekick Greg Richards, nearly every Sunday Mr. Benken backs his replica of the Batmobile from the 1960s television series out of his Main Road, Jamesport workshop, and goes to town, where people ogle his homemade creation constantly.
“If it’s a nice day, we go to Starbucks and watch the people walk past the car. Nobody wants to be the first to stop and look, but once one person stops, they all stop,” said Mr. Benken as he worked on another Batmobile in his shop late last week. “We sometimes have 100 people stop to take pictures and talk about the car in two to three hours.”
Mr. Benken studied auto body work at Eastern Suffolk BOCES, and restored GTOs as a hobby for 15 years while running a party rental service on his Main Road, Jamesport property. He built his first Batmobile four years ago. He sold the party business last year and is now working full-time on building custom hot-rods. The name for his new business? Batrodz.
Mr. Benken’s first Batmobile took nine months to build. After hand-sculpting the design out of fiberglass cloth and resin, he created a mold now used to fabricate other cars.
He received word in early May from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that the patent he applied for on the Batmobile design is now pending, making it illegal for other car replica makers to make a mold of his design and begin cranking out copies. But even if they wanted to, there are few people in the country who do the kind of work Mr. Benken does.
“I’m the only person in the Northeast, and I’m probably the only person that does this on the eastern side of the United States,” he said.
Prospective Batmobile owners can purchase either the fiberglass body to put over a car of their own, or can buy a whole car that’s ready to drive, if they can provide a mid-1970s vintage Lincoln Town Car, one of the few cars long enough to serve as the Batmobile’s chassis.
“The 1974 to 1979 Continental Town Car is a perfect fit,” he said. “Lincolns weigh about 6,000 pounds, but we take a lot of weight off them when we build the cars.
“I didn’t know I would be able to make it at first. I started out just to make it for myself, but the calls kept coming in,” he said. “I didn’t think it would ever be a business.”
He has built 28 Batmobile bodies and complete cars for customers in the past four years, ranging in price from $6,500 for the body to $75,000 to professionally assemble the whole kit in his workshop, as long as the new owner provides the Town Car. There were two cars under construction in the shop last week, and he said that he had orders for two more.
“At auctions you can find similar cars selling for $150,000 to $225,000,” he said. “We try to keep it way more affordable than that.”
Though the Batmobile is by far Mr. Benken’s most popular design, he’s also built a Monkeemobile, designed after the modified Pontiac GTO driven by the Monkees in their 1960s television show.
He sold it to a man in England, who recently contacted the Monkees when they were on a reunion tour there. After that, the Monkees rode in the Monkeemobile for part of their tour.
Mr. Benken has also made replicas of the A-Team van, the Batcycle and the Knight Rider car. He also has a mold made from the original “Death Car” from the 1977 film “The Car,” although he hasn’t sold any Death Cars yet.
When he was making his first Batmobile, Mr. Benken called the U.S. Department of Transportation to find out if there were any issues that would keep the cars from being street legal.
“They said the body is not a problem,” he said. “It’s when you start changing the drivetrain that you have problems.”
Both men are also sticklers for making sure that the cars are in good mechanical condition. They change all of the brake and fuel lines before placing the kit over the chassis to avoid having to work on the car after it’s finished.
About the only thing standing in their way is the waning number of old Town Cars left in the world.
“It’s hard to find old Lincolns. We don’t want to buy a rusted piece of junk,” said Mr. Benken. “But people who have one in good condition want $10,000 to $15,000, when we’re looking to pay $2,000 to $3,000.
Mr. Benken and Mr. Richards make every part by hand, including the bubble windshield made out of 1/4 inch Plexiglas, hand bent with a torch.
“I was told it couldn’t be done,” he said. “If you tell me it can’t be done, I’m gonna find a way.”
Mr. Richards makes wooden roll-top dashboards for the cars and manufactures parts from hinges to trunk lids. That’s in addition to the detailed hand-laid fiberglass, which they said is more environmentally friendly, better for their own health and, ultimately, leads to a nicer product than spraying fiberglass into the mold.
“It takes 3,000 square feet of fiberglass cloth and 50 gallons of resin to make one car,” said Mr. Richards. “Doing it by hand is the best way to do it perfect. It’s a fun way to make a living.”