By Mara Certic
Tony Garofalo was 4 years old when he saw “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at its premiere at Radio City Music Hall. He was blown away by the flying, amphibious vehicle that day in December almost 50 years ago, and he swore to his mother that one day he would build his own fine, four fendered friend. This week, after hundreds and thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of work, Mr. Garofalo made good on that promise.
In 1968, Mr. Garofalo was living in Manhattan with his mother who had just divorced his father. “It was a sad time,” he said. But his uncle, a prop man for United Artists, worked on “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and managed to get tickets to the premiere for young Tony and his cousin Vinnie as a special treat.
“I saw the movie on the big screen and they had the car out there, in the lobby,” Mr. Garofalo said last week, a few days after he picked up his near-finished car from the shop in East Hampton where Jim Ritter, a boatbuilder from Sag Harbor, had been working on it for the past three years. “When I saw that, when I saw the flying car, I was completely blown away,” Mr. Garofalo said. “I told my mother then—I promised her that one day, I’m going to make that car.”
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the epic children’s adventure, tells the tale of Caractacus Pott, an inventor portrayed by Dick van Dyke, who builds a the magical that takes him and his family on perilous and exciting adventures. Based on a book by Ian Fleming, the movie was adapted for the screen by Roald Dahl, and sees Caractacus, his sweetheart, Truly Scrumptious, and his children Jeremy and Jemima save the children of far off Vulgaria from the very sinister childcatcher, lead dogs in a musical number and escape calamity in the nick of time, all thanks to Chitty.
Mr. Garofalo’s plans to build his own fantasmagorical machine were put aside as he focused on his 20-year career as a New York City police sergeant and his band, Strawberry Fields, a Beatles cover band that also happens to be the house band at B.B. King’s.
“I’m the real Sergeant Pepper,” he joked. “I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life; I’ve done the music thing, I’ve played at Shea Stadium, I was a hero cop, I had over 700 arrests. But this is the Mount Everest of my life,” he said about his new ride.
Mr. Garofalo finally got to work on the car in 2010, 42 years after he had seen the film and five years after he had retired from the police force and his mother had succumbed to cancer. That year, Mr. Garofalo saw an ad for a 1914 Overland for sale in Southern New Jersey.
“I wanted a car that was old, the steering wheel of course had to be on the right hand side and I saw an ad for an old vintage car that was ready for the scrapyard, but it was enough for me to build on to,” Mr. Garofalo said. “Little by little I started to tear it apart.”
Mr. Garofalo, whose father was a mechanic, had restored cars before, but Chitty is no regular car. He spent a year taking apart the chassis, restoring the engine and getting the car to run.
“One day I looked at it and said to myself, how the hell am I going to make this Chitty Chitty Bang Bang?” he said. Around that time, the car used to film all of the driving sequences in the film was sent to Los Angeles to be put up for auction. “So I flew all the way to Los Angeles like a crazy person,” he said, where he photographed all angles of the car to help get inspired. He stayed with the car for three hours, closely inspecting all of the wood and brass work.
“So I come back all charged up, it was a quiet Sunday and I drove out to Sag Harbor, I was trying to look at the woodwork on the boats,” he said. “I thought maybe I should get someone who knew what they were doing,” he added. At an arts and crafts show in the village, Mr. Garofalo came across Mr. Ritter, who has been building boats for the past 30 years.
“I told him my plans, and he said to me, ‘Five minutes before you walked up to me I was talking to a friend saying that I was looking for a project. Something different, something interesting,’ and then all of a sudden I appeared and I had this crazy story about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A week later, the two men met again and got to work building the sleek body of Chitty.
“He had rebuilt the whole chassis, made it operational, he had the gas tank made, had the front radiator cover made and that’s all that existed when he brought it here three years ago,” Mr. Ritter said while dusting off Chitty for one last time last week.
“And we built the whole thing, just using the photos,” he added. “Originally, I was just going to make the body, and he showed up here and was making a pattern for the front fenders. And he had duct tape and string and cardboard and it was a mess,” Mr. Ritter said. “He came back the next day, and within three days we had made a wooden mock-up that he took to a shop.”
The two men worked together on the car for three years, during which time it’s been sitting in Mr. Ritter’s shed on the corner of Stephen Hands Path and Route 114.
“I’ve been a boat builder for 35 years. This was insane,” Mr. Ritter said.
But despite the insanity, and after five trips to the largest car show in the country in Hershey, Pennsylvania, to source all of the required details (including gauges, vintage shifters and the original lights from a 1912 Cadillac), the two men have now finished 95 percent of all the work. On July 1, Mr. Garofalo backed it out of Mr. Ritter’s shed for the last time, as the summer sun hit the glimmering frame for the first time.
“People always ask me, ‘Why would you do something like this?’ I say, ‘Why not?’” Mr. Garofalo said.
He plans to take the car “everywhere,” from parades, to car shows and especially for fundraising. “One of the key things I’d like to accomplish is to try to raise funds for cancer with this car,” he said. “Somehow, I’d really like to use this for fundraising,” he said.
For more information about Mr. Garofalo, visit strawberryfieldsthetribute.com.