I can guess what you’re thinking – what? That’s not steampunk! I’ll admit there’s no steam in it, but this beloved children’s book has all the other elements: adventure, fantastic gadgetry, and a setting in the more genteel days of the early 20th Century. As a plus, it’s also set in England.
This book was a favorite from my childhood. Ian Fleming, who is most famous for his James Bond novels, wrote it in 1964 for his son Caspar. The offbeat illustrations by John Burningham made the adventure even more fun. It was originally published in three hardcover volumes (as shown in the picture) which were later combined into one.
The star of the book is a one-of-a-kind car, the sole product of the Paragon Motor Company before it went bankrupt. English inventor Commander Pott buys the car and renovates it. Pott names it Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang for the noises it makes when starting up. He and his family go on a driving adventure in the car, discovering that it has all sorts of hidden gadgets, including retractable wings that allow it to fly. The car’s abilities allow the family to fly across the channel to France where they encounter gangsters plotting a nefarious robbery.
I recently learned that Fleming’s inspiration for the story was “Chitty Bang Bang” was a real series of racing cars built by Count Louis Zborowski in the 1920’s. (Perhaps the Count thought that would be easier to say than “the Zborowski Car.”) The book was made into a 1968 musical film starring Dick Van Dyke. The plot of the movie is substantially different but it still features the amazing car. Sadly, Fleming died of a heart attack shortly before the book was published, though Frank Cottrell Boyce did write three sequels. The wonderful original version of the book is in short supply, so I’ve ordered a copy to read to the grandkids.