Picture a sleepy Sumter suburban community. Now imagine seeing your neighbor drive by in a 1960s-era Batmobile eating an ice cream cone.
That’s just another night for Dr. Phillip Latham’s neighbors.
By day, Latham is a dermatologist. Husband. Father. Flight surgeon at McEntire Joint National Guard Base and musician with the band “Chief Complaint” along with some other doctors.
But come nightfall, and during any other spare time he might have, he works on his Batmobiles – one that was completed five years ago, and the other that will make its public debut at this weekend’s air show at McEntire.
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“They try to call me Batman, and I say I’m more like Alfred. I’m the guy that maintains the car,” he said.
Latham turned a childhood fascination with movie props and their detail work into an adult hobby of tinkering with robots and cars. At age 54, he describes his technique for design as “crude,” though prior to building his first Batmobile he had no hands-on experience with car mechanics or body work.
“I knew nothing about any of these items,” he said of the tools used to build his cars. “Thank goodness I had a bunch of friends that were willing to give their time to teach me,” he said. “I have an overactive imagination.”
‘It’s the little details’
About 12 years ago, Latham had just made a replica of the “Lost in Space” robot when he heard about someone building a Batmobile like the one driven in the late 1960s “Batman” TV show starring Adam West. While building the robot, he had learned how to use fiberglass and minimal metal working tools.
He thought, how hard could it be to make a Batmobile? Seven years later, he had discovered it was much harder than it looked.
“It’s the little details, like making sure the rain doesn’t pour in on your neck when you’re driving, so I had to build in drip lines around the car and make sure the seams fit. Then you realize you did something too soon and have to take it apart and redo it again,” he said.
But with some much-needed “nerd-level help on the internet,” he was able to transform a 1973 Lincoln Continental into one of the most iconic vehicles in cinema – and an eye-catcher around Sumter.
Just taking his Batmobile around town for a spin draws many looks, pictures and videos from passers-by. He’s even been pulled over by the police a few times – but just so they could get their picture taken with it.
“When I went to pick up lunch in it recently I almost cleared the restaurant,” he said. “Everybody wanted to come out and get pictures with, in front of, or around the car.
“For them, it’s like spotting a movie star. The car. Not me.”
But that’s the extent of the joy he takes in the occasional spin around town in it.
“For me, the fun was in making it, not having it,” he said. “I’ve let Make-A-Wish use it. I’ve donated the services of it for other charities. That, to me, is much more rewarding than driving around.”
A local elementary school once asked whether he would be willing to surprise a special needs student who loved Batman so much that his teacher’s assistant decorated the wagon he’s carried in like a Batmobile. Latham appeared, just not in tights.
“I found this motorcycle suit that looked leathery and put a vampire cape and a Batman hat on, and he thought it was the neatest thing. But all the kids thought so. That was a lot of fun,” he said.
Part of the fun in seeing the car is the detail work in it, too – right down to the flames that shoot out of the car.
A vehicle for recruiting
Latham started work on a second Batmobile not long after he finished the first. In 2 1/2 years, he has converted a 1992 Chevrolet Caprice station wagon – with the genuine simulated wood grade siding – into the car made famous by the 1980s “Batman” film starring Michael Keaton.
And the Batmobile will have a special mission – to help recruiting efforts this weekend during the National Guard Air & Ground Expo. His idea is simple: make this car an homage to the F-16s they fly at McEntire. Outside of the overall shape and design, Latham used F-16-like parts he orders online to construct the interior.
“Some people will ask, ‘Why does it have those stickers?’ and that’s the entrance line for the recruiter,” he said.
Senior Master Sgt. Edward E. Snyder, who works in public relations for McEntire, said most people at the base know of Latham’s cool car collection. “It didn’t surprise us at all that he would like to share his latest creation with us during our expo,” he said.
In addition to Latham’s Batmobile, this weekend’s show organizers plan to pull out the big guns, military planes and jets for a combined air and ground arms demonstration. Think helicopters, F-22 demonstrations, parachute jumpers, vintage aircraft flyovers and more.
“South Carolina has had a tough time the last couple of years with natural disasters, and the S.C. National Guard has been there before, during and after at each one of these events and we will continue to be so,” Snyder said. “What we’re hoping, and opening our doors for, is to attract anyone who has the slightest interest or enjoyment in supporting the S.C. National Guard. Come out, see what we do, fellowship with our fellow soldiers and airmen, and enjoy a free weekend of fun and activities.”
Latham said he has some work to finish on his newest Batmobile, and it will take about another year to finish. Still, it will be in fine shape for this weekend.
“I get the pleasure of serving with the best Americans you’ll ever meet,” Latham said. And if it means making a Batmobile as a recruiting tool, then so be it.
Snyder is excited to see the new vehicle. “He does a remarkable job,” said Snyder. “The details are there. He has a lot of fun with it and he really enjoys interacting with the crowd and talking about the work that he puts into it.
“The patriotic side of me says people are going to want to come out and see the Batmobile,” Snyder added. “Like many of our first responders, Batman wears a uniform and is a hero.”
If you go
S.C. Guard Air & Ground Expo
WHEN: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; show continues Sunday
WHERE: McEntire Joint National Guard Base, 1325 South Carolina Road, Eastover
COST: Free admission