One of the most iconic cars the world has ever seen doesn’t even exist. It’s sleek, has a three-pointed front end, a huge red M emblazoned on the hood, myriad gadgets like saw blades and a periscope and sometimes has a little kid and a crazy chimpanzee in the trunk. It’s Speed Racer’s Mach 5, and both the car and its super-skinny driver — the protagonists of an American TV show based on a Japanese manga and anime — made an indelible impression on me as a boy. More than candy and snow days, I longed for the next episode of Speed Racer with its high drama, fast cars and peril on and off the track.
Speed Racer wasn’t just a kid’s cartoon to me. It was a stroke of genius. Every episode spent just as much time showing cars revving, racing, and crashing as it did on the human drama within. It’s what made Speed Racer such a captivating show. The storylines were fairly intricate, and the intoxicating automotive adventures were just the right fuel to get young boys watching faithfully.
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The show first aired on American television in 1967, and it quickly proved the most potent automotive outlet for boys in the U.S. It was actually based on a Manga (Japanese for “comic”) titled MachGoGoGo, though it grew far more popular as a TV series than as a comic. The protagonist, Speed Racer (whose Japanese name was Go Mifune, after famous Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune of Rashomon and Yojimbo fame), was a young man whose only drive in life was to be a racecar driver. The intense plots, fast-paced racing scenes and villains who wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie were far more enticing than anything Scooby-Doo and his gang ever encountered. Yes, Speed Racer had it all: the bonds of family and brotherly love, romance, good versus evil, conspiracies, et al. But the most important part, to me at least, was the racing.
Speed Racer’s car, the Mach 5, was the most innovative ride on the show and embodied every car-loving boy’s dream. Contrary to popular belief, the M on the car and on Speed’s helmet didn’t represent the “Mach”: it stood for “Mifune Motors”, Pops Racer’s company. A two-seater with a red leather interior, sleek lines and awesome gadgets, the Mach 5 was the kind of car that I wanted to drive when I grew up. I didn’t care if it wasn’t real. I would find a way to get one. But I was also conflicted, because Speed’s mysterious older brother, Racer X (Rex Racer) drove the throaty and menacing Shooting Star, a capable car in its own right with a black and yellow color scheme and top mounted exhaust pipes coming from its mid-mounted engine.
It wasn’t just the heroes’ rides that were fascinating. Virtually every other car on the show was cause for giddiness. There was the GRX, a car built around an otherworldly engine, which could supposedly push the car close to the speed of sound — it’s something that could’ve inspired the Bugatti Veyron. Then there were the cars driven by Speed’s enemies and rivals, like Snake Oiler’s car, the T-180, similar to a Jaguar D-Type; the Mammoth Car, a blend of an angry RV and a freight train; and Flash Marker’s Melange, likely inspired by a vintage Ferrari Testarossa. Just about every car on the show was a star in its own right.
Speed Racer had it all: the bonds of family and brotherly love, romance, good versus evil, conspiracies. But the most important part was the racing.
As men in our forties, my brother and I still make reference to the show, and we’ll even watch an episode on Youtube now and then. Yes, by modern animation standards, Speed Racer is admittedly pretty terrible; watch an episode today and you’ll laugh your ass off — automotive feats that defy the laws of physics, mentions of a new car engine that spools up to 30,000 rpm and fight scenes that make tai chi look cutthroat abound. But what it managed to stir up in a car-crazy five-year-old boy was nothing short of magical. It opened up an imaginary world of auto racing dreams, one where getting through a day of school meant that I could immerse myself in the cartoon tire smoke and checkered flags. The writers of Speed Racer did more than just put together a fun TV show for kids. If you need proof, consider that my love of cars will always be attributed to a cartoon driver who actually looked cool wearing a red scarf and white pants.