1st Gear
By Amos Kwon
on 2.3.14

O
ne 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-Ambiance-Gear-Patrol

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.

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