In the 1960s, flying nuns, talking horses, Martians, genies and witches joined families in TV comedies. So it was that NBC thought it had tapped the formula that the public welcomed into their living rooms on a regular basis when they aired My Mother the Car (September 14, 1965 to April 5, 1966). It would ultimately be called one of the worst TV comedies of all time.
What went wrong? Alan Burns was the co-creator of My Mother the Car. He went on to create The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Lou Grant, which were some of the most critically acclaimed shows of their decade. Jerry Van Dyke was brought in as the star, and, though he walked in the shadow of the popularity his brother — Dick Van Dyke — he was a recognized funny man in his own right. Was it the premise? David Crabtree (Jerry Van Dyke) was an attorney looking for a second family car. When he walked through a used car lot, a 1928 Porter in disrepair talked to him through the radio. The voice Mr. Crabtree heard was not just any voice, though, it belonged to his deceased mother, Gladys (voiced by Ann Southern). He discovered his mother had been reincarnated as a car, so naturally he had to buy it and restore it to its original splendor. Therein lies the comedic machinations, as his car/mother only spoke to him, while avid car collector Captain Manzini (Avery Schrieber) played the villain, conspiring to get his hands on the vintage automobile by any means necessary.
The pieces all looked good on paper, but somehow, the show never clicked with the audience. Decades before KITT spoke on Knight Rider, Mrs. Crabtree spoke to her son through the car’s radio as the lights on the dials flashed in synchronization. Since she only spoke to Jerry Van Dyke’s character, all the car was able to emote at other times was a horn honk or a headlight flash.
Unlike Knight Rider, there was no cool factor in My Mother the Car; David Crabtree’s mother “came back” as an antique car that had very little relevance to a 1960s TV audience. The car used in the series was actually an amalgamation of parts, mostly from old Fords. In actuality, a company called Porter did make cars in the 1920s. The real car company put together a Chevy chassis and mostly Ford engine and body parts, with finishes created by Porter. The car only came in red, with a white cloth top and brass fittings, which was imitated by the series. The other distinguishing features were large whitewall tires and a wicker trunk. Car radios, however, wouldn’t be found in cars as standard factory equipment until the 1930s.
The concept was no more far-fetched than many of the other comedies of the day, but, in Mister Boomer’s opinion, the show just wasn’t funny. He recalls his parents watching the show, and would sometimes remain in the living room while it was on. Other times he would retire to his bedroom where he and his brother would do homework and play records.
On April 5, 1966, the program was interrupted by a special report on NASA. When the report finished, My Mother the Car did not return. It would never be seen on regular network TV again. Of the 30 episodes that were made, 28 aired. It was several years before anyone would see the complete uninterrupted episode and the final two episodes.
Due to the mid-episode interruption, the program does have a unique connection to mid-60s Space Race history, though. The presentation that preempted My Mother the Car was about an announcement that week by NASA that named the next 19 astronauts. America’s Space Program was in full swing as each scheduled mission was designed to provide the information and technology that would be needed to achieve President John Kennedy’s 1961 challenge of sending a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade. The 19 men named as astronauts were all military pilots, unlike the original Mercury and Gemini astronauts, who were science specialists. Of the group, nine did eventually fly to the moon and three walked on the moon. The remainder flew Skylab and Shuttle missions. There is no evidence (at least none NASA is admitting to) that any of these astronauts heard the voice of their deceased mothers speaking to them from their spacecraft’s radio system.
Did you watch My Mother the Car, boomers?