When not fighting M.A.D., Inspector Gadget would shuttle his niece, Penny, and her dog, Brain, around in a vehicle that looked a lot like a 1980s Toyota TownAce.
By Richard Crouse Special to the Star
Sat., Aug. 20, 2022timer4 min. read
Where would we be without Saturday morning cartoons? They entertained us, helping to pass the time on weekends, and, if that wasn’t enough, often ignited our imaginations with a glimpse into the future.
“Star Trek: The Animated Series,” for example, forecast Federation Credit, an electronic form of currency similar to bitcoin and other digital currencies. Almost 60 years ago, “The Jetsons” introduced viewers to a futuristic videophone that looks similar to today’s Zoom or FaceTime.
“Animation has always had the potential to do things that would be a lot harder, and take a much bigger budget, to do with live action,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of TV, radio and film.
“With animation all you have to be able to do is draw it. With live action, you actually have to be able to make it, and make it look like it is actually functioning. Animation is one of the richer places where you are able to do all that stuff.”
Universal currencies and videophones are only two examples from the world of animation that started as the stuff of science fiction but is now part of everyday use.
“The culture one grows up with becomes part of the stuff that’s in your head,” said Thompson about the influence of cartoons on technology. “If you go on to become a tech developer or whatever, that’s part of what you draw on.”
In the realm of future technology predictions about cars, an unlikely animated series looms large, “Inspector Gadget.”
The cartoon, which debuted on television in late 1982, introduced viewers to a bumbling cyborg police inspector (voiced by “Get Smart” star Don Adams) fighting crime using a series of outrageous gizmos, including the Gadgetmobile, a transforming car with a mind of its own.
“The Gadgetmobile was a hybrid, but hybrid meant something very different from what it means now,” said Thompson. Rather than a vehicle that ran on gas and electricity, “it was a hybrid in that it could be different kinds of vehicles.”
The original animated Gadgetmobile, which premiered 40 decades ago, was a boxy minivan, reminiscent of a 1980s Toyota TownAce, that could transform into a police car that resembled a Lotus Esprit S2 or Toyota Celica Supra P-Type.
With a shout of “go-go Gadgetmobile,” Inspector Gadget would summon his police car to do battle against the evil work of M.A.D., an acronym for “Mean and Dirty.”
Among the Gadgetmobile’s cool features was the ability to disperse hilarious gas to make the baddies laugh uncontrollably, and a battering ram and glue rockets that fired out of the police car’s hatchback. Neither have become common in the real world of automobiles, but several of the vehicle’s other abilities have.
For instance, in the episode “Art Heist,” Inspector Gadget and Penny, his niece and the real brains behind their investigations, arrive in Manhattan to prevent a robbery at the Museum of Modern Art. But art thieves aren’t the only enemies they need to battle, they also need to deal with New York City traffic and tight parking.
It is a problem until Gadget orders “go-go gadget car” and the vehicle raises itself on extended, stiltlike legs to drive over the traffic. When it finds a parking spot, the car’s wheels turn 90 degrees, allowing it to roll sideways into the space. In the real world, automated parking wouldn’t be available until the Lexus LS 460 sedan was unveiled at the Detroit International Auto Show in the mid-2000s and included a self-parking feature.
GPS mapping became consumer-ready in 1994 but was predicted nine years earlier during the cartoon’s first season. In the “Monster Lake” episode, Gadget and Penny make use of GPS while on assignment in Scotland. Later in the same season, the device is used to track down Gadget when he goes missing in “A Star is Lost.”
When “Inspector Gadget” made the leap from animated show to a live-action movie in 1999, changes were made to the vehicle. Designed by Brenda Bradford, the big screen Gadgetmobile was built by modifying a customized, white and chrome 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible.
The movie mobile couldn’t morph like its cartoon version, but it had the ability to speak. Voiced by standup comedian D.L. Hughley, it was now a lively conversationalist. “This car has only got two speeds,” it advises during the movie. “‘Fast’ and ‘WOW! What was that?’ ”
While talking cars are nothing new in entertainment — “Speed Buggy” and “My Mother the Car” featured verbal automobiles — the new Gadgetmobile could also drive itself. This was two decades before Roborace’s Robocar broke the Guinness World Record as the fastest autonomous car on earth, reaching 282.42 kilometres per hour, in Yorkshire, England, in 2019.
“That was technology’s solution to having your own personal chauffeur,” said Thompson about the 1999 movie version. He said that no matter how cool these cartoon innovations are, many of the ideas weren’t so much futuristic as they were obvious.
“I think we should tread lightly on the idea that the technologies we see in ‘Inspector Gadget’ and ‘The Jetsons’ wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” Thompson said. “The reasons those things show up in these pop culture places in the first place was because they were such obvious ideas.
“They were aspirational ideas of, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if our technology would allow us to not only talk on the phone but have pictures as well?’ And because they were writing fiction, the creators could make this stuff exist, and it just took a while before technology caught up.”