The first car that did 200 mph was a Lincoln, and it was on the street in 1940. It was Britt Reid’s ’37 Lincoln Zephyr coupe, which was tuned in a secret garage by his valet Kato. Of course, newspaper publisher Reid was the Green Hornet. Kato would slip on his driving goggles even though the coupe was covered by a steel roof, the first all-steel-bodied car from the Ford Motor Company. (A wood framework supported the upper part of a typical car body until the 1930s.) Reid pulls a leather mask over his face. Their Black Beauty shoots through the garage opening and careens through streets, the body (Ford’s first of fully unitized construction) wobbling from side to side in the turns. Lightning bolts adorn the full fender skirts. When they return after busting up another part of the crime syndicate that plagued their city, they drive nose-first into the garage. When next they sally forth, the car is magically turned around in place, ready to fire out on another mission.
The initial of 13 episodes is titled “Tunnel of Terror.” It starts with Kato demonstrating a chemical explosion on the workbench. There’s a connecting rod nearby, and a great big ring gear, and they’re unaffected by the blast.
Observing the detonation, Reid asks Kato, “Think the motor will stand it?”
“It’s the strongest motor ever built, and the fastest,” Kato asserts.
Then Reid asks if he’s tried the new horn.
“Listen,” Kato says, producing a sound somewhere between an air raid alarm and a foghorn.
“It sounds like the giant green hornet we encountered in Africa,” Reid says, fondly recollecting one of their previous adventures. It turns out he’s just as insecure as Kato, who wants to know if he’s a good valet. Reid, we learn, has something to prove to his father, who only thought of the son as a playboy.
“Everything about this car is most unusual,” Kato says.
“I can hardly wait until we spring it upon the world,” Reid replies.
But it’s a while before this happens. We still must meet the other characters: Lenore “Casey” Case, the administrative assistant at the Daily Sentinel, and Al Hodge, the former cop and reporter who’s Reid’s bodyguard.
Here it should be noted that in the 1936 radio show, which originated at Detroit’s WXYZ, a great deal of effort went into creating just the right buzz for the Black Beauty. Station boss George Washington Trendle recalled a certain ill-defined sound, and it was up to audio engineer Fred Flowerday to re-create it. After trying just about everything, he finally filtered the recorded ecstasies of a Duesenberg’s engine, and Trendle was satisfied.
When the serial’s actors next reconvene in the secret garage, before the Black Beauty’s maiden voyage, Reid asks Kato, “How fast will she go?”
“Better than two hundred,” says the Korean, whom Reid saved from murderous Chinese in Singapore. (In the radio original, Kato was Japanese.)
This claimed 200-mph top speed was not verified by Consumer Reports.
Later we see Kato, placidly working the wheel as the car zooms along twisty California roads. The Hornet sits beside him. They’re being pursued. The cops think the Green Hornet is responsible for the chaos that’s been happening.
“A police car’s following us, Kato. Turn on the Energizer.” He refers to the chemically activated boosting device that was tried out in the secret garage. It had to be super powerful. The standard-issue Zephyr had a 267-cubic-inch flathead V-12 that produced more waste heat than anything: it was rated at 110 hp. Maybe Kato’s modifications had boosted that output, but it’s still a long way to 200 mph.
Obeying his master, Kato reaches with his left hand, evidently activating the Energizer with a lever, and the car bolts forward.
“He’s gone like a spook,” one of the cops says. “I never saw a car move so fast.”
In a later episode, the cops again give chase, and this time the one in the passenger seat fires a couple of shots. The Black Beauty outruns them again, leaving the driver of the police car muttering, “I can’t catch that thunderbolt.”
“Catch it?” responds the passenger. “That thing travels faster than the bullets I send after it.”