Car Stars: Speed Racer

Text and photography by Eduardo Medrano

1964: Japanese anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida needed inspiration for a new manga (comic book) series. He looked to western movies, and admired the protagonist from a film entitled Viva Las Vegas. That’s right; Speed Racer was modeled after Elvis Presley, complete with neckerchief and black pompadour.


Super heroes however, require first-rate equipment, and Elvis’ racecar was a go-cart compared to the Aston Martin driven by James Bond in Goldfinger. Yoshida designed a sleek, powerful open cockpit vehicle, full of high-tech Bondesque equipment. He named it Mach, after the speed of sound; but also added the homonym “go”, which is Japanese for the number five, as well as the English verb. Americans came to know it as the Mach 5.


Furthermore, Speed’s Japanese name was Go Mifune, a tribute to Japanese movie-star Toshiro Mifune. That explains the “G” monogram on Speed’s shirt, and the “M” on his helmet and the hood of the Mach 5, a product of the family business, Mifune Motors.


The comic was animated for television in 1967, and came immediately to the United States. Peter Fernandez produced the series, editing translations of Japanese dialog to fit the onscreen animation. He also created the English theme song, and voiced many characters, including Speed. Speed Racer, along with 1963’s Astro Boy became the most successful Japanese franchises on American television.


Like Bond’s Aston Martin, the Mach 5 became an automotive icon. In addition to good looks, it had a 5,000 horsepower engine and seven major gadgets, controlled by buttons A-G on the hub of the steering wheel:


A: Telescopic Jacks that lifted the vehicle to facilitate repair. They also were used during motion, to allow the vehicle to hop over road obstacles.
B: Super Heavy-duty Tire Treads gave the vehicle superior traction, while the vehicle went into four-wheel-drive mode.
C: Twin Rotary Saw Blades extended from the vehicle’s nose to slice up almost any obstacle.
D: Transparent Canopy which was bullet-proof as well as air-tight, allowing the car to operate completely submerged under water.
E: Illuminating Eye Head Lamps gave Speed greater vision, including infrared night vision when utilizing the special lenses attached to his helmet. Button E was modified along the way to activate small wings, which facilitated the vehicle’s jumps.
F: Amphibious Mode supplied oxygen to cockpit, as well as activating a periscope, displaying images on a dash-mounted video screen.
G: Remote Controlled Homing Robot was deployed from under the Mach 5’s hood. Controls were located on the car’s center console, including the H button, which would send the robot to Mifune Motors’ headquarters.


Legend has it that 100 street-legal Mach 5 replicas were fabricated in 2002 on Chevrolet Corvette chassis. They had 345 hp engines, and cost between $75,000 and $125,000 each.


After forty years, Speed Racer and the Mach 5 still capture our imaginations. A live-action Speed Racer movie will be released in May of 2008, starring Emil Hirsch as Speed, Christina Ricci as Trixie, John Goodman as Pops, and Susan Sarandon as Mom Racer. Of course, all our favorite characters will be back, including Racer X; as well as Spritle and Chimchim, who will undoubtedly stow away in the Mach 5’s trunk, on their never-ending quest for adventure and candy.


The new movie was produced in Germany, and filmed entirely against greenscreen, creating a blank canvas for computer-generated backgrounds and special effects. Mach 5 replicas were fabricated for the production, but there is greater interest in an improved, Mach 6.  


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