Part Batmobile, part pancake, the world's lowest street-legal automobile stands only 19 inches tall and features a flame-throwing jet engine. The Guinness Book of Records-certified "Flatmobile" makes its U.S. debut during Charlotte Motor Speedway's Aug. 25-28 Food Lion AutoFair, where it will be joined by an exhibit showcasing 100 years of Chevrolet automobiles, armored passenger vehicles, rock crawlers and movie and television cars.

Building the Flatmobile
Perry Watkins, a salesman for a shoe repair company, builds eccentric automobiles in his home garage in Buckinghamshire, England and many of them have achieved world records in categories of height, overall size and speed. Hoping to add another win in the "lowest roadworthy car" category, Watkins brainstormed a replica of the world-famous Batmobile, from the 1966-'68 Batman television series, that would be not much taller than the tires on its 10-inch wheels.

In October 2006, he began dismantling a 1963 Hillman Imp economy car and chopping out all "excess" metal for his Guinness attempt. The Imp was an attractive starting point for the Flatmobile because its all-aluminum 875cc four-cylinder engine was designed to slant 45 degrees, meaning it could fit under a very low cover. With the stock four-speed manual transmission attached, the entire powertrain weighs only 176 pounds.

While creating the Flatmobile's knee-high bodywork, Watkins visited the DIYGasTurbines online forum to research the one part of a car he had never built before - a jet turbine exhaust. With help from some amateur engineers, Watkins converted a $105 Volvo truck turbocharger into a tiny jet engine with afterburner that produces 150 pounds of thrust and emits a flame 20 feet long. Lighting that big candle requires propane delivered at high pressure into the main engine, aviation fuel injected into the afterburner and a 60,000-volt afterburner ignition system. With its outlet temperature of 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, the 100,000-rpm turbine caught the Flatmobile on fire in an early test, but Watkins adamantly perfected his design rather than build his project without it.

With every millimeter of space important, he fashioned the driver's side of the two-place cockpit to exactly fit his 5-foot, 9-inch frame.

Watkins designed a billet aluminum steering wheel and column that telescopes 15 inches to aid the driver's access to the sharply reclined custom-built seat. The steering wheel is among the smallest ever installed in a car, measuring just six inches in diameter.

As the body took shape, Watkins added "futuristic" styling details such as 1959 Cadillac taillight lenses, tailfins and an aggressive but non-functional hood scoop. The Flatmobile's extended tail section and rear-mounted engine took too much weight off of the front tires, so Watkins filled the Imp's stock gas tank - which came from the Hillman factory just behind the front bumper - with 150 pounds of lead to improve his steering traction.

When finished in its bat-black paint and wearing a set of red-accented 10x6-inch Cosmic wheels, the Flatmobile measured 12 feet, 2 inches in length; 5 feet, 5 inches in width; and 19 inches to the top of its fenders. Ground clearance is a claustrophobic 2.0 inches – about 1.5 inches lower than a NASCAR Sprint Cup racer – which means that a standard golf ball will barely roll beneath the car without interruption.

On March 5, 2008, England's Department for Transport issued the Flatmobile its MOT roadworthiness certificate, although its extremely low headlight placement legally keeps it off the road at night.

Whether roadworthy or not, the Flatmobile's builder does not consider it a pleasure vehicle.

"It's horrendous to drive," Watkins told a BBC interviewer. "Every time the record gets lower, it becomes more difficult to make the engineering work. There's no windscreen, so it's very windy as it blows into your face. The steering wheel [which rests on the driver's lap] is only six inches in diameter, and there is no power steering. I'm pretty much lying down in the car, sitting very straight and very low."

Food Lion AutoFair
Hours for the Aug. 25-28 Food Lion AutoFair are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 per day for adults or $25 for a four-day pass; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.