NEW YORK - Most cars are just that: Four tires and an engine. And then there's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the flying version born of Ian Fleming's imagination and the namesake of the James Bond creator's only book for children.
That's a big driver's seat to slide into, especially when you add Dick Van Dyke in a wildly popular movie written by Roald Dahl, a Broadway musical and a generation or two of Chitty-lovin' parents.
So why did the Fleming family pluck Frank Cottrell Boyce of Liverpool to revive the story nearly 50 years after the original was published? And why now?
He has no idea.
"I never asked, in case it was a mistake," he said by telephone ahead of Tuesday's U.S. debut of his "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again," from Candlewick Press.
Cottrell Boyce was being modest, of course. He's a known children's writer in England, where the first of three sequels he plans was released in October.
Fleming wrote the original story in three slim volumes for his son, Caspar, only to die of a heart attack on the boy's 12th birthday just before it was published as one book in August 1964.
The hard-living Fleming began the adventure while convalescing in 1961 at a seaside hotel on the south coast of England after an earlier heart attack. He was denied a typewriter to discourage him from working, so he wrote it in longhand on a pad of paper, said niece Kate Grimond in London.
Chitty was based on a real race car built by a thrill-seeking count, Louis Zborowski, in his attempt to break the world land-speed record in 1921. The car, and others conceived by Zborowski, was nicknamed Chitty Bang Bang for the racket it made, Grimond said.
Born into a wealthy family, Fleming once stayed in the country house, Higham Park, where Zborowski built the cars near Canterbury in Kent, she said.
"A colleague of Ian's grandfather was a banker and bought the house and moved in," she said. "The count died at age 26 while motor racing. His father had been killed while motor racing as well. Ian adored cars and knew of these exploits and it just remained in his imagination."
Fleming made up stories about Chitty for Caspar, his only child. Caspar committed suicide by drug overdose in 1975 at age 23 after years of addiction and depression.
The 1968 Chitty movie has notable changes from Fleming's book. There's a different ending, a kidnapper called the Child Catcher and Truly Scrumptious, a hottie love interest for Van Dyke's widowed, nutty inventor, Commander Caractacus Potts. The family's name was "Pott" in Fleming's book, which includes a wife for Caractacus and mother for their 8-year-old twins.
The movie offered a nod to Fleming's 007. In the cast was Desmond Llewelyn, who played gadget genius Q in Bond films just hitting theaters as Fleming's health declined, and Gert Frobe, who was nemesis Auric Goldfinger, the namesake of the third Bond film.
Why now for the long-dormant Chitty book is apparently a puzzle for Grimond as well. The family, including Grimond's sister Lucy, holds literary rights. Sales of the sequel in England are steady enough, Grimond said, but "not gangbusters."
Fleming himself envisioned additional installments for Chitty beyond the three merged into one, but he died before he was able to write more, she said.
"It's one of those things that has been in the backs of people's minds for a long time," Grimond said. "Other than that, I don't quite know why now."
It might have something to do with publishing's penchant for brand extensions, including numerous authorized Bond books by other writers. Kingsley Amis (as Robert Markham) and John Gardner were among them.
Children's books are no exception. The first authorized Winnie the Pooh sequel, "Return to the Hundred Acre Wood," was released in 2009, and the first all-new Madeline story, "Madeline and the Cats of Rome," by John Bemelmans Marciano, the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, was published in 2008.
There have been many other extensions for classic children's books after the death of their creators, including the Babar, Wizard of Oz and "Little House on the Prairie" books.
The original Chitty, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car" has the Pott family acquiring a broken-down old car that slowly reveals magical powers after Caractacus repairs it.
Chitty not only flies but also floats on water, drives itself and protects the family during a calamitous trip across the Channel that involves a couple of kidnappings and a gang of robbers.
Fleming was criticized for a lackluster ending. He has the car flying the family off to an unknown destination, presumably to make room for future adventures.
Enter Cottrell Boyce. At 52, he said "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was the first movie he ever saw as a boy, in an audience mesmerized when the car drives off a cliff and sprouts wings and propellers.
"It was a big day out to see that picture," he said. "There were lots of cousins and treats. I went for Cherry Lips, one of my favorite candies. Everybody gasped when the car went off the cliff and it was at that precise moment that the picture froze and the Intermission sign went on."
In search of a sequel writer, the Fleming family (Grimond and her sister are the daughters of Ian's older brother, Peter) learned of Cottrell Boyce through a neighbor boy who admired "Framed," the second of his three previous books. It features a boy whose family runs an auto shop.
"The car connection was there for them," he said.
Over the years, the film version has definitely "obscured Ian's book," Cottrell Boyce said. "Hardly anyone has read that book. It's so different than the film."
In the first of his sequels, the Pott family is long gone, replaced by the modern-day, biracial Tooting brood, complete with a mom, a 15-year-old daughter who always dresses in black and two sons.
The dad loses his factory job and the use of a company car (and its fancy navigation system). With help from his oldest son, he rebuilds a rusty, old 1966 camper van so the family can hit the open road. They install a massive engine they find up an oak tree in a junkyard and soon the magic begins, helped along by illustrations from Joe Berger.
Cottrell Boyce writes in Zborowski himself as the engine's builder, as the Tootings discover on a metal plaque screwed to the top of the carburetor. The family's street is also named for the count.
"What I love about Ian's book," Cottrell Boyce said, "is that the whole family goes on an adventure. That's very unusual in children's fiction. Usually, there's a war, or someone is ill or sent away to a remote house or something. There's even a recipe for fudge in the back of Ian's book. I thought, `What fun. What a lark.' I definitely wanted to take it out for a ride, but I was very cautious about scratching the paint."