I can't believe I never heard of this guy until very recently. I can't believe most of us haven't heard of this guy. Because Willie Perry may just be the closest thing we've ever had to an actual, no-joke super hero. Like Batman, he had no made-up powers; unlike Batman, he wasn't rich. But he had the badass car, and he actually helped people.
Willie Perry lived in Birmingham, AL, and in the early 1980s, inspired/disheartened by reports of a woman raped by men who stopped under the pretense of helping her with her disabled car, decided to become a mobile helper of the people, using his '71 Thunderbird.
That '71 Thunderbird was soon extensively customized by Perry, becoming the Rescue Ship. A sign on the side stated his simple goal: WILL HELP ANYONE IN DISTRESS.
The Thunderbird got a wildly distinctive striped paint job, orange warning lights, rescue equipment with storage for tools, gas, and water, police scanners and radios, a luxuriously furry dash cover, and, most badass of all, an Atari 2600 rigged up in the back seat. Oh, and it had a toaster oven. A freaking toaster oven.
Perry took the Batman name because he knew what it meant to people, and, as he told a UPI reporter in 1982,
Batman was known for helping people in distress. And that's my image, too.
Perry's acts of small-scale heroism were well known all over Birmingham, and included changing tires, driving home drunk people, filling radiators, giving money to broke stranded people, warning police of dangerous situations and road conditions, and, on at least one occasion, foiling the robbery of a pharmacy.
Even that early 80s-equivalent of YouTube, That's Incredible, featured a segment on Perry:
Willie Perry died tragically from carbon monoxide poisoning while working on his beloved Rescue Ship in 1985. His name and legend have come back into the public eye recently because the Rescue Ship, which was bought by the city of Birmingham after his death, has been pulled out of storage and will finally be getting the restoration it deserves.
A filmmaker named Lee Shook is making a documentary about Perry, and is working with a shop called Old Car Heaven to get the Thunderbird back in shape. The car isn't in terrible shape, all told, but the distinctive paint is quite faded, it hasn't run for years, and the home-made electrical additions, like the Atari, which ran off a Caterpillar D-9 tractor battery, are daunting.
The goal is to have the car restored by August 3, which was once declared to be Willie Perry Day.
Is there anything better than Willie Perry? What's not to love about this guy — that incredible home-modified car, those glasses, that helmet, and the potent mix of balls and fundamental goodwill make him perhaps my favorite Batman — and that's even without the Wayne Industries fortune and with the considerable handicap of actually existing in reality.