Holy custom car, Batman 

It's George Barris!

It’s George Barris!
A hush fell over the crowd of 600 at the annual Hotrod and Restoration trade show in Indianapolis recently as 50-year-old film footage rolled, portraying the antics of two Greek brothers showing off in front of the customized cars that created an industry ... and a legend. When the lights came up, Robert “Pete” Petersen, founder of the Petersen Automotive Museum, presented one of the brothers, George Barris — the “King of Kustomizers” — with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in sparking a design revolution that pioneered the hot rod custom industry.
George Barris, the “King of Kustomizers,” was recently honored at the annual Hotrod and Restoration trade show in Indianapolis.

Petersen and Barris have a personal history that dates to 1948, when Barris exhibited the only custom car in Petersen’s first hot rod show in L.A. “When Pete started Hot Rod magazine, I started taking pictures of all these cars. That was really big because suddenly people all across the United States could see what we were doing,” Barris says. Along with his wife, he often worked around the clock on magazine layouts of his custom creations for the magazine that always sold out when Barris’ cars were on the cover. Born in Chicago in 1925, Barris moved in with relatives in Roseville, Calif., three years later, after the death of his parents. Uninterested in the Greek restaurant his family owned, Barris turned his attention to design, where his talent for building balsa models of planes and cars won competitions. By age 13, he performed his first full-scale custom job. Barris received a hand-me-down 1925 Buick. “Customizing at that time was going to the hardware store and picking up mud flaps, fox tails, antennas and paint for scallops. My aunt was so angry when she found out I stole all the door knobs and drawer knobs in the house to use in the grille. I just thought it made the car look better.” The first Barris Brothers custom car was born.

Kustom with a “K”
Barris honed his natural talent with classes in mechanical drawing, metal-working, wood shop and art — and by applying his imagination to more cars. Shortly after he sold the Buick, he restyled a 1929 Model A, a 1932 Ford roadster and a 1936 Ford convertible. “I added an alligator hood, Frenched headlights and fenders,” he says. “Pretty soon, everybody wanted one. I charged $10 for a couple foxtails and made a bundle. It was better than a paper route!” Barris chuckles at the tall tale as he reflects on the ’36 Ford that founded his trademark “Kustom” with a “K.” In 1945 Barris and his brother opened the “Barris Brothers’ Custom Shop” in Los Angeles. Older brother Sam handled the metal fabricating while George designed, painted and promoted. The brothers bought new cars, drove them the 10 miles to their shop, then took them apart. A fire in 1957 destroyed the shop and 14 cars, but Barris kept going, soaring to new heights the following year with a restyled ’29 Model A Ford pickup known as A La Kart — one of the top show cars of all time — and later released as a scale model kit. In the ’60s, Barris built six cars for the Ford Motor Company’s famed Custom Car Caravan, and toured the country with them. As his reputation grew, so did his famous clientele list, which now expanded to include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, Mike Connors, Adam West and Sonny & Cher. Not only were the stars knocking on his door, so were Hollywood producers. Barris Kustom Industries began creating cars for TV shows and movies in 1952 with the first episode of Jack Webb’s Dragnet. Credits include a special coupe for the Dobie Gillis series, the Munsters Koach and Drag-u-la vehicles, Ghostbusters Ectomobile, Dukes of Hazzard General Lee, the Monkees car, James Bond cars, Knightrider’s K.I.T.T. and the Flintstonesmobile. But the most well-known television car of all time remains the original Lincoln Futura Batmobile, which appeared in the first episode of Batman. “The Futura was built in the ’50s,” Barris recalls. “It’s not a production car. The Futura was the product of designer William Schmidt and the car was released to me when I was with the Ford Custom Caravan. I would take these experimental cars that come from the division and use them for film work. I wanted to use the Futura because it already had the double bubbles. All I had to do was remove a part of the central section and keep the fore and aft. Then I put in the arches, lights and everything else. Using the Futura enabled me to save a lot of time. I only had three weeks to build the car!” Other work on the car included extending the drive train 11 inches to compensate for the specially sculpted 23-foot aerodynamic body. The engine is a 429 racing Ford with dual turbo super chargers and nitro oxide thrust control. Barris remains hard at work, running the show tour circuit and continuing to design cars for film — scribbling away on napkins at local Denny’s. Barris’ work is featured on Extreme Makeover on ABC, Monster Garage, the new Starsky & Hutch movie and numerous trade shows. He has also provided ideas for production concepts to some of the major auto manufacturers. Today’s aftermarket graphic packages and ground affects have their root in the Barris shop, as well. He is generous with his time and his advice. “Learn to be a craftsman. Whether you want to be an artist, a designer, a fabricator, a customizer — learn to be the best you can. And if you’re going to go into the retail or consumer area, learn to make your customer happy.” There isn’t a customizer on the planet that hasn’t been influenced by the work of Barris. He shrugs it off. “I just like cars. Customizing is a way for people to express themselves. You go to a cul-de-sac and you see the Browns, the Jones and the Smiths. They all live on the same street, but each one has an individual car. It’s an expression of themselves, and it’s got to be different. They’re all trying to say, ‘I did better than the guy next door because I’ve got directional chrome wheels.” With 17 America’s Most Beautiful Roadster titles, it appears that George Barris is the best guy on the block. “You’ve got to have something that looks good, has good workmanship and great detail. You have to have it all, or it just doesn’t gel.”

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Lori Lovely

Lori Lovely is a contributing freelance writer. Her passions include animal rights, Native American affairs and the Indianapolis 500.

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