Star cars set off alarms

Times Staff Writer

If he could go back to the future, maybe famed movie car icon George Barris wouldn't have had that gadget-filled DeLorean parked in front of his North Hollywood customizing shop during his big ceremony.

The "Back to the Future" DeLorean sat near the Batmobile, the Monkeemobile, the General Lee from the "Dukes of Hazzard" TV show, K.I.T.T. from the "Knight Rider" series and other automobiles symbolizing Barris' car-customizing skills on March 23 as city officials commemorated his six-decade Hollywood career.

Barris and City Councilman Tom LaBonge unveiled a street sign designating Riverside Drive and Riverton Avenue as "George Barris Place" while hundreds of fans clustered around the glitzy cars applauded and cheered.

There was no cheering from nearby Universal Studios, however. Or from some of Hollywood's other movie car customizers.

Studio officials responded with a cease and desist order demanding that Barris never again make "misrepresentations regarding any involvement with the 'Back to the Future' films." They called upon Barris to remove images of the flying DeLorean from his company's website and restrict his display of replicas of the gull-winged car used by Michael J. Fox to time travel in the popular 1985 movie and its sequels.

Others, meanwhile, complained that film cars such as the K.I.T.T., the General Lee and the Monkeemobile were not originally designed and built by Barris, either.

The dust-up illustrates the confusion that often exists among car buffs over "picture cars," which can come in different versions. "Hero cars" are the nicest and actors are photographed in those; "stunt cars" are less perfect and are used for chases and crashes; "promotional cars" are displayed for publicity and do not actually appear on film; and "replica cars" are privately built copies of the real thing.

That explains why there are multiple Batmobiles -- countless fiberglass knockoffs owned by "Batman" movie fans as well as the original Barris-built version. And why more than 300 General Lees were said to have been jumped, crunched and crashed in the filming of the "Dukes" series -- while hundreds of more orange-painted 1969 Dodge Chargers were customized by fans.

A replica of the "Back to the Future" DeLorean is what attracted the attention of Universal Studios during Barris' street-naming ceremony.

"George Barris had absolutely nothing to do with the design or construction of the DeLorean time travel vehicle," said Bob Gale, who was a writer and producer on the film. "The DeLorean was designed on paper by Ron Cobb and Andrew Probert, and it was built under the supervision of special effects supervisor Kevin Pike and construction coordinator Michael Scheffe."

Barris acknowledged that the DeLorean displayed at the ceremony was never used in any of the "Back to the Future" films. It is a replica car that was brought to the event by its owner.

According to Barris, an animated gallery of movie cars displayed on his website included the DeLorean because he once customized one for a Universal-licensed collector who wanted to display it. He said Universal also asked him to "clean up" a DeLorean stunt car that had been built on a Volkswagen chassis so it could be used for promotional work.

"I didn't work on the show and I've never said I did," said Barris, who is in his mid-80s.

Barris was responsible for creating the 1966 Batmobile, which he famously constructed from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car. But he played only a supporting role on the General Lee, the Ecto-1 and other movie cars, according to entertainment industry experts.

Credits for "Dukes of Hazzard" list Ken Fritz, Tom Sarmento, Rich Sephton, A.J. Thrasher, Andre Veluzat and Renaud Veluzat as car builders. Barris is credited for "car modifications."

For the 1982 "Knight Rider" movie and its 84-episode TV series, Scheffe designed and built the computer-crammed K.I.T.T. car used by David Hasselhoff. Barris was hired to build an upgraded version of the car for the show's third season with concept sketches from Scheffe.

But Barris "kind of makes it sound like he came up with the original concept," said movie car fan Nate Truman, a TV graphics operator who lives in Gardena and owns a replica Batmobile.

"Ghostbusters" credits do not list a designer for Ecto-1, the 1959 Cadillac ambulance that carried the ghost-busting team and its gear. But actor-writer Dan Aykroyd is usually given the nod for suggesting an Ectomobile in early versions of the script.

Barris, however, converted another Cadillac vehicle into a replica Ecto-1 that was displayed in an Illinois car museum. He shows the Ecto-1 on his website. "All we did was the promotional car, for publicity for the film," he said.

Cahuenga Boulevard cinema car customizer Dean Jeffries is credited with building the Monkeemobile for the 1960s sitcom "The Monkees." He built two of them -- one for use in the show and one for display at car shows and other promotions -- from a pair of 1966 Pontiac GTO convertibles.

Barris said he now owns the Monkeemobile show car. He displays it at his Riverside Drive shop.

"Dean Jeffries designed it and Dick Dean built it. We finished it and we bought it" and now includes it in his own collection of star cars, Barris said. "I always credit Dean Jeffries for doing it."

Jeffries said he has grown weary of Barris taking improper credit for work -- including the painting of the words "Little Bastard" on the Porsche that actor James Dean was driving when he was fatally injured in a 1955 crash.

But the credit line is sometimes confusing.

Barris often autographs movie cars in his own collection that were actually designed and customized by others. That's how car collector Christopher Ingrassia of East Dundee, Ill., came to own a car from the film "Taxi" that bears Barris' signature on its hood when, in fact, it was built by film-car customizer Eddie Paul.

"It leads somebody to believe that he did the original car, and he didn't do it," said Ingrassia, who plans to buff off Barris' name. "I don't want to diminish George. I just want the record straight."

Paul, an El Segundo customizer who created cars for "Grease," said he now photographically documents all of the vehicles he makes for movies.

"The car guys want to get the story out while George Barris is still alive and can be confronted," Paul said. "I don't personally dislike him. But he's messing up the industry by misrepresenting history."

K.I.T.T. creator Scheffe, a Mar Vista resident who now is an art director for Sony Pictures Imageworks, agreed.

"George is an institution. He's done amazing things. I don't want to step on anyone's toes. But it's good for the people who did the work to get credit for it."

For his part, Barris said his references in interviews to "our cars" and "my stunt crew" reflect his allegiance to the Hollywood car community as a whole. Over the course of a lengthy TV series' production, picture car construction can be "a group effort," he said.

He signs other craftsmen's cars "if they're in my Barris Star Cars Collection. It doesn't mean I built it," he said.

"I promote and encourage the car industry. That's what I've always done."

bob.pool@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°