George Barris’ custom cars are legend in hot rod industry
Cut-up photographs of a black Ford F-150 lie scattered across George Barris’ desk, forming a mosaic of fenders, headlamps and rear-quarter panels.
Barris’ eyes flicker over each fragment as he rearranges the parts of a normal-looking pickup truck and transforms it into the lunatic hot rod vision he has bouncing around in his head.
He dabs glue onto one scrap and sets it on paper. Then, another and another. Finally, he stands back and examines what has come together. The disorder has taken the shape of a mean-looking motor machine with a modified front grill, flared fenders and enlarged hood scoop.
“Pretty cool, isn’t it?” he asks. “Wait until you see the real thing.”
Barris has worked this way — using scissors and glue — for the last 70 years, taking ordinary vehicles and mutating them into hell-for-leather roadsters. Many of them have found a place in automotive history.
Others have been immortalized on television and in the movies. He turned a 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura into the Batmobile. He stretched out a Model T body and, with a few tweaks, made it into the ghastly vehicle that the Munsters drove in the TV show.
Barris, 87, was one of the first Southland car customizers to chop, channel and re-engineer automobiles. Detroit produced the cars, but it was Southern California that souped them up, customized them and delivered hot rods.
What began as a slightly subversive trend in the ‘40s is now a bona fide profession, running at full speed today behind garage doors — even in a world where gas-sipping hybrids and subcompact cars seem to be getting all the attention.
Many hot rodders and customizers see their work as art and Barris as an old master.
“He’s a legend when it comes to developing the passion, sport or whatever you want to call the hot rod industry,” said Troy Ladd, the founder of Hollywood Hot Rods, a custom car shop in Burbank.
Barris will hold court this week in Las Vegas, where about 125,000 hot rodders and auto enthusiasts are expected to gather for an annual after-market car trade show. He will be wearing his signature wraparound rose-colored sunglasses and bright yellow windbreaker with Barris Kustom Industries stitched on the back.
Barris’ love of cars came early. By the time he was 7 years old, he was piecing together balsa wood car models, changing the way they’d look, maybe with a dash of paint or a modification to the body. His attention to detail paid off. It didn’t take long before he was entering and winning model contests sponsored by hobby shops.
His family wanted him to work at its Greek restaurant in a Sacramento suburb, but Barris resisted. When he was a teenager, he rushed to sweep floors at a local auto body shop as soon as school let out. Before long, he was handling a blowtorch, shaping the immense metal auto bodies of the era.
When he turned 18, Barris left and moved to Los Angeles to become part of the emerging teen car culture. With his savings, he opened Barris Custom Shop on Imperial Highway in Bell. He later switched it to “Kustom” because it looked more creative.
“Because I was Greek, I spelled it with a K,” Barris said. “I wish I would have trademarked that. I’d be a millionaire.”
He would try anything to get the right look. Barris would cut a car’s suspension coils so it would ride lower in front and be kicked up in the rear. He’d “french” the headlights, meaning he’d mold them into the body to get a smoother look on the car. Once, to get the ideal shade of pearl, he grated the scales off a sardine and mixed them up in paint.
He and other teenagers showed off their flashy custom cars at drive-ins and hamburger stands across Southern California. Barris’ 1936 Ford roadster drew a lot of admiring looks. He gave it a custom silver paint job and removed the door handles to make it look more streamlined. He took the running boards off and shaved the fenders to make the front end pointed.
“I had just come from Sacramento, and I wasn’t supposed to know anything,” Barris told Tom Wolfe in “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” a book of essays that celebrated SoCal’s custom car industry. “I was a tourist but my car was wilder than anything around. I remember one night this kid comes up with a roadster with no handles. It looked real sharp, but he had to kick the door from the inside to open it. You should have seen the look on his face when he saw mine — I had the same thing, only with electric buttons.”
Soon, Barris’ custom cars were causing a buzz. People sought him out, and his business took off.
His work caught the attention of Robert E. Petersen (the name behind Petersen Automotive Museum), who published Hot Rod, Street Rodder and Motor Trend magazines. After Barris’ curvy, candy-colored cars appeared in print in 1948, he began getting more attention than the top designers in Detroit. Hollywood took notice too.
In 1955, James Dean came in and asked Barris to work on his new Porsche Spyder. Barris employees painted the number 130, racing stripes and “Little Bastard” on the car.
Less than a month later, the Spyder was found wrecked at the junction of routes 466 and 41 near Paso Robles. Dean, who was behind the wheel, was killed.
“I told Jimmy he shouldn’t drive all the way up there,” Barris said. “He wouldn’t listen.”
The entertainment industry turned to Barris to create cars for films with titles like “High School Confidential!” (1958) and “For Those Who Think Young” (1964). More cars ended up becoming major figures in scripts.
When producers of the “Batman” television show asked for a car that Adam West could battle villains with, Barris turned out a midnight-black and fluorescent-red pinstriped monster. The car features bulletproof plexiglass bubble windshields; the Bat Ray (dual 450-watt laser beams that blasted obstacles to bits); the Bat-O-Meter, which identified where the bad guys were; and the oil squirters (once lawn sprinkler heads) to foil evildoers.
“I saw the script and it said, ‘Bang,’ ‘Pow,’ ‘Boom,’ ” Barris said. “That’s exactly what I wanted the car to be able to do. I wanted it to be as big a character as the actors themselves.”
Barris said he transformed the Lincoln in just 15 days for $15,000.
Producers of “The Munsters” asked Barris to get a hearse for the TV family’s car. But he had a better idea: He welded together three Model T bodies, put casket handles around the engine and decked out the interior in blood-red velvet.
Under the hood, he put a Ford Cobra engine with 10 chrome-plated carburetors. Barris designed and built it for $18,000 and called it “The Munster Koach.”
Elvis Presley, a frequent customer, became a close friend. Barris decorated the ceiling of Elvis’ 1960 Cadillac limo with gold records and built in a 24-karat gold cabinet with a gold-plated swivel for a TV.
Frank Sinatra asked Barris to darken all his car windows because he didn’t like being recognized. After Barris blacked them out, Sinatra complained, saying, “George, I couldn’t see a … thing.”
Michael Jackson came in with a Rolls-Royce, which had been scratched up: “My car has been hurt,” Barris recalled Jackson telling him. Barris said he would fix it in the next day or two. Jackson left but came back half an hour later and put Band-Aids over every single scratch.
Barris has a photo of Jackson and almost every other star who walked into his shop. The postcard-sized shots line the walls of his shop in North Hollywood.
There he is standing next to Bob Hope. Chatting up John Wayne about a station wagon. Grinning alongside John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
“They were friends who wanted outrageous things done to their automobiles,” Barris said. “And they knew I could make it happen.”
Although his work is widely regarded, Barris hasn’t escaped critics. He is known as a ceaseless promoter, and some say he claims credit for work that isn’t his.
One time in front of his shop, he showcased the famous DeLorean DMC-12 featured in the “Back to the Future” films. Universal Studios, believing that Barris was misrepresenting his involvement with the movie, obtained a cease-and-desist court order in 2007.
Barris said the car belonged to a friend. He said he had never claimed he built or designed it and had displayed it to promote the car industry. “That’s my passion, and something I’ve always done,” he said.
Barris still rides around in style. His everyday car is a gold-painted Toyota Prius with emerald green metallic accents. Its doors? They slide up, opening like a Lamborghini.
Barris Kustom Industries is now on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood. It is packed with toy cars and action figures and posters from the projects Barris worked on. Some of those famous cars, including the original Batmobile and the Munster Koach, are stored in a gallery there.
Barris’ phone — its ring tone is a familiar theme song: “Na na na na na ... Batman” — doesn’t ring nearly as often with crazy requests as it once did. He’s always had help running the business. First he worked with his brother, Sam. Then with his wife, Shirley. Now his daughter and other family members have taken on a larger role.
His grandson Jared, 23, took what Barris had pasted on paper and created a computerized model of the reimagined F-150. The two said they blended their “new school and old school” techniques and refined the truck’s design. Then they fabricated a custom grill. They lowered the frame about 10 inches. They built new side rails on the bed of the truck.
After five months, they ended up with a black-and-red roadster with sharp bat-wing fenders — a new spin on the classic Batmobile.
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