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Image courtesy Barris Kustom Industries

King of the Kustoms: How George Barris helped revolutionize the auto industry

Although mostly known for his TV and movie cars, George Barris was one of the principle architects of hot rod culture. Kind of like a Star Trek actor condemned to be forever identified with pointy ears, Barris will always be synonymous with the Batmobile. But through his creative instincts and imagination, he (and other customisers)  introduced the whole idea of making your car your own. Barris died in 2015 at age 89, but Barris Kustom Industries continues modding cars in North Hollywood, Calif.

First published Sept. 11, 1997

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Beneath the blue skies of Southern California they labored, T-shirted rebels with a grinder in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, hacking out their works of art from ’51 Mercs. It was a time when goateed maniacs like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth built wacked-out, bug-eyed, fiberglass hot rods with names like “Beatnik Bandit” or “Outlaw;” when rogue bikers like Van Dutch would transform pin-striping into a whole new artform; when crew-cut drag racers would queue up at the Hula Hut to show off their full-race strokers before tearing up Slauson Avenue.

While the ’50s might be remembered as the era when automobile manufacturers cudgeled on the chrome and the tail fins, the true car design revolutions were occurring in dingy little California garages by self-taught customizers. It was their innovations that would eventually lead to today’s $18 billion aftermarket parts industry, and it was their ideas that auto companies would soon imitate to great success.

The godfather of this empire–the man who pioneered it all–is the King of Kustoms, George Barris. Although Barris became most famous for his creations in television shows and motion pictures (yes, the Batmobile), they’re but amusing sidelights to a career that helped shape the car in your own driveway.

“Cars today are just an extension of what we were doing in the ‘50s,” says the 71-year-old Barris from his famous North Hollywood shop, Barris Kustom Industries. “Lowered bodies, aerodynamic designs, front ends molded into one piece without chrome bumpers hanging out, slotted tail lights, ground effects packages, spoilers, half-tops, sunroofs…All that stuff, we were doing. That’s what we pioneered. Now the manufacturers are doing it because there’s a demand.”

When Barris started Barris’ Custom Shop with his brother Sam in 1945, you couldn’t say there was a big demand for such services. You got what you bought, and not many people seriously considered physically changing their cars. But Barris was never fully satisfied with Detroit’s styling efforts; in the ’30s, his first car was a hand-me-down 1925 Buick that he and his brother proceeded to change a bit–by giving it an orange and blue paint job with diagonal rainbow stripes.

“I never liked anything stock. I always liked to see what I could do to improve what [Detroit] made,” he says. “So that was why I went into customizing–I had more enjoyment from making something better than to continue making it as it was. A lot of people, companies, and collectors like to restore antiques or classics, but to me that wasn’t a thrill to put something back the way it was. I would like to take a ’57 Chevy and make it look better rather than just make it another ’57 Chevy.”

At the Custom Shop, he and Sam would take even more radical steps to transform Detroit’s lumpy family cars into sleek badasses: chopping tops and lowering suspensions, blending fenders into the main body, filling in seams and removing trim. On the groundbreaking Hirohata ’51 Merc (named for its owner), Sam Barris dared to remove the radically chopped car’s center roof pillar, creating a new “hardtop” look which Detroit quickly copied after the Kustom was featured at the 1952 Motorama. All of this was new stuff at the time–styling concepts that George had to sell the public on. And he didn’t have much competition, either.

“Actually, I had to pioneer it,” he says. “What I mean by ‘pioneer it’ was I had to really show people what we could do–most people didn’t understand. But then all of a sudden they said, ‘Oh, you mean you can chop that top, you can change those fenders, you can make a better looking grill than was in there.’”

In the early years of his business in the late ’40s, most of his customers were ex-servicemen who wanted something that looked new instead of the same old pre-war designs. Then one of Barris’ creations made it on the cover of a new sports car magazine called Road & Track in 1948, and his ideas began to get national attention. By the ’50s, things were heating up. His cars began winning prizes at big car shows. He became a correspondent for such magazines as Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Custom Cars, adding excitement to the new hot rod culture that was spreading from California across the country. And, even more importantly, he began supplying cars for the nearby film industry, starting with 1950’s Running Wild with Mamie Van Doren.

It was a fortuitous bit of timing–the automobile was just beginning to become a featured player in the movies, and who better to fashion cars with star power? Barris became the supplier and customizer to the studios, making cars for High School Confidential, The Lovebug, Fireball 500, and many others. And with that kind of notoriety, he started getting celebrity clients who wanted him to create their personal dream cars–John Wayne, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Dean Martin…Each client had special needs, which Barris fulfilled to great success.

“Liberace, he liked cars strictly for show biz–a lot of Sterling silver, a lot of jewelry, a lot of rhinestones–because he used them for his promotions and his shows. Whereas Frank Sinatra, his cars were strictly safety vehicles. We took a Dual Ghia and we made two master cylinders for the brakes, two electronic gas pedals–everything was because he wanted a back-up. If a brake failed, he wanted another brake there to back it up.”

Even after working with most of the biggest names in Hollywood royalty, Barris insists that he could never single out one client as his favorite.

“How can you say you like Frank Sinatra over Dean Martin or Dean Martin over Elvis Presley or Zsa Zsa Gabor? Everybody had their own impression of what they wanted: Zsa Zsa Gabor wanted a Rolls Royce with a lot of jewelry. John Travolta wanted a wild performance Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird (“Firebird Fever”). Farrah Fawcett wanted a Foxy ’Vette. Everybody has their own individuality, because a car is really an extension of the person.”

In the ’60s, Barris’ Kustoms could be seen on all the most popular TV shows: 77 Sunset Strip, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Green Hornet, The Monkees. His most famous TV car is probably the timeless Batmobile, the flaming turbine-powered supercar that was yearned for by every kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. Barris created it from the legendary dual-cowl Ford show car, the Futura, and it still looks like it could take on Barris’ newer movie Batmobiles. In the ’70s and ’80s, the TV boom continued with Starsky & Hutch‘s Torino, Knightrider‘s talking Firebird, The Dukes of Hazard‘s Charger. The only disappointment in that period was his brother Sam’s death from cancer in 1967.

Meanwhile, in the movies, Barris was everywhere: various James Bond cars, Burt Reynolds’ Bandit from Cannonball Run, the Ghostbusters‘ ambulance, Fred Flintstone’s car from the live-action movie, Jurassic Park‘s Ford Explorers. Again, Barris says he has no particular favorite. “No–that’s like telling a family that’s got 15 kids, ‘Which one’s your best one?’ What inspires me is not which one you like the best, but the challenge…and that when you complete a project, your client is satisfied.”

Right now, Barris’ shop is creating some vehicles for a few children’s shows–tricked-out motorcycles for Fox’s Beetleborg and a series of custom cars and morphing motorcycles for an upcoming show called Team Knightrider. “It’s kind of a sequel to the original Knightrider we did with David Hasselhoff in the ’80s, but it’s got five different young kids that use these automobiles to combat crime, terrorists, and things like that. There’s a lot of action, but no killing.”

Perhaps even more exciting for kustom car fans, Barris is concocting a pair of special new show cars, just like in the old days.

“[One is] a brand-new Cougar made into a 1950 Ford Woodie. That means it’s a Woodie but it’s a Cougar, and I have touches of what I call the millennium–the 2050 vehicle. It’s not way out because I still got the ’50s design; and I’m introducing that in the big show in Oakland in 1998. And in 1999 is the big tribute to me from the Automobile Association, and I’m building a special ’51 Merc that’s both of the ’50s and also the 2000 era.”

With automakers and aftermarket parts suppliers offering the very same products he pioneered in the ’50s, George Barris’ legacy grows ever larger with countless consumers creating their own personal “kustoms.” Even more telling is the fact that big car companies like Chrysler are making and selling their own hot rods, from the Plymouth Prowler to the Dodge Viper. Hot-rod culture is “in” these days, popularized by “low-brow” artists like Robert Williams and Coop and evident by the racing stripes on expensive slacker-wear. Although Barris hasn’t taken on any protégés lately (“We don’t have the time”), he’s enthused about the kustom car scene today, from the cool cars to the new artisans.

“There are a lot of tremendous artists out there, a lot of good young designers, and there’s a tremendous amount of craftsmen. There are great, great car builders now. It’s expanded into where it’s a major marketplace because the young craftsmen have realized that working with your hands has done more and can do more than putting on a white collar and tie and working at the bank.”

George Barris, King of the Kustoms

Coury Turczyn

Coury Turczyn is a concerned consumer of popular culture. Got an interesting story idea or an amazing financial opportunity to share? Contact him at coury@popcultmag.com.

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