GEORGE BARRIS TRIBUTE PAGE
GEORGE BARRIS CAR CUSTOMIZER
George and his brother Sam (1924–1967) were born in Chicago in the 1920s. Barris was three years old when their father, a Greek immigrant from Chios, sent the brothers to live with an uncle and his wife in Roseville, California following the death of their mother.
By age 7, Barris was making models of cars employing balsa wood and modifying their design and appearance with careful attention to details so his entries won contests sponsored by hobby shops.
The brothers worked at the Greek restaurant owned by their family, and were given a 1925 Buick for their help. Although it was not in good shape, they swiftly restored it to running condition, and began to experiment with changing its appearance. This became the first Barris Brothers custom car. They sold it at a profit to buy another project vehicle. Before George had graduated from high school, demand for their work was growing, and they had created a club for owners of custom vehicles, called the Kustoms Car Club. This was the first use of the spelling "kustom", which would become associated with Barris.
Barris attended San Juan High School and "rushed to sweep floors at a local auto body shop as soon as school let out". Barris resisted his family's desire for him to work at its Greek restaurant in a Sacramento suburb. He moved to Los Angeles after turning 18 years old to "become part of the emerging teen car culture" and opened the "Barris Custom Shop" on Imperial Highway in Bell, California.
Sam entered the Navy during World War II. Sam joined George in Los Angeles after being discharged. The two built their "kustom" designs for private buyers, and George also built and raced his own cars briefly. These activities brought them to the attention of the movie industry, and they were soon asked to create cars both for personal use by the studio executives and stars and as props for films, their first being used in 1958's High School Confidential. They also made the acquaintance of Robert E. Petersen, founder of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines and, much later, of the Petersen Auto Museum. His car shows further publicized the Barris style, as did the car customizing how-to articles George wrote and Petersen published.
George passed away on November 5, 2015
Mr. Barris, a veteran of the body shops of Sacramento and Los Angeles, was a towering figure in the Southern California subculture of customizers and hot-rodders, known both for the sophistication of his design work and his flair for self-promotion.
He and his older brother, Sam, treated standard-issue Mercurys, Buicks and Fords as mere starting points for reinterpretation. They stripped away trim, reshaped body parts, and pirated grilles, headlights and taillights from other car models. George created his own line of outré paints, called Kandy Colors, to impart luster and depth to vehicles that became, in effect, rolling works of street art.
In his baroque phase, Mr. Barris designed a slew of special-order cars for television, most famously transforming a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car, in three weeks, into the finned Batmobile for the 1960s television series “Batman.”
In an entirely different vein he spliced a 1921 Oldsmobile and a flatbed pickup for the sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and he incorporated a coffin in creating a car called Drag-u-La for another sitcom, “The Munsters.” (He also created the family car, the Munster Koach, for the same show.)
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“He made a look — the Southern California customized car look — that was very distinctive,” said John DeWitt, the author of “Cool Cars, High Art: The Rise of Kustom Kulture.” “But his great contribution was putting customizing on the map. He was a phenomenal publicist and showman. L.A. was the perfect place for him.”
George Salapatas was born on Nov. 20, 1925, in Chicago. His mother died when he was 3, and his father sent his two sons to be raised by relatives in Roseville, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento. The Barris name was fashioned from Salapatas and another family name, Badacardes.
Both George and Sam were car-crazy. When the brothers were in their early teens, they customized a 1925 Buick sedan that their father had given them, applying orange and blue stripes and fitting it with hubcaps and metal trim fashioned from Woolworth pots and pans.
While in high school, George worked part time at local body shops, putting in time under Harry Westergard, a legendary car customizer, and completing his first full custom job, on his own 1936 Ford roadster.
In 1942, Sam enlisted in the merchant marine and George moved to Los Angeles, intending to follow suit, but a promised assignment never came. Instead, he found work with Jones’s Body, Fender and Paint Shop, where he became foreman. He opened his own shop, in Bell, a suburb of Los Angeles, in 1944.
“It was like Tiepolo emerging from the studios of Venice, where the rounded Grecian haunches of the murals on the Palladian domes hung in the atmosphere like clouds,” Mr. Wolfe wrote in a famous passage. “Except that Barris emerged from the auto-body shops of Los Angeles.”
The brothers reunited after the war and moved the shop, now called Barris Kustom, to Los Angeles. In 1948, George’s customized 1941 Buick took the top prize at the first Hot Rod Exposition at the Los Angeles Armory. It was the first in a long series of prizewinning custom jobs marked by a modernist feel for streamlining and understatement.
“Detroit cars are usually very well designed — so well, in fact, that we seldom change the basic lines,” Mr. Barris told Motor Trend magazine in 1953. “Instead, we accentuate them, develop them beyond the limits imposed by mass production, and try to refine them into a car which has design plus more lasting quality.”
Mr. Barris’s creations reached a national audience through car shows, new magazines like Hot Rod, Car Craft and Rod and Custom, and model kits sold by companies like Revell, Aurora and AMT. One car in particular sealed the brothers’ reputation: the Hirohata Merc, a 1951 Mercury Club Coupe that Sam and George transformed into a sleek, elongated teardrop.
The car, named after its owner, Bob Hirohata, expressed the Barris aesthetic in its classic period. The brothers extended the front and rear fenders, removed the chrome trim, lowered the roof, dropped the chassis to within a few inches of the ground and painted the car an arresting sea-foam green with dark green panels. Two 1953 Lincoln taillights were “Frenched,” or smoothed into the contours of the fender, and a new grille was fashioned from three 1951 Ford grilles.
The Hirohata Merc was the hit of the 1952 Motorama show in Los Angeles and a superstar after it appeared on the cover of Motor Trend. Rod and Custom documented Mr. Hirohata’s journey as he drove the car on Route 66 to the Indianapolis Custom Show, where it took first prize.
“The Barris brothers didn’t merely improve the looks of the original or ‘individualize’ it with bolt-on accessories as is done today,” Mr. DeWitt wrote in an essay on the Hirohata Merc for The American Poetry Review in 2009. “They reimagined it, redesigned it and rebuilt it so that it embodied a culture, a California car culture’s idea of what it meant to be completely cool.”
Ala Kart, a customized 1929 Ford pickup, won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster trophy at the Oakland Roadster Show (now the Grand National Roadster Show) two years running, in 1958 and 1959. “It gives you a feeling that you’ve done something to make a better world,” Mr. Barris told Rod and Custom in 1962.
Detroit took note. In the early 1960s, Ford hired Mr. Barris to customize production cars for two traveling exhibitions, Ford’s Custom Car Caravan and Lincoln/Mercury’s Caravan of Stars. Before long, the innovations of customizers like Mr. Barris began finding their way into the new breed of muscle cars, a development that spelled the end of the golden age of customizing.
Mr. Barris’s cars gained cachet with film actors and other notables. He did his first celebrity job for Lionel Hampton, the jazz musician — a Jaguar — and a slew of commissions followed. He created a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado for Liberace with sterling-silver grand-piano hood ornaments that played “I’ll Be Seeing You” when opened.
His celebrity projects also included Elvis Presley’s 1960 Cadillac Fleetwood (with a gold-plated record player, drinks cabinet and shoe buffer inside), a gold Rolls-Royce for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a caricature golf cart, with ski-jump nose, for Bob Hope.
Inevitably, the movies came calling. After the Hirohata Merc made an appearance in the 1955 film “Running Wild,” with Mamie Van Doren, Mr. Barris built two duplicate chopped and channeled 1948 Chevy stunt cars for the drag-racing scene in “High School Confidential” (one doomed to be crashed), and the chopped Mercury that James Dean drove in “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Mr. Barris did some of his most memorable work for television. In addition to the Batmobile, the Munster Koach and the “Beverly Hillbillies” jalopy, he designed the fictional 1928 Porter driven by Jerry Van Dyke in “My Mother the Car.”
Over the decades, the price of gasoline skyrocketed and the cars got smaller, but Mr. Barris managed to keep his hand in, producing custom versions of the Toyota Prius (at the request of The New York Times Magazine) and the 2010 Chevy Camaro. In 2013, the Batmobile, which he had owned through the years, sold for $4.62 million at the annual Barrett-Jackson auto auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Designed exclusively for the hit 1966 "Batman" TV show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. This automotive wonder was styled and engineered with the many different special effects innovations by Barris Kustom Industries. Originally it started off as a $250,000 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura concept car. With a deadline of 3 weeks this Lincoln was transformed into the world’s most famous car.
Weight is 5500 pounds and it has completely hand formed steel body. Wheel base is 129 inches; overall length is 206 inches and the top height is 48 inches. Powered by a 429 Ford Full Race engine, Moon equipped, NitroOxide Thrust Front end design characteristic is the face of a bat with the hood scoop extending down into the frontal area accentuating the nose. Right and left eyes extend into the ears with dual 450 watt laser beams installed in amber reflective lenses. Hood scoop follows the front area with a hydraulically operated steel chain and cable cutter blade.
Hidden behind the ears are functional headlights for normal street driving. The grille cavity is the mouth of the bat with the internal mounted rockets. Dual 84 inch rear bat fins are in line with bullet proof steel as added protection for Batman and Robin. Operable red reflective taillights are mounted in the rear of the bat fins. Four 6 inch flared eyebrow bullet proof wheels wells are formed and used as tire protectors. Ten inch wide Rader wheels made of steel and power thrust alloy use traction grip Oval Firestone tires. The rear upper panel has triple rocket tubes and are on an automatic theft control system with shooting colored fire rockets. 360 degree turning is made possible by pulling the emergency bat turn lever that releases and billows the bat impression twin parachutes on a 25 foot nylon cord. Turbine exhaust finned air cooling rear tube is mounted on the V cavity rear grille section with both parachutes installed on each side. Twin aircraft streamlined plexi-glass bubble windshields and top section are made bullet proof and matching in design.
The center safety roll bar arch is made of alloy steel and equipped with operable flashing lights, right and left trouble shooters and miscellaneous warning lights, and then attached to the double bubble top. Twin body contoured air foam bucket seats are formed into the cab compartment of Scottish grain black naugahyde in horseshoe designs, pleats and rolls, black nylon shoulder body and safety belts are fitted for Batman and Robin. The center consul incorporates the power accelerator T arm and the Batman fire extinguisher. Steering wheel incorporates right and left turn indicator buttons made in half aircraft design with all the dials, gauges and speedo installed in center hub.
The dash is equipped with many different Batman innovations such as the Batscope that is hooked up with a revolving closed circuit antenna to bring the Batman full vision plus the Bateye switch for anti-theft control, the antenna is for an information radio wave pickup of messages and computering from the Batcave with an electronic unit installed in trunk. A Detect-a-scope is used to determine the area in which Batman or Robin are in, also the Batray reactors and laser beam button controls, plus many flashing warning lights and directional electronic systems.
MORE ON GEORGE BARRIS
In the 1960s, the Barris firm became heavily
involved in vehicle design for television production. At the beginning of the decade, Barris, who loved
extravagant design, had purchased the Lincoln Futura, a concept car of the mid-1950s which had been built by
Ghia of Italy. It remained in his collection for several years, until he was rather unexpectedly asked by ABC
Television to create a signature vehicle for their Batman television series. Time was very short, as filming
would begin in a few weeks, leaving insufficient time for a new design from scratch. Instead, Barris decided
the Futura was a perfect base on which to create the Batmobile. Barris hired custom builder Gene Cushenberry
to modify the car, which was ready in three weeks. The show was a hit, and the car gained notoriety for
Barris. He retained ownership of the Batmobile until an auction on January 19, 2013, when Barris sold it for
Other television cars built by Barris Kustom Industries include the The Munster Koach and casket turned dragster (the "Drag-U-La") for The Munsters, an Oldsmobile Toronado turned into a roadster used in the first season of Mannix, a 1921 Oldsmobile touring car turned into a truck for The Beverly Hillbillies, the fictional "1928 Porter" for the NBC comedy My Mother the Car, Updated KITTs for later seasons of Knight Rider and replicas of 1914 Stutz Bearcats for Bearcats!.
George Barris was responsible for the frame of the original Batmobile and other famous customized automobiles he created for various celebrities. Barris created a customized gold Rolls Royce for actress Zsa Zsa Gabor. The golden Rolls Royce displayed the detailed work of Barris and included hand-etched window glass by Robb Rich showing butterflies, roses, and hummingbirds.
Barris has built many novelty vehicles for other celebrities; these include golf carts for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann-Margret, Glen Campbell, and Elton John; and 25 modified Mini Mokes for a record company contest involving the Beach Boys. He would also modify cars for Hollywood stars and others. Some examples include a Cadillac limousine for Elvis Presley; custom Pontiac station wagons for John Wayne, and a pair of "his & hers" 1966 Ford Mustang convertibles for Sonny and Cher. With the cooperation of American Motors, in 1969 he modified an AMX coupe into the AMX-400 show car which was later used in a 1972 episode of the TV mystery series Banacek, and a Cadillac Eldorado turned into a station wagon for Dean Martin.
Between 2002 and 2006, Barris also designed two custom Cadillac hearses for episodes of the cable television series Monster Garage. Barris' company often builds replicas of non-Barris designed vehicles from other TV series, including The Monkees (Monkeemobile), Starsky and Hutch (Ford Torino), Power Rangers (Rad-Bug, Turbo Vehicles, and SPD Cars), and Knight Rider
(Some of the cars are not Barris Customs. Thanks to the comments for the updates. Although the video is not completely accurate in depicting the Barris touch, you get the idea of what a true craftsmen he was.)
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