George Barris

Batmobile

George Barris (1925 – 2015) was an American designer and builder of many famous Hollywood custom cars, most notably the Munster Koach and 1966 Batmobile.

George and his brother Sam 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.

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 and 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.

In 1951, Sam customized a new Mercury coupe for himself, and a customer who saw it ordered a similar car. This vehicle, known as the ‘Hirohata Merc’ for its owner, was shown at the 1952 General Motors Motorama auto show and was so popular it overshadowed the best work of Detroit’s top designers. It also established the early 1950s Mercury as a popular basis for custom car design. In addition, Sam built ‘Ala Kart,’ a 1929 Ford Model A roadster pickup. After taking two AMBR (America’s Most Beautiful Roadster) wins in a row, the car made numerous film and television appearances, usually in the background of diner scenes.

Sam decided to leave the business in the 1950s, but George had married, and he credited his wife Shirley with major assistance in promoting the company, which eventually became Barris Kustom Industries. It began to license its designs to model car manufacturers such as Aurora, Revell, MPC, and AMT, which spread the Barris name into every hobby, department, and discount store in the U.S.

In the early 1960s, Barris, along with other well-known customizers (Gene Winfield, Dean Jeffries, and the Alexander Brothers) reworked production cars for Ford’s ‘Custom Car Caravan’ and ‘Lincoln/Mercury’s Caravan of Stars.’ The traveling exhibits were designed to appeal to younger car buyers, both current and future.

According to Barris, some of his first film work consisted of making soft aluminum fenders for a Ford police car that crashes into the rear of a Mercedes Benz convertible driven by Cary Grant’s character in ‘North by Northwest.’ The idea was to give the collision a comedic quality while also preventing serious damage to the expensive Mercedes. He also loaned some of his customs for the ‘future’ scenes in the 1960 film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine.’ Other Barris-built film cars included a modified Dodge Charger for ‘Thunder Alley,’ a Plymouth Barracuda for ‘Fireball 500,’ the futuristic Supervan for the film of the same name, a gadget-filled Mercury station wagon for ‘The Silencers,’ and a sinister rework of a Lincoln Continental Mark III for ‘The Car.’

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 in 2013, when Barris sold it for $4,620,000.

Other television cars built by Barris Kustom Industries include 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!’

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 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, a Cadillac Eldorado turned into a station wagon for Dean Martin, and ‘his and 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 ‘Banacek.’

In the 1990s, NASA contacted Barris to discuss an original Moonscope vehicle he designed back in 1966 that became a successful plastic car model for collectors. Its 6-wheel spider suspension and large wedged tires caught the attention of engineers preparing for the Martian rovers and eventual human Mars vehicles. Edward Lozzi, former White House Press Advance Office staffer and spokesperson for George Barris, who would later become a media consultant to Apollo Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, negotiated the request with NASA and stated, ‘NASA contacted my office and requested the original designs of the Moonscope from Barris. They revealed they were interested in studying the Barris designs for the Martian vehicles. Barris gave them permission and NASA sent people to meet with him.’

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 & Hutch’ (Ford Torino, and ‘Power Rangers’ (Turbo Vehicles). Barris also designed and built the ‘Wagon Queen Family Truckster,’ based on a 1979 Ford Country Squire station wagon, for the 1983 film National Lampoon’s Vacation.

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