George Barris (auto customizer)

George Barris (auto customizer)

George Barris is one of the best-known designers of custom cars in the world. With some justification, he styles himself King of the Kustomizers.


George and his brother Sam were born in Chicago in the 1920s. Due to the deaths of their parents, they moved, as children, to Roseville, California, to live with relatives. Both were good students, interested in drama, music, and design. George was fascinated with model aircraft, and pursued the hobby seriously in his teenage years, winning competitions.

The Barris brothers worked at a restaurant owned by their family, and one day 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, and their career was born. Before George had even graduated from high school, demand for the boys' 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.

Sam entered the Navy during World War II, while George moved to Los Angeles. Sam joined him there 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 Automotive Museum. His publications and car shows further publicized the Barris style, George himself writing how-to articles for would be customizers.

In 1951, Sam had 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 Motorama auto show and was so popular it overshadowed the best work of Detroit's top designers, on display at the major manufacturer's exhibits. It also established the early 1950s Mercury as possibly the classic base for custom car design, a status it retains today.

Sam decided to leave the business in the '50s, 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 Revell and AMT, which spread the Barris name into every hobby, department, and discount store in the country and also into the minds of millions of eager model builders.

Auto customizing for television

The 1960s would see the firm become heavily involved in vehicle design for television production. At the beginning of the decade, Barris, who loved extravagant design whether his or someone else's, had purchased the Lincoln Futura, a concept car of 1955 which had been built by Ghia of Italy. It remained in his collection for several years, until he was asked by ABC Television to create a signature vehicle for their new Batman television series. ABC and Executive Producer William Dozier had earlier approached car customizer Dean Jeffries to build the Batmobile (which he had planned to do using a 1959 Cadillac), but the time needed to make the necessary alterations proved too great an obstacle. Desperate, they turned to Barris (despite the fact that Barris was known to be expensive and would not sell the car but, instead, only "lease" it on a weekly basis to the production). Remembering the Futura, which had been designed by the original Lincoln stylists to resemble a shark -- with a menacing, aggressive front and high tailfins -- Barris decided it was a perfect base on which to create the Batmobile. In three weeks the car was ready and the show was immediately a hit, the car becoming one of the most recognizable icons of the 1960s and possibly Barris' most famous work.

According to the 1996 book "Barris TV & Movie Cars", other notable Barris creations include The Munster Koach and DRAG-U-LA (a.k.a. The Drag-U-La) from "The Munsters", a modified Lincoln Mark III featured in the 1977 film "The Car"; a modified 1966 Plymouth Barracuda featured in the 1966 film "Fireball 500"; "Hardcastle & McCormick's" red Manta, a modified Oldsmobile Toronado for the TV series "Mannix"; and the futuristic SuperVan, among others. Barris designs have also been featured in commercials.

Barris' company often builds replicas of vehicles from other TV series, including "The Beverly Hillbillies", "The Dukes of Hazzard" (General Lee), "Starsky and Hutch" (Ford Torino), "Power Rangers" (Rad-Bug, Turbo Vehicles, and SPD Cars), "Knight Rider" (The super pursuit and convertible versions of KITT), as well as "Banacek" (AMX-400).

George Barris also designed 2 custom Cadillac hearses in "Monster Garage".

Rumor, credits, law suit

Contrary to rumor, Barris had nothing to do with the De Lorean time machine from the "Back to the Future" movie series. There had been such speculation over the years, especially since a couple of De Loreans actually were customized by Barris' workshop. In 2004, Bob Gale, co-writer of the films, went on record at the De Lorean Car Show stating that Barris had no part in the design or construction of the De Lorean in "Back to the Future". In May 2007, Universal Studios issued a cease and desist order against Barris for taking credit for the "Back to the Future" car. "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 has claimed (on his DVD seriesFact|date=October 2007) to have built, or had a large hand in designing and customising Ecto-1 from Ghostbusters, the Monkeemobile (in truth, designed and built by Dean Jeffries), the Black Beauty (also designed and built by Dean Jeffries) from The Green Hornet, and the 1989 and later movie Batmobiles. Barris Kustoms has, in fact, built replica versions of these cars or purchased the original cars for car shows or display as part of his Star Cars Collection.

Although certain of his cars were not, in fact, designed by Barris (The Munster Koach and Drag-U-La from "The Munsters" were designed by Tom Daniel and Skeet Kerr working as artists for Barris Kustom Industries) they were supervised by him and commissioned as "works for hire".

Later life

Barris still works out of his shop, assisted by his son and daughter. The firm remains busy with 'kustom' creation, charitable functions, and even a Barris clothing line. The founder himself is still in the public eye, receiving awards, appearing at auto-related events, and recently being featured on ABC TV's popular show "Extreme Makeover" and episodes of "The Girls Next Door".

External links

* []
* [ The Official Barris Blog]
* [ George Barris Road Show TV]
* [ Restoration of the Barris Supervan]
* [ Rumpsville's Barris interview from the late 90s]
* [ Barris interview from 2004]
* [ CNN profile from 2001]
* [,1,7419406.story?ctrack=1&cset=true LA Times article about Cease and Desist from May 7]

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