King of the Kustomizers

The King of the Kalifornia Kar Kustomizers was born in Chicago (or should we say Khicago), Illinois, but it wasn't until he and his brother Sam arrived in Roseville, California, after the death of their mother that George Barris's love of cars made itself evident. The man who would win everlasting fame for conceiving special cars for the movies and TV started by hanging out in automotive bodyshops when he was barely a teenager, and, though he excelled in drama, music and drawing, it was his avocation that eventually became his vocation.

While still a pre-teen George showed a knack for constructing scratch-built aircraft models, and that hobby led to building model cars. With an obvious talent for the craft, he won numerous model competitions before taking on a bigger task. In the mid-Thirties his aunt and uncle, who raised the Barris boys as their own, gave the brothers a dilapidated 1925 Buick in return for the work they did in their restaurant. The old Buick needed so much attention that there was not much point in trying to return it to "stock" condition, and that's not what the brothers had in mind anyway. Instead they straightened the body and added bolt-on accessories before George hand-painted the car in orange with blue stripes. From the beginning, Barris was the master of subtlety. The Buick was an immediate hit in the suburban Sacramento neighborhood, and, as the first Barris Brothers custom car, it was promptly sold to finance the purchase a 1929 Model A.

From that promising start, Barris spent most of his spare time haunting area bodyshops, and by the time he graduated from high school he had constructed his first full custom car, based on a '36 Ford convertible. Shortly thereafter he formed the Kustoms Car Club as another outlet for his hobby.

Soon that hobby would become Barris's life's work. After his brother Sam left home to serve in the war effort, George moved south to the Los Angeles area, opening his first shop in Bell in late 1944. After his discharge in 1945, Sam joined his brother in LA, and soon the two had formed a potent team that began to become a force in the fledgling world of car customizers. Sam was the talented craftsman while George was the designer, painter and promoter.

As the post-World War II hot rod movement began to explode, the Barrises were right at the forefront, helped by exposure in the new Hot Rod magazine. In addition to modifying cars, George began photographing and writing about cars for many of the hobby's magazines, intelligently using the opportunity to promote his business by demonstrating his techniques in how-to articles. It wasn't long before a 1951 Mercury he customized brought his work to the attention of the nearby movie studios.

One of the first movies Barris made cars for was the low-budget classic High School Confidential, which starred Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren, featured music by Jerry Lee Lewis and introduced a young actor named Michael Landon. The immediate success of that project made Barris the "go-to" guy when it came to movie cars. From there it was but a short jump to cars for television, starting with the fabled Munster's Koach, which he fashioned out of three Model T's. That spooky creation was soon joined by another, sportier vehicle, the Drag-u-la, a hot rod with a genuine coffin as its bodywork.

While Barris has done countless other cars for the movies and TV, including a fleet of more than 50 for the recent hit film The Fast and the Furious, his most famous credit is the legendary Batmobile, created for the camp late-Sixties TV series of the same name. Interestingly, his best-known creation was completed in a very short period of time, just three weeks from getting the call to delivering the former Lincoln Futura show car to the studio and star Adam West.

A list of Barris creations is like a Hollywood nostalgia tour: the Beverly Hillbillies' jalopy; the Dukes of Hazzard's General Lee; KITT, David Hasselhoff's Knightrider companion; the Monkee Mobile; Greased Lightnin' from Grease, and the time machine-cum-DeLorean from Back to the Future. Through it all Barris has remained an accessible legend, a guy you'd like to share a Coke with while hanging around the backroom of a bodyshop. For all his royalty, the King of the Kustomizers is a klassy kar guy.

Now observing the international automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France, Tom Ripley fell in love with George Barris's creations while living in New York in the Fifties.