Photos courtesy Barris Kustom Industries

 

Ed. Note: 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 truly introduced the whole idea of making your car your own.

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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.’"

 

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