In the early years of his business in the late 40s, most of his customers were ex-servicemen who wanted something that looked new instead of the same old pre-war designs. Then one of Barris creations made it on the cover of a new sports car magazine called Road & Track in 1948, and his ideas began to get national attention. By the 50s, things were heating up. His cars began winning prizes at big car shows. He became a correspondent for such magazines as Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Custom Cars, adding excitement to the new hot rod culture that was spreading from California across the country. And, even more importantly, he began supplying cars for the nearby film industry, starting with 1950s Running Wild with Mamie Van Doren.
It was a fortuitous bit of timingthe automobile was just beginning to become a featured player in the movies, and who better to fashion cars with star power? Barris became the supplier and customizer to the studios, making cars for High School Confidential, The Lovebug, Fireball 500, and many others. And with that kind of notoriety, he started getting celebrity clients who wanted him to create their personal dream carsJohn Wayne, Clark Gable, Bob Hope, Dean Martin Each client had special needs, which Barris fulfilled to great success.
"Liberace, he liked cars strictly for show biza lot of Sterling silver, a lot of jewelry, a lot of rhinestonesbecause he used them for his promotions and his shows. Whereas Frank Sinatra, his cars were strictly safety vehicles. We took a Dual Ghia and we made two master cylinders for the brakes, two electronic gas pedalseverything was because he wanted a back-up. If a brake failed, he wanted another brake there to back it up."
Even after working with most of the biggest names in Hollywood royalty, Barris insists that he could never single out one client as his favorite.
"How can you say you like Frank Sinatra over Dean Martin or Dean Martin over Elvis Presley or Zsa Zsa Gabor? Everybody had their own impression of what they wanted: Zsa Zsa Gabor wanted a Rolls Royce with a lot of jewelry. John Travolta wanted a wild performance Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird ("Firebird Fever"). Farrah Fawcett wanted a Foxy Vette. Everybody has their own individuality, because a car is really an extension of the person."
In the 60s, Barris' Kustoms could be seen on all the most popular TV shows: 77 Sunset Strip, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Green Hornet, The Monkees. His most famous TV car is probably the timeless Batmobile, the flaming turbine-powered supercar that was yearned for by every kid growing up in the 60s and 70s. Barris created it from the legendary dual-cowl Ford show car, the Futura, and it still looks like it could take on Barris' newer movie Batmobiles. In the 70s and 80s, the TV boom continued with Starsky & Hutch's Torino, Knightrider's talking Firebird, The Dukes of Hazard's Charger. The only disappointment in that period was his brother Sam's death from cancer in 1967.
Meanwhile, in the movies, Barris was everywhere: various James Bond cars, Burt Reynolds' Bandit from Cannonball Run, the Ghostbusters' ambulance, Fred Flintstone's car from the live-action movie, Jurassic Park's Ford Explorers. Many of these now-priceless bits of Americana can be seen at Star Cars' Barris Collection in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Again, Barris says he has no particular favorite. "Nothats like telling a family thats got 15 kids, 'Which ones your best one?' What inspires me is not which one you like the best, but the challenge and that when you complete a project, your client is satisfied."
Right now, Barris' shop is creating some vehicles for a few children's showstricked-out motorcycles for FOX's Beetleborg and a series of custom cars and morphing motorcycles for an upcoming show called Team Knightrider. "It's kind of a sequel to the original Knightrider we did with David Hasselhoff in the 80s, but it's got five different young kids that use these automobiles to combat crime, terrorists, and things like that. There's a lot of action, but no killing."
Perhaps even more exciting for kustom car fans, Barris is concocting a pair of special new show cars, just like in the old days.
"[One is] a brand-new Cougar made into a 1950 Ford Woodie. That means its a Woodie but its a Cougar, and I have touches of what I call the millenniumthe 2050 vehicle. Its not way out because I still got the 50s design; and Im introducing that in the big show in Oakland in 1998. And in 1999 is the big tribute to me from the Automobile Association, and Im building a special 51 Merc thats both of the 50s and also the 2000 era."
With automakers and aftermarket parts suppliers offering the very same products he pioneered in the 50s, George Barris' legacy grows ever larger with countless consumers creating their own personal "kustoms." Even more telling is the fact that big car companies like Chrysler are making and selling their own hot rods, from the Plymouth Prowler to the Dodge Viper. Hot-rod culture is "in" these days, popularized by "low-brow" artists like Robert Williams and Coop and evident by the racing stripes on expensive slacker-wear. Although Barris hasn't taken on any protégés lately ("We don't have the time"), he's enthused about the kustom car scene today, from the cool cars to the new artisans.
"There are a lot of tremendous artists out there, a lot of good young designers, and theres a tremendous amount of craftsmen. There are great, great car builders now. Its expanded into where it's a major marketplace because the young craftsmen have realized that working with your hands has done more and can do more than putting on a white collar and tie and working at the bank."
First Published: September 11, 1997 Metro Pulse