When I think of men who helped to carve out their own niche in the automotive landscape and create a movement, many names come to mind: Enzo Ferrari, Carroll Shelby and Juan Manuel Fangio to name a few. None the modern era will ever have the reach or influence of George Barris, who left us on November 5th, 2015 at the age of 89 (the same age as Shelby).
Barris was born in Chicago in 1925 but he and his brother moved to Northern California as a child (after his parent’s death), graduating from San Juan High School in Citrus Heights (near Sacramento). Barris made a name for himself when he moved to Los Angeles after World War II, launching Barris Kustom Industries with his brother, Sam. His first shop was on Compton Avenue but for a long time his shop has been located in North Hollywood.
His film assignments included work on cars for Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1958’s High School Confidential and 1960’s The Time Machine, Mannix, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Monkeymobile, Knight Rider and designing the Munster Koach for The Munsters, among others. He also designed novelty cars or performed customizations for celebrities ranging from Bob Hope to John Wayne to Elton John. The car that shaped car customization to this day was the Hirohata Mercury.
By far, his most famous piece was the legendary Batmobile. Barris rolled out a Lincoln concept car called the Lincoln Futura using a show car he kept in storage called the Lincoln Futura and using that as his base, the car in just 15 days for $15,000. Barris kept the car in his personal collection and in 2013 sold the car at auction for $4.6 million.
As the hot rod and custom trends of the 1950s and early ’60s turned into the muscle car days of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Barris changed his strategy as well, selling Instant Customizing body kits and accessories for production cars and focusing on building cars for TV, movies, and customizing shows.
It is impossible to understate Barris’s influence on American car culture. He always encouraged young designers and talked shop with old-school hot-rodders. If you’ve ever seen a chopped, channeled, nosed, decked, lowered or de-badged car at a local hot rod show, you likely have George Barris to thank for that.
His legacy and the scope of his work will be impossible to list in any publication or website. His impact is unmistakable. He will truly be missed.
For a comprehensive history of Barris and the many vehicles he built, visit Barris Kustom’s website.
November 20th, 1925 – November 5th, 2015