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By Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher
Images courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection
Posted: 11.17.2015

file 20151117215055 legacy of George BarrisThe famed custom car designer George Barris pictured here early on in his career. Recently, the automotive world lost one of the most creative and talented custom car designers in the world: Mr. George Barris.

Throughout a storied and long career, Barris had created great works of art for vintage automotive designs from the 1950s to 1970s.

This story is dedicated to the late George Barris, the king of all the automotive customizers who passed away on Nov. 5, 2015 at 90.

Barris’ journey started in the 1950s when teenagers had a great interest in cars and were listening to the great sounds of would-be Rock and Roll legends like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. The 1950s also introduced the late actor James Dean who had appeared in many great film.

Barris’ brother, Sam, helped him jumpstart his career and that relationship continued throughout George’s life. Sam helped him over the years to create and design great looking custom automobiles. The two brothers had a great interest in all things auto related but especially in the older model automobiles.

In the beginning, the two brothers were introduced to Mr. Harry Westergard, who was once a great metal craftsman and who had a raw talent for custom car building. The first assignment that the two brothers were directly involved in was customizing a 1925 Buick sedan that their father had given them while in high school.

George Barris later began to work part time at local body shops which would continue to hone his trade at auto customization.

Early on, George had completed a custom job on a 1936 Ford convertible and later a 1936 Plymouth – these two cars marked the start of George’s long career.

file 20151117215310 legacy of George BarrisA custom-built Mercury by George Barris.During the war, his brother enlisted in the Merchant Marines, to do his part helping with the war time efforts that were occurring in our country.

As Barris’ journey would continue, he had opened his own body shop in 1944 located in Bell, Calif. After the war ended, the two brothers reunited and in 1948 moved the body shop to Los Angeles, rebranding the store as “Barris Kustom.” Because of the great weather that California usually has much of the major body work was completed outside.

During the Hot Rod Exposition at the Los Angeles Armory, George Barris took the top prize for his specular Custom design of a 1941 Buick. Giving credit to the Michigan-made autos at the time, George said “Detroit cars are usually very well designed.”

During the 1950s, “Motor Trend,” “Road Track,” and “Motor Life” were all popular magazines that highlighted George Barris’ outstanding custom automotive designs. From the popular custom 1949 Mercurys to the great looking 1951 Fords – the indoor custom car shows had featured many great looking automobiles and had become a sensation among spectators and custom car enthusiasts from all over the world. The custom car shows were featured up and down the state of California in places such as Bakersfield, Glendale, Pasadena, San Diego and Santa Barbara.

The Batmobile

The 1960s brought more exponentially more fame and prestige to George Barris due to one very popular TV series: “Batman.”

file 20151117215419 legacy of George Barris
The “Batman” TV series was one of the most popular shows on television for kids during the 1960s, and it also introduced a unique and iconic vehicle for the viewing pleasure of millions of Americans.

George Barris designed the Batmobile using as a template Ford’s Lincoln Futura design show car from 1955. The Lincoln Futura was built in 1955 by Carrozzeria Ghia in Italy. It was created by Lincoln-Mercury designers, Mr. William Schmidt and Mr. John Najjar along with Mr. Roy Brown from Dearborn, Mich.

Interestingly, before the Batman television series became popular, the show car was used in the movie, “It started with a kiss” in 1959 staring Debbie Reynolds and the Glenn Ford.

Barris, also created two great looking show cars for the popular TV series “The Munsters” along with “The Good Guys” and their customized taxi.

file 20151117215504 legacy of George Barris
Barris’ custom work also made its way onto the silver screen with the experimental model, SSXR for the 1966 stock car racing film “Fireball 500.” After that, audiences across the U.S. saw dozens of Barris’ custom cars in TV shows and movies including the Knight Rider F bodied Pontiac Trans-Am Firebird; the Mannix Roadster show car for the popular TV series “Mannix” featuring Mike Connors; and even the jalopy driven by the Clampett family in the classic Americana TV series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

George Barris also created many popular custom automotive designs for popular stars such as Bing Crosby’s Candy Apple Red custom golf cart, and a custom Corvette for “Foxy” Farrah Fawcett. Barris created custom designs for others such as Bob Hope, Elton John, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sonny and Cher.

file 20151117215833 legacy of George BarrisSonny and Cher in their heyday with custom-built Mustangs from George Barris. In conclusion, The George Barris TV and movie cars were a part of our history and culture of great custom vehicles you'll always remember.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for contributing the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: Barris George and Fetherston David. “Barris Cars of the stars," 2008; Barris George and Fetherston Davis, “Barris TV & Movie Cars," 1996)

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