History Hits: George Barris, King of Kustoms
When I was younger, I spent a lot of my time watching the same movies and shows repeatedly; there was no internet beyond the hoarded free AOL minutes from K-Mart and I only had so many VHS tapes. One of the VHS tapes that I watched had the first five or so episodes of The Munster’s on it, a show featuring a traditional American family, consisting of various monsters. One of these episodes saw the family in need of some transportation, with the wife going out and getting a…car. I hesitate to use the word car, because the creators of the show obviously wanted it to be as monstrous as the people driving it. The wife, Mrs. Munster, purchased an out-of-commission hearse, as well as a hot-rodded up V8 car, and had the two combined into some amalgamation of a vehicle. The creation, the Munster Koach, was just plain awesome, and as this was well before CGI effects, it was very obviously a real vehicle. To my young self, it was the coolest vehicle I had ever seen, and today, it I still pretty neat.
Luckily, my internet did not stay limited to a number of minutes, and eventually I grew old enough to use it to the important questions, like who was lucky enough to have the job of building the Munster Koach? One quick Google led to a Mr. George Barris, who’s name opened a rabbit hole of cool cars on Google. This Google-fest of amazing custom creations led to a love of George Barris Kustom cars, which persists to this day. You may have noticed I used a ‘K’ in the word Kustoms, instead of the normal ‘C’. Why? I had always seen Barris’ name associated with Kustoms with a ‘K’, and knew it had something to do with history, but never really researched it: I was too busy drooling over his cars after all.
For this week’s History Hits, I have decided to rectify that, and learn about one of my favorite car customizers, George Barris. While we lost Mr. Barris in 2015, he left us with a massive portfolio of vehicles to look through. It is to massive for me to go through every vehicle, so at the end of the personal history of George Barris, I will include my five favorite creations of his.
George was born in Chicago, along with his brother Sam in the early 20’s. His mother passed away very early in George’s life, and at the age of 3, his father sent him and his brother to live with an aunt and uncle in (essentially my backyard) Roseville, California. It was here that he grew up, and it was in Sacramento and the surrounding areas that he cut his teeth in the automotive world. Taking shop classes at school, and sweeping shops in his free time, George quickly learned the skills necessary to fix an automobile. In high school, he worked at his family’s Greek restaurant, and after a while, he and his brother received an old 1925 Buick from this gig. The brothers took this old Buick, got it running, spent some time customizing it visually—a Barris trademark—and sold it for a tidy profit. This started a chain of buying and customizing cars, as well as customizing cars for people they knew, with a club eventually started by the brothers, the Kustoms Car Club. This is the first use by Barris of the ‘K’ in Kustoms, which would become deeply associated with him.
All of this occurred while George was attending high school, and after he graduated, his family expected him to get serious about working at the family restaurant. George disappointed them however, leaving the Northern California region to start a small auto shop outside of Los Angeles, called “Barris Custom Shop”. Soon, his brother Sam joined him from the Navy, and George began customizing cars for customers. In 1951, he purchased and customized a brand-new Mercury Coupe for his own personal car, and a passerby liked it so much that he ordered one for himself. This car became known as the Hirohata Merc, after its owner, and would go on to garner huge amounts of fame through traveling with GM’s Motorama traveling auto show.
Through this public exposure, the Hirohata Merc deeply influenced the budding custom car scene at the time, as well as cementing early 50’s Mercury’s as custom (or Kustom) car platforms. In the 1950’s and early 60’s George would continue to customize car in his ‘Kustom’ style, as it was becoming known, while his brother Sam decided to leave the business. Due to George’s self-admitted lack of business sense, this could have been fatal for the shop, were it not for the newly-minted Mrs. Barris, whom George credits greatly with helping him on the business side of things.
Working in the Los Angeles area, it was almost impossible for the Barris shop to stay out of Hollywood. While his first film work consisted of making soft aluminum fenders for a Ford police car that crashes into the rear of a Mercedes Benz convertible driven by Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest—for a softer impact—he quickly moved into making extraordinarily custom creations. His most famous creation was also one of his earliest—the original Batmobile. I do not think I am giving away too much by saying that more details on the Batmobile can be found in my list of his five favorite designs below.
Barris would continue to produce cars for Hollywood, as well as commissioned products, for the rest of his life, although his ‘heyday’, so to speak, was in the 60’s and 70’s. He remained in the Los Angeles area for the entire time, offering a haven for car-nuts and movie-fanatics, offering tours of his shop, as well as use of the outside space for various car shows and events. Barris was married to Shirley Nahas from 1958 until her death in 2001. They had two children. He died on November 5, 2015, in his sleep at his home in Encino, California, at the age of 89, a great loss to the entire automotive community.
Top 5 Barris Kustoms
When George was approached to do the Batmobile, he was given a timeline of only three weeks. Luckily, Barris had a scheme in mind; a few years ago he had aquired the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car, and it had been taking up space in his shop for a few years. With such a distinctive shape, he knew that with minimal work, he could create a distinctive and memorable vehicle for the show. Well done, Mr. Barris. He retained ownership of the vehicle until 2014 when he sold it for a reported $4,620,000.
Totaling 18ft long, the Munster Koach consisted of three Model T bodies and frames melded into some sort of monster of a creation. The 133-inch frame was made by hand, as were the brass radiator and fenders. It has blood red interior and black pearl paint. It took 500 hours to hand form the ornate rolled steel scrollwork. The front end had a dropped axle, split radius rods and T springs. Its design featured a custom hearse body. As the car that introduced me to Barris’ custom cars, I will always love this one.
Beverly Hillbillies Jalopy
A converted pre-war vehicle with a bunch of stuff on it. Pretty standard but very cool.
Mini Moke Surfer Beach Boys Edition
Built on the Moke platform, which itself was built on the Mini platform, the Surfer was a fairly mild custom job, featuring striped interior and exterior designs. The neatest design feature was the use of gold records for the wheel caps. Groovy!
Zsa Zsa Gabor’s Rolls Royce
Zsa Zsa Gabor was an actress who liked things over the top. Fittingly, she looked to Barris to create the ultimate over the top Rolls Royce. Not only was every single bit of the Rolls Royce gold, Barris had glass craftsman Robb Rich hand-etch butterflies and birds into the windows.
Bob Hope’s Golf Cart
I’m not quite sure about this one. Bob Hope decided he wanted a golf cart that looked like the man driving it. So Barris fashioned an exaggerated Bob Hope head and fit a golf cart inside. The nose is fittingly described as ‘Ski-jump like’.
(Dis?) Honorable Mention: Kustom Prius
In 2010 Barris was approached by Toyota to create a modern Kustom out of one of America’s most popular (in sales) cars: the Toyota Prius. I am not quite sure how Toyota felt about it, but it isn’t what I would describe as my favorite design…
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Stephen Hyden View All
I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.
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