Last week saw the passing of one of the world’s larger-than-life post-war motoring personalities. He wasn’t a motor racing legend, a motor industry magnet, an influential car stylist or a pioneering engineer. He was George Barris (born George Salapatas), the King of The Kustomizers.
Hollywood-based Barris was California’s most prolific vehicle modifier, a builder and promoter of show cars, custom cars for the stars, and a myriad of television and movie vehicles, many going on to achieve global cult status.
Even if you’ve never heard of George Barris, you will certainly be familiar with many of his creations. Chances are, you may have even owned a few of his cars, albeit in 1:43 scale diecast or plastic kit form as a child.
Barris created the amusing Munster Koach and Drag-u-la coffin-shaped dragster for the 1960s Munster TV series and subsequent movies, as well as the Beverly Hillbillies Oldsmobile, the Fireball 500 Plymouth, the SuperVan for the mid-70s film of the same name, plus the Monkee Mobile for the popular 1960s beat combo, and a wild Pontiac GTO-based articulated stagecoach for the long-since-forgotten Paul Revere and the Raiders band.
His convenient workshop location near the heart of the American movie industry increasingly saw his car customisation skills being called upon by the local TV and movie producers
Barris also owned a sizeable personal collection of famous small and big screen cars, including Nightrider’s KITT Pontiac Firebird, the Torino Green Hornet, the General Lee Dodge Charger, plus the iconic red with white stripe Ford Torino used by tough 1970s TV cops Starsky and Hutch.
By far the most famous of all of the George Barris creations though has to be the legendary Batmobile from the original 1960s ABC TV show. Duplicated millions of times under license in miniaturised toy form, Batman’s original Batmobile first hit American television screens in 1964, along with his accompanying two-wheeled motor cycle, the Barris-designed Batcycle.
The inspiration behind the ‘caped-crusader’s’ 1964 Batmobile came from a wild double bubble-topped concept car, the Futura, originally conceived by Ford’s luxury Lincoln-Mercury division in 1955, and built by Ghia in Turin to use for car shows throughout the USA.
Barris used the futurist Futura that he purchased in 1960 to work up his exaggerated bat-themed black and red TV show two-seater. Astoundingly, due to very tight time constraints from the Batman TV producers ABC, Barris was given less than three weeks to design, build and deliver the gizmo-laden Batmobile, used by the dynamic duo to help save Gotham City from the evils of baddies such as The Joker, Catwomen, The Mad Hatter, The Riddler and Penguin.
With hooded headlamp ‘eyes’, a peaked nose and nostril-like bonnet scoops, the nose of the original 1955 Futura concept was remodelled by Barris, supported by his loyal crew of Les Tompkins and Bud Kunz, to closer resemble a bat.
The rear section of the car was modelled with accentuated bat wings and a central rear flame thrower, whilst the Futura’s twin bubble-top all glass roof section – recalling a bat’s ears – housed a complexity of switches to crime fighting gadgets and tools, such as a Batphones, a Batscope, rocket launcher, laser gun controls a remote TV camera, and weapons systems. To screech the Batmobile from the Batcave out into Gotham City, Barris equipped the two-seater with a powerful Lincoln V8 motor.
By the mid-1960s the Batmobile was arguably the most famous and recognisable car in the world, spurring a wealth of A-list Hollywood celebrities to beat a path to the Barris Kustom Shop, the workshop established by the King of Kustomizers in the early 1950s to build hot rods for the burgeoning California rod scene.
His convenient workshop location near the heart of the American movie industry increasingly saw his car customisation skills being called upon by the local TV and movie producers, with Barris modifying vehicles for the likes of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Alfred Hitchcock, and many other leading lights in the film industry, an industry which ultimately built the Barris Kustom Shop’s enviable reputation.
Many big name stars, from each member of the Rat Pack to Elvis, had cars modified to their personal tastes by George Barris. He created matching ‘his and her’s’ Ford Mustangs in 1967 for Sonny and Cher with restyled front ends and funky paintwork, the famous one-off Foxy Vette for actress Farrah Fawcett-Major, plus bespoke golf buggies for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and even Elton John, with giant gold metal flake spectacles in case his lost it in the golf club car park!
George Barris passed away late last week surrounded by his family at his home in Encino, California, aged 89.
Main Batmobile image courtesy of Jennifer Graylock licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia
Drag-u-la image courtesy of Hazel Estrada licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr