George and his brother Sam (1924–1967) were born in Chicago in the 1920s. Barris was three years old when their father sent the brothers to live with an uncle and his wife in Roseville, California following the death of their mother. Both were good students and attended San Juan High School. Their aunt Edith encouraged them to take interest in art, drama, music, and design. George was fascinated with model aircraft, and pursued the hobby seriously in his teenage years, winning competitions for his models.
The brothers worked at a restaurant owned by their family, and were given a 1925 Buick for their help. Although it was not in good shape, they swiftly restored it to running condition, and began to experiment with changing its appearance. This became the first Barris Brothers custom car. They sold it at a profit to buy another project vehicle. Before George had graduated from high school, demand for their work was growing, and they had created a club for owners of custom vehicles, called the Kustoms Car Club. This was the first use of the spelling "kustom," which would become associated with Barris.
Sam entered the Navy during World War II, while George moved to Los Angeles. Sam joined him there after being discharged. The two built their "kustom" designs for private buyers, and George also built and raced his own cars briefly. These activities brought them to the attention of the movie industry, and they were soon asked to create cars both for personal use by the studio executives and stars and as props for films, their first being used in 1958's High School Confidential. They also made the acquaintance of Robert E. Petersen, founder of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines and, much later, of the Petersen Auto Museum. His car shows further publicized the Barris style, as did the car customizing how-to articles George wrote and Petersen published.
Custom Cars and Early PopularityEdit
In 1951, Sam had customized a new Mercury coupe for himself, and a customer who saw it ordered a similar car. This vehicle, known as the Hirohata Merc for its owner, was shown at the 1952 Motorama auto show and was so popular it overshadowed the best work of Detroit's top designers. It also established the early 1950s Mercury as a popular basis for custom car design. In addition, Sam built Ala Kart, a 1929 Ford Model A roadster pick-up. After taking two AMBR (America's Most Beautiful Roadster) wins in a row, the car made numerous film and television appearances, usually in the background of diner scenes, and is among Barris' best-known projects.
Sam decided to leave the business in the 1950s, but George had married and he credited his wife Shirley with major assistance in promoting the company, which eventually became Barris Kustom Industries. It began to license its designs to model car manufacturers such as Aurora, Revell, MPC, and AMT, which spread the Barris name into every hobby, department, and discount store in the United States and also into the minds of millions of eager model builders.
In the early 1960s, Barris, along with other well-known customizers (Gene Winfield, Dean Jeffries and the Alexander Brothers) reworked production cars for Ford's "Custom Car Caravan" and "Lincoln/Mercury's Caravan of Stars". The traveling exhibits were designed to appeal to younger car buyers, both current and future.
Barris is the subject of the title story in author Tom Wolfe's first collection of essays The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.
Car Customising for Films and CelebritiesEdit
According to Barris, some of 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. The idea was to give the collision a comedic quality while also preventing serious damage to the expensive Mercedes. He also built and supplied cars for the 1958 film High School Confidential and loaned some of his customs for the "future" scenes in the 1960 film adaptation of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine. Other Barris-built film cars included a modified Dodge Charger for Thunder Alley, a Plymouth Barracuda for Fireball 500, the futuristic Supervan for a film of the same name, a gadget-filled Mercury station wagon for The Silencers, and a sinister rework of a Lincoln Continental Mark III for The Car.
In the 1960s, the Barris firm became heavily involved in vehicle design for television production. At the beginning of the decade, Barris, who loved extravagant design, had purchased the Lincoln Futura, a concept car of the mid-1950s which had been built by Ghia of Italy. It remained in his collection for several years, until he was rather unexpectedly asked by ABC Television to create a signature vehicle for their Batman television series. Time was very short as filming would begin in a few weeks, leaving insufficient time for a new design from scratch. Instead, Barris decided the Futura was a perfect base on which to create the Batmobile. Barris hired custom builder Gene Cushenberry to modify the car, which was ready in three weeks. The show was a hit, and the car gained notoriety for Barris.
Other television cars built by Barris Kustom Industries include the the Munster Koach and casket turned dragster (the Drag-U-La) for The Munsters (some say both were designed by Tom Daniel while working for Barris); an Oldsmobile Toronado turned into a roadster used in the first season of Mannix, a 1921 Oldsmobile touring car turned into a truck for The Beverley Hillbillies, the fictional "1928 Porter" for the NBC comedy My Mother the Car, Updated KITTs for later seasons of Knight Rider and replicas of 1914 Stutz Bearcats for Bearcats!.
Barris designs have also been featured in commercials and as corporate promotional vehicles including a guitar-shaped car with a complete sound system for Vox amplifiers and a drivable roadster in the shape of a V-8 juice can. He also has built many novelty vehicles for celebrities; these include golf carts for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann-Margaret, Glen Campbell, and Elton John; and 25 modified Mini Mokes for a record company contest involving the Beach Boys. He would also modify cars for Hollywood stars and others. Some examples include a Cadillac limousine for Elvis Presley; custom Pontiac station wagons for John Wayne, and a pair of "his & hers" 1966 Ford Mustang convertibles for Sonny and Cher. With the cooperation of American Motors, in 1969 he modified an AMX coupe into the AMX-400 show car which was later used in a 1972 episode of the TV mystery series Banacek', and a Cadillac Eldorado turned into a station wagon for Dean Martin.
Between 2002 and 2006, Barris also designed two custom Cadillac hearses for episodes of the cable television series Monster Garage. Barris' company often builds replicas of non-Barris designed vehicles from other TV series, including The Monkees (Monkeemobile), Starsky & Hutch (Ford Torino), Power Rangers (Rad-Bug, Turbo Vehicles, and SPD Cars), and Knight Rider (KITT). Barris Kustom Industries has sold some of these cars at auction.
Barris Kustom TodayEdit
In 2005 The New York Times had Barris customize a Toyota Prius, one of the most popular cars in the U.S. yet according to the Times, one of the most unattractive. The budget was $10,000, and a further condition was not to chop the body or interfere with the hybrid mechanics in any way.
In April 2010, the special George Barris design edition of the 2010 Chevrolet Camaro Spirit was introduced to the public for the first time at a VIP media event at Community Chevrolet, one of the largest Chevrolet dealerships in the nation.
Barris still works in his shop, assisted by his son and daughter. The firm remains busy with 'kustom' creation, charitable functions, and a Barris clothing line. The founder himself is still in the public eye, receiving awards, appearing at auto-related events, and recently being featured on ABC TV's popular show Extreme Makeover.