GEORGE Barris passed away peacefully at home in California just a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday. Just a few months earlier he made the long trek to Australia to be guest of honour at MotorEx alongside tributes to many of his ‘Star Cars’, the TV and movie cars that most people knew him for: the Batmobile, Munster Koach and Drag-U-La, to name just a few.
Those of us with a deeper interest in automotive history knew that George’s influence started well before then; in fact it went right back to the mid-40s. George’s older brother Sam served with the navy during WWII and once he was discharged, George pitched the idea to him that they start their own custom shop. While Sam became known as the master craftsman in the years to come, it was actually George who showed him the basics of bodywork in those early days.
There’s no denying that the growth and popularity of Barris Kustoms had as much to do with George’s knack for marketing and promotion as it did with the beautifully styled cars they produced. The fact that George was an avid – and talented – photographer as well definitely helped in getting their cars into the magazines of the day.
Publications like Car Craft and Hop Up spread the word nationally and internationally, even making their way to the shores of Australia, where young men like Dale Fisher absorbed all of the details and applied them to our local offerings.
There was a definite shift in focus during the late 50s after Sam left the business to pursue a more peaceful family life in Northern California, and that’s when George really started to get involved with not just supplying, but specifically creating cars for the Hollywood studios. While they weren’t quite as graceful as the customs, there’s no denying the impact that cars like the Batmobile had on a whole generation of kids the world over. I should know – I’m one of them!
The original 1966 version can’t be beaten by any amount of CGI and special effects.
We were fortunate enough to get George Barris and Dale Fisher together for an interview when he visited MotorEx, which you can watch at streetmachine.com.au. One thing was abundantly clear from the time Barris spent at the show: Even at 89 years of age, he still had a real love and passion for all of the cars on display, and loved the attention from all the people that came to say hello.
Proof that playing with cars helps you live longer. RIP. s
SAM bought this Mercury when it was brand new. He spent a few months driving it, the whole while working out in his head how he was going to chop it, then put his plans into action, in the process creating what became the quintessential custom car and starting a trend that is still popular over 60 years later. The car also featured a beautiful emerald green paintjob and full fadeaway fenders, which removed the signature dip in the Merc’s beltline. The best thing is, the car has survived – unlike many great customs of the era – and remains unchanged, although it did undergo a full restoration at the masterful hands of the team at Roy Brizio Street Rods.
BOB Hirohata was no stranger to Barris Kustoms, having already owned a ’49 Chev that had been customised by the shop, so it was a no-brainer as to where he’d take his brand new ’51 Mercury for a bit of a shave and haircut. Unlike Sam’s understated Merc, the Hirohata machine would be taken to much wilder territory. It was also the first ’51 to be chopped, which might not sound like that big a deal, but the rear window shape was quite distinctive and required a different approach. This was also the first hardtop version of a ’49-’51 Merc, although it was a technique that had been done before on the ’40 Merc of Nick Matranga. Thought to be lost for many years, the car was found, and once again, is unchanged but fully restored.
BARELY recognisable as a ’29 Ford roadster pick-up, the Ala Kart was so ahead of the pack when it came to custom bodywork and detailing that it won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award two years in a row – 1958 and ’59.
It was also the first time a show car used mirrors – borrowed from the ladies’ toilet – to display the fully chromed chassis and undercarriage detailing. The car was so popular that Barris struck a deal with plastic model company AMT to create a model kit of the car, and over one million were sold in the first year. Sadly, an engine bay fire did a bit of damage to the body and it sat neglected for many years, but there’s a happy ending to this one too. It’s also been restored to its former glory by – you guessed it – Brizio Street Rods.
PART custom, part dream car and part spaceship, the Golden Sahara took customising to a whole new level. The car started out as George’s brand new ’53 Lincoln Capri, but he ran into the back of a hay truck and totalled the car’s front and roof.
Most would see this as a disaster, but George saw it as a customising opportunity and his imagination ran wild. Jim Street loved the ideas and became the new owner/client of the car. This was Barris Kustoms’ first coachbuilt body and was wilder than what the Detroit automakers were coming up with at the time. The interior featured a TV, phone and reel-to-reel tape player, and the car could be started by remote control and steered by either a central joystick or regular steering wheel.
SURELY this is the most recognisable TV or movie car ever made. Other superheroes had cars, but none were as cool as Batman’s ride. As a kid growing up in the 60s and 70s, this was the ultimate car. It not only looked as cool as buggery, but it had all the essential accessories that we secretly wished our mum and dad’s car had – a Bat-ray, Bat-zooka, Bat-tering ram, and of course, the jet engine that shot flames out the back! A pretty clear indicator of the car’s popularity is that it was sold for around $3 million not long ago. That’s a pretty good mark-up on the $1 George apparently paid Ford for the old Lincoln Futura show car that the Batmobile was based on!
DEFINITELY one of the more outlandish creations to come out of the Barris shop, the Munster Koach was part horse-drawn carriage, part hot rod, and a whole lot of weird. In other words, it was perfect for The Munsters TV show, which featured a dad who looked like Frankenstein’s monster and married into a family of vampires. Three Model T bodies were used to create the Koach, and it was powered by a 289 Windsor with 10 Stromberg carbs and a four-speed. The whole thing was built in just 21 days at a cost of $18,000 back in 1964.