Tribune Print Share Text

The king of ‘Kustom’ hot rods

Created date

September 24th, 2013
George Barris

When George Barris attended his graduation at Sacramento, California s San Juan High School in 1943, it should have been a joyous occasion. But when it came time for him to receive his diploma, he found no words of encouragement. Instead, his principal pulled him aside and made the snide remark that he was the least likely in his class to succeed. Barris would prove otherwise, for over the next 70 years, he would carve out a place for himself in American pop culture as the king of custom hot rods. Ever since I was a boy, I had an interest in building things, says Barris. It started with model airplanes, then model cars, and finally when I was in my teens, real cars.

Honing his craft

While in high school, Barris got to know the owners of the Jones Brothers body shop in Sacramento, where mechanics showed him how to shape and weld metal. Often they would toss the curious youth an old fender or a bumper, and he would set to hammering away at it, reshaping it into a design that he had in mind. Before long, he had earned a reputation as a talented craftsman with a natural-born automotive vision. I remember one of the first jobs I did as a teenager was on a 1932 Ford, Barris recalls. The guy told me he wanted cat-eye taillights, which I made for him for $10. Barris was off and running, driven by a devout love for anything with four wheels and an engine. By 1944, he had moved to Los Angeles where his brother, Sam, just home from World War II, joined him. There, they began building custom-ordered hot rods that provided the foundation for the Kustom culture, a label that originated with Barris and endures to this day. An early project that stands out in my memory was a brand new 1949 Mercury that we had bought, says Barris. We didn t even get the first payment made and we were taking the whole thing apart to rebuild it. We chopped the top, put floating fenders on it; everyone thought we were crazy doing this to a new car. But in the end, we made the cover ofHot Rodmagazine with it and showed people how we could change the face of Detroit.

Hollywood comes calling

People were indeed watching, especially Hollywood producers looking for cars that had a touch of movie magic. They jumped at the chance to feature Barris s talents and some of the Kustom cars from his own collection. In 1958, he built vehicles for the filmHigh School Confidential. In 1959, he fabricated aluminum fenders for a collision scene in Alfred Hitchcock sNorth by Northwest; and in 1960, he provided some of his custom concept cars for the future scenes in H.G. Welles The Time Machine. But perhaps his best known contributions to film came in the mid-1960s when he designed a string of vehicles that are as symbolic of pop culture as the shows in which they appeared: the Beverly Hillbillies Jalopy (1962); the Munster Koach (1964), and the Batmobile (1966). Using a Rolleiflex camera that actor John Derek taught him how to use, Barris experimented with far-out designs that dazzled any who laid eyes on them. He would photograph the tail fins on one vehicle, the doors on another, and maybe the fenders on still another, develop the images, and start cutting and pasting. Then he would head to the garage to transform his concept into a reality, and often a fantastic one. When I create a car for television, I consider it one of the characters in the show, says Barris. The Batmobile is every bit the superhero that Batman and Robin are. ABC Studios gave Barris 15 days and $15,000 to achieve the desired effect. He took an obscure concept car a 1955 Lincoln Futura gave it a sparkling black paint job, red stripes, rocket boosters, oil sprayers to foil Batman s pursuers, and a host of other features that made the car a staple crime-fighting tool for the caped crusader. Barris had come a long way from his days of pounding fenders outside the Jones Brothers body shop. He wasn t just a car designer; he was an innovator, a storyteller. He was a self-made man, and contrary to his principal s prediction, he was a great success which made his 2011 visit to San Juan High School, this time as an honored speaker, all the more ironic. It was a pleasure to return to my high school to talk to the kids about how much you can achieve when you put your mind to something, he says with relish. I certainly wish my principal could have been there to listen.