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MAKING IT PERSONAL: Spotlight on Custom Cars

My Cherry Amour

George Barris: 'He's the Hood Ornament on Custom Car Business'

July 30, 1998|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

Old masters of classic automotive arts worked with rich Morocco leathers, hand-rubbed walnut woods and thick nickel plate. They were the coach builders, carrosiers of the '30s who crafted custom cars.

George Barris is more mainstream San Fernando Valley, creating with fiberglass and metal-flake lacquers over buffed Bondo. He krafts Kustom Kars--and certainly was among the first to re-initial words to better reflect a California counterculture and '40s outlaws who chopped, channeled, frenched, stripped and re-engineered perfectly good family cars into hot rods.

"If we could change cars, we could change words, and that's why we put the K in Kustom" is Barris' practiced and perennial explanation.

Barris has also put comic-book cladding on vehicles for early television ("Batman" and "The Green Hornet"), made the opulent outlandish by gold-plating a Rolls-Royce (for Zsa Zsa Gabor) and supplied Barrismobiles to almost every movie that co-starred a car. From Herbie the Beetle in "The Love Bug" to the Jeep Enforcer in the current "Small Soldiers."

Now, at 75, still huckstering, never refusing a request for an interview, a handshake or his autograph on your car show T-shirt, George Barris rules as patriarch and transmogrifier emeritus of the arcane and showy business of converting routine vehicles into screams from our wildest dreams.

"He's the hood ornament on the custom car business," applauds peer and probably No. 2 legend Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, who customized the Rat Fink cars. "He's out there in front with his head to the wind, while the rest of us are scrambling around trying to figure out what's going on."

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Not at all bad for Barris, who came to Los Angeles as a teenager, fresh from high school auto shop with his "PhD" in metallurgy from Brown Brothers Body Shop at 3rd and Main in Sacramento.

Almost from that early moment, Barris began building a skein of mini-legends that have been told and retold until the yarns are almost threadbare:

* Of those '40s, and drag-racing for pink slips on Sepulveda at midnight. You lose, the winner gets title to your car. Sometimes angry citizens shot at you, sometimes the best racing was between Barris and the LAPD.

* Of his friendship with James Dean and hand-lettering the number 130, racing stripes and "Little Bastard" on Dean's Porsche Spyder. That was 43 years ago, a few days before Dean left on his fatal drive to a sports car race at Salinas.

* Of the curse said to have been created by the deaths and maiming of several who were involved with Dean's final ride or who purchased pieces of the broken Porsche. Plus a riddle as rich as Amelia Earhart--the disappearance of the twisted hulk, owned by Barris, as it was being trucked to Los Angeles from a highway safety promotion in Florida.

* Of "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," Tom Wolfe's nouvelle-journalism essay that went a little overboard in immortalizing Barris as "a kid who grew up completely absorbed in this teenage world of cars, who pursued the pure flame and its forms with such devotion that he emerged an artist. Like Tiepolo merging from the studios of Venice."

* Of customers Clark Gable, and Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack; of Barris refusing offers to sell or promote the dune buggy Charles Manson drove around the Spahn Ranch; of building a coffin-handled coach for "The Munsters" and the jalopy that dripped buckets, brooms, baggage and Granny Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies."

* And let us not forget the talking Pontiac Firebird in "Knight Rider"; General Lee, the Dodge Charger in "The Dukes of Hazzard"; the Ford Torino of "Starsky and Hutch"; Madonna's roadster from "Dick Tracy"; and the motley metal that appeared in the "Cannonball Run" movies, Parts 1 through tedium.

After half a century of it all, bantamweight Barris of the graying Greek curls remains locked to life's new beginnings. Not standing still long enough to grow old. Always keeping pace with times and the newcomers.

That's why he's decapitating a Cadillac STS, making it into a dual-cowl convertible with a Union Jack paint job for the remaining Spice Girls (a.k.a. Sporty, Baby, Scary and Posh).

"The upholstery will match each of their hair colors," he says. "It was going to be a five-seat car, but now Ginger has gone, and I don't know if I'll be putting three, four or five seats in the car."

He has birthed a new Volkswagen Beetle with flames, a rear spoiler and aluminum-alloy wheels for the rock group Hanson and a Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory on wheels for Nestle's.

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