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Custom-car fans brake for Barris

The creator of the Batmobile and other classics, going strong at 85, has part of a street named for him.

March 24, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

His eye-popping autos have been traffic stoppers for more than 60 years.

On Friday, though, it was car customizer George Barris himself who was causing the huge traffic jam at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Riverton Avenue in North Hollywood.

There was Barris, perched high above the street in a city cherry picker, being serenaded by a Marilyn Monroe look-alike as hundreds of admirers clustered around examples of his automotive artistry looked on.

Over to the side was the Munsters Koach, built from three Model T bodies for "The Munsters" television series. Parked a few yards away was the General Lee, the 1969 Dodge Charger on the TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard." Next to it was the Batmobile from the 1960s "Batman" series. On a nearby grassy area was the DeLorean Time Machine from the film "Back to the Future."

With a flourish, Barris, who is in his mid-80s, pulled away a piece of cloth to reveal a sign high up on a street lamp proclaiming the half-block stretch of Riverton next to his customizing shop "George Barris Place."

"From this day forward it will cost you $35 for each 20 minutes to park on this street," quipped TV weather forecaster Fritz Coleman from beneath the commemorative sign.

Car buffs from all over were there to cheer Barris on his big day. Celebrities -- some of whom drove or appreciated his cars -- were also on hand, including actors Bo Derek, Erik Estrada, John Corbett and John Schneider.

Steven Plunkett flew in from London, Canada. "George is an icon in Canada as well," said Plunkett, whose favorite Barris creation is the Monkeemobile, built from a 1966 Pontiac GTO.

"I can identify with it. As a kid I was a huge Monkees fan."

Alfred DiMora drove in from Palm Springs. "George is a legend in the car-customizing business," said DiMora, himself a car designer and manufacturer whose vehicles include the $2-million Natalia. He produces 75 of them a year.

Admiring the original 1966 Batmobile was Tony Fornaro, a record company executive from Valencia. He was wearing a "Batman" T-shirt as he snapped photos of the sleek black vehicle, which started out as a 1955 Lincoln Futura.

"It's one of two original Batmobiles that have survived," Fornaro said. "Warner Bros. owns the rights to the 'Batman' character, which is why the logo isn't on the doors here. It kind of ruins it for everybody. But it's still awesome. After 40 years it never gets old."

The Batmobile also was North Hollywood-area City Councilman Tom LaBonge's favorite. That's because "it came out of the Bat Cave, which is actually the Bronson Cave in Griffith Park," said LaBonge, who arranged Friday's ceremony and told the crowd that "Southern California loves cars and George Barris has done more for cars than anyone in the world."

Over at the steel-sided, gadget-laden DeLorean, Sharon Novins sat in the driver's seat beneath its open gull-wing door as her husband, Mike Novins, took a snapshot. She struggled to climb out.

"It's really low. 'Back to the Future'? I felt like I was going back in the past -- to my childhood," said Novins, who with her husband runs a San Fernando Valley classic-car business.

The DeLorean was also Noah Claxton's top choice.

"It goes up to 88 miles an hour and it goes into the future. It even has hover conversion. Most cars don't have that," explained the 11-year-old Northridge sixth-grader.

Back on the ground, Barris declined to name his favorite. "It's like asking the father of a family of 10 which is his favorite child," he said. "They're all my favorites when I'm working on them."

He allowed that the hardest cars to customize were K.I.T.T. from the "Knight Rider" television series and "The Dukes of Hazzard's" General Lee. They were used in rigorous stunts, and Barris provided his own drivers to baby them.

"I had the best stunt crew in the world," he said.

The orange-colored General Lee, with its distinctive 01 numbering on its doors, brought back memories for Schneider, who portrayed Bo Duke in the original series. "I think the '69 Dodge Charger is by far the sexiest, hottest muscle car ever made," he said.

But he brushed off the notion that the car might have muscled its way into being the real star of the show. When he and Tom Wopat starred in "The Dukes of Hazzard," the series ranked No. 1, Schneider said. When the duo left, it plunged to No. 65, he said.

The ceremony lasted about an hour. But before it ended, some of the custom cars' engines were fired up.

The Munster Koach's 289 Ford Cobra -- built with what Barris has described as Jahns high-compression pistons, 10 chrome-plated Stromberg carburetors, an Isky cam and a set of Bobby Barr racing headers -- was so loud that it set off the alarm system of an SUV down the street.

Barris grinned at that. When it comes to his cars, he's always liked to go full throttle.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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