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George Barris' custom cars are legend in hot rod industry

George Barris is revered as a master who transforms ordinary vehicles into hell-for-leather roadsters. Among his works: The Batmobile and the Munsters' coach.

October 30, 2012|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • George Barris with the Batmobile he designed. Many hot rodders and customizers see their work as art and Barris as an old master.
George Barris with the Batmobile he designed. Many hot rodders and customizers… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

Cut-up photographs of a black Ford F-150 lie scattered across George Barris' desk, forming a mosaic of fenders, headlamps and rear-quarter panels.

Barris' eyes flicker over each fragment as he rearranges the parts of a normal-looking pickup truck and transforms it into the lunatic hot rod vision he has bouncing around in his head.

He dabs glue onto one scrap and sets it on paper. Then, another and another. Finally, he stands back and examines what has come together. The disorder has taken the shape of a mean-looking motor machine with a modified front grill, flared fenders and enlarged hood scoop.

"Pretty cool, isn't it?" he asks. "Wait until you see the real thing."

Barris has worked this way — using scissors and gluefor the last 70 years, taking ordinary vehicles and mutating them into hell-for-leather roadsters. Many of them have found a place in automotive history.

Others have been immortalized on television and in the movies. He turned a 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura into the Batmobile. He stretched out a Model T body and, with a few tweaks, made it into the ghastly vehicle that the Munsters drove in the TV show.

Barris, 87, was one of the first Southland car customizers to chop, channel and re-engineer automobiles. Detroit produced the cars, but it was Southern California that souped them up, customized them and delivered hot rods.

What began as a slightly subversive trend in the '40s is now a bona fide profession, running at full speed today behind garage doors — even in a world where gas-sipping hybrids and subcompact cars seem to be getting all the attention.

Many hot rodders and customizers see their work as art and Barris as an old master.

"He's a legend when it comes to developing the passion, sport or whatever you want to call the hot rod industry," said Troy Ladd, the founder of Hollywood Hot Rods, a custom car shop in Burbank.

Barris will hold court this week in Las Vegas, where about 125,000 hot rodders and auto enthusiasts are expected to gather for an annual after-market car trade show. He will be wearing his signature wraparound rose-colored sunglasses and bright yellow windbreaker with Barris Kustom Industries stitched on the back.

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Barris' love of cars came early. By the time he was 7 years old, he was piecing together balsa wood car models, changing the way they'd look, maybe with a dash of paint or a modification to the body. His attention to detail paid off. It didn't take long before he was entering and winning model contests sponsored by hobby shops.

His family wanted him to work at its Greek restaurant in a Sacramento suburb, but Barris resisted. When he was a teenager, he rushed to sweep floors at a local auto body shop as soon as school let out. Before long, he was handling a blowtorch, shaping the immense metal auto bodies of the era.

When he turned 18, Barris left and moved to Los Angeles to become part of the emerging teen car culture. With his savings, he opened Barris Custom Shop on Imperial Highway in Bell. He later switched it to "Kustom" because it looked more creative.

"Because I was Greek, I spelled it with a K," Barris said. "I wish I would have trademarked that. I'd be a millionaire."

He would try anything to get the right look. Barris would cut a car's suspension coils so it would ride lower in front and be kicked up in the rear. He'd "french" the headlights, meaning he'd mold them into the body to get a smoother look on the car. Once, to get the ideal shade of pearl, he grated the scales off a sardine and mixed them up in paint.

He and other teenagers showed off their flashy custom cars at drive-ins and hamburger stands across Southern California. Barris' 1936 Ford roadster drew a lot of admiring looks. He gave it a custom silver paint job and removed the door handles to make it look more streamlined. He took the running boards off and shaved the fenders to make the front end pointed.

"I had just come from Sacramento, and I wasn't supposed to know anything," Barris told Tom Wolfe in "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," a book of essays that celebrated SoCal's custom car industry. "I was a tourist but my car was wilder than anything around. I remember one night this kid comes up with a roadster with no handles. It looked real sharp, but he had to kick the door from the inside to open it. You should have seen the look on his face when he saw mine — I had the same thing, only with electric buttons."

Soon, Barris' custom cars were causing a buzz. People sought him out, and his business took off.

His work caught the attention of Robert E. Petersen (the name behind Petersen Automotive Museum), who published Hot Rod, Street Rodder and Motor Trend magazines. After Barris' curvy, candy-colored cars appeared in print in 1948, he began getting more attention than the top designers in Detroit. Hollywood took notice too.

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