George Barris, the self described King of the Kustoms, and Hollywood customising legend, died on Thursday at home in his sleep at age 89. The cause was cancer.
Barris, along with his brother Sam, virtually invented the Kustom craze by modifying old cars during their teen years, and transforming a hobby into a business in the late 1940s.
Their goal was not necessarily hot rodding an old car – they were out to modify and, at times, radically change its design. Their commissions initially came from friends and relatives, but as their reputation grew, a body shop was opened in Burbank, California, to service the large influx of Kustom orders.
In the 1950s, Hollywood discovered Barris, and by the 1960s he was in demand to build cars for television shows and movies. The original TV Batmobile, a converted Lincoln Futura show car from the 1950s, was his most famous creation.
But there were others as well: the Munster Koach, built for the TV show The Munsters from three Model T bodies, featured cartoonish Halloween and monster motifs; while the Super Van built for the movie of the same name offered a glimpse of the laser-blasting solar-powered future.
Most of his Hollywood work was intentionally outlandish and would be followed by model car kits and other merchandise that expanded the reach of the television show – and Barris’ – brand.
Barris’ creations didn’t just get the attention of Hollywood. Ford retained his services in the early and mid-1960s for the Cavalcade of Customs, a traveling collection of mild custom Ford models that spiced up the more sedate factory offerings. Dodge and American motors would follow, hiring Barris to create customs for their show stands in the late 1960s. Thereafter, Barris would maintain a strong relationship with the mainstream auto industry right up his death.
Barris was a keen follower of trends, and incorporated extreme tailfins, bubble tops and other elements into his creations. When the dune buggy craze began in the 1960s, it was Barris who soon found commissions to build outrageous versions of the favourite machine of the Southern California beach scene.
He had an eye for talent, too. As Barris crisscrossed the country attending car shows, he would often spy a young customiser whose work intrigued him, and offer the youngster a place at his shop, styling or moulding the latest Barris creations. It was very seldom that his offer was refused.
Barris’ designs ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, and it was often his mild Kustoms that displayed his talents to their best effect. Stock Detroit iron would often be streamlined, stripped of chrome and badges and outfitted with custom appointments that increased the cars unique qualities and enhanced the mystique of an individual design.
George Barris will be remembered not only for his creations, but for his embodiment of Los Angeles car culture. He became as much a symbol of an era as he was a creator, but the legacy of his many creations will live on in private and museum collections across the country and beyond.