Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Late Great George Barris, Car Customiser

George Barris, the car customiser who designed such famous cars for television as the Batmobile and the Munster Koach, died November 5 2015 at age 89.

George Barris was born George Salapatas in Chicago on November 20 1925. He was only three years old when his father sent him and his older brother Sam to live with an uncle in Roseville, California after the death of their mother. George Barris took an interest in automobiles at an early age, building model cars out of balsa wood when he was only seven years old. He was only 13 years old when he and his brother restored a 1925 Buick. He attended San Juan High School in Citrus Heights, California and swept the floors of a local auto body shop after school. After graduating high school he moved to Los Angeles and opened his custom car shop on Imperial Highway in Bell, California. His brother joined him at the shop after serving in the United States Navy during World War II.

George Barris both built and raced his own cars as well as designing custom cars for private buyers. In 1948 a Buick that Mr. Barris had customised was featured in Hot Rod magazine. In 1949 he founded the organisation Kustoms of America, which had evolved out of the Kustom Car Club Mr. Barris had formed while still a teenager. In 1953 George and Sam Barris customised a 1951 Mercury Club Coupe for their customer Bob Hirohata. The "Hirota Merc", as it came to be called, attracted a good deal of attention. It was featured in the March 1953 issues of Hot Rod and Motor Trend, and the October 1953 issue of Rod and Custom. It also appeared in the 1955 crime drama Running Wild.

Hollywood having taken notice of George Barris, he was hired to build and customise cars for the 1958 movie High School Confidential. He designed the Golden Sahara car for the Jerry Lewis movie Cinderfella (1960). The Sixties would be George Barris's most active period in designing vehicles for Hollywood. He designed the Clampetts' truck on The Beverly Hillbillies from a 1922 Oldsmobile base. George Barris's shop was also responsible for designing both the Munsters Koach and Drag-u-la for The Munsters. By far the most famous car designed by his shop was the Batmobile for the Sixties TV show Batman. Dean Jeffries had been hired to design the Batmobile, but could not do so when ABC decided that Batman would debut in January 1966 rather than September 1966 as originally planned. The project then went to George Barris, who took a  1955 Lincoln Futura concept car and transformed it into the Batmobile. The Futura itself had appeared in the movie It Started with a Kiss (1959).

In the Sixties George Barris also designed Joe Mannix's roadster on the detective series Mannix, Rufus Butterworth's taxi on the 1968 sitcom The Good Guys, The Banana Splits' Buggy on the Saturday morning TV show of the same name, and The Bugaloos' Buggy on the Saturday morning show of the same name. Mr. Barris also did car customisation for films in the Sixties, including For Those Who Think Young (1964), Marriage on the Rocks (1965), The Silencers (1966), Out of Sight (1966), Fireball 500 (1966), and Thunder Alley (1967).

In the Seventies George Barris was responsible for the replica 1914 Stutz Bearcats used in the short-lived 1971 series Bearcats!. He also customised cars for the films Supervan (1977) and The Car (1977).  In addition to his work in film and television, George Barris also customised and modified vehicles for many celebrities, including Glenn Campbell, Bing Crosby, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bob Hope, Elton John, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, and John Wayne. George Barris's shop also created replicas of cars that were not originally designed by them, including replicas of the Monkeemobile from The Monkees, the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, and KITT from Knight Rider.

George Barris also served as a producer on the films Juke Box Racket (1960), Mag Wheels (1978), and Disco Fever (1978). He served as a co-director on Juke Box Racket and a writer on Disco Fever.

Alongside fellow customiser Dean Jeffries, George Barris was largely responsible for popularising car customising in the Fifties and Sixties. Mr. Barris had a gift for self promotion and the attention he drew to his designs as early as the Fifties helped publicise car customising in the United States. Of course, Mr. Barris's gift for public relations would have come to naught if he had not been a very fine customiser himself. Either he or his shop created some of the most iconic vehicles in the history of television. The Batmobile, the Munsters Koach, the Clampetts' truck on The Beverly Hillbillies, and several other famous cars from television and film in the Sixties emerged from George Barris's customising shop. It seems likely that without George Barrris, cars on Sixties television might not have been quite so cool.

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