George Barris, King of the Kustomizers, dies at 89
George Barris, the original King of the Kustomizers, the man whose drive and vision nurtured and promoted the art of the custom car and whose shop built some of the most iconic TV and movie cars ever made, has passed away. Barris died Wednesday night after having battled a brain tumor for some time. He was 89.
While there may have been custom cars without Barris, they probably wouldn’t have been as cool and they certainly wouldn’t have been as widely known.
His son Brett posted the following note on his Facebook page:
"Sorry to have to post that my father, legendary kustom car king George Barris, has moved to the bigger garage in the sky. He passed on peacefully in his sleep at 2:45 am. He was surrounded by his family in the comfort of his home. He lived his life the way he wanted till the end. He would want everyone to celebrate the passion he had for life and for what he created for all to enjoy. Thank you all for the posts and calls, your love is deeply appreciated. Peace."
Barris is best known for TV cars like the Batmobile, the Munster Koach and for the iconic, twin-engine, articulated carriage used by the band Paul Revere and the Raiders. The shop and its affiliates cranked out famous film and television cars for decades.
The Vatican of car culture
But it all started with the customs.
Barris’ shop in Lynwood, where he and his younger brother Sam settled after a few other locations, was the epicenter of car culture in California, attracting talented artists, promising proteges and numerous hangers on for years.
Many would go on to fame in their own right. Those who came through, worked at or just knew about and enjoyed the ambiance at Barris Customs included everyone from Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to Von Dutch. The Barris Customs website lists many of them: Bill Hines, Lloyd Bakan, Dick Dean, Dean Jeffries, Larry Watson, Hershel "Junior" Conway, John and Ralph Manok, Bill De Carr, Richard Korkes, Frank Sonzogni, "Jocko" Johnson, Lyle Lake, Curley Hurlbert, "Gordo," and Tom McMullen. The shop was like the Vatican of the car culture.
It became what it was because the Barris brothers were gifted automotive artists. The big breakthrough custom for the boys was undoubtedly the Hirohata Merc, itself based on another Mercury Sam was building.
“Sam bought a new two-door Mercury and knew it would make a great custom,” reads the history section of www.barris.com. “He figured it out all in his head and began cutting it up and reformed the car. Bob Hirohata admired Sam's style and brought in his '51 Merc for a full custom job. Sam finished his car so it could be shown at the 1952 Motorama. It turned out to be the sensation of the show.”
The Hirohata Merc is still regarded by many as the greatest custom car ever built. Many would say its low profile and sleek look represent the best the art of customizing can achieve. It is still seen at car shows, most recently at the Art Center College of Design’s Car Classic just two weeks ago.
It was the Hirohata Merc that caught the eye of the entertainment industry and lead Barris Customs to do work on TV and movie cars, as well as customs for celebrities as varied as Sonny and Cher and Farrah Fawcett.
Barris’ most famous TV car is surely the Batmobile, made in 1966. It was based on the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car. Almost as well-known was the Munster Koach, and Grampa Munster’s coffin-based Drag-U-La. He built matching Mustangs for Sonny and Cher and a custom Rolls-Royce for Zsa Zsa Gabor.
It was Barris himself who painted the title “Lil Bastard” on the back corner of James Dean’s Porsche.
At some point he changed over from car builder to promoter and then gracefully into simply playing the ceremonial role of King of the Kustomizers, which mostly involved getting awards. He won awards for all kinds of things.
In addition to winning the Grand National Roadster Show twice for his custom creation Ala Kart over 50 years ago, he got a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA for the Batmobile. He won the Robert E. Petersen Lifetime Achievement Award at the Hot Rod & Restoration Trade Show and he’s in the SEMA Hall of Fame. Last year the first Batmobile sold at Barrett-Jackson for $4.2 million. He has accolades all over the board.
David Fetherston’s The Big Book of Barris came out in 2002. Last month Barris’ son Brett released King of the Kustomizers: The Art of George Barris. He was revered on the world stage of classic hot rods and customs and could be seen wearing that yellow satin jacket with his hands in each pocket, usually surrounded by family, accepting the latest lifetime achievement award.
And despite being almost 90 and outliving Sam by 48 years and his beloved wife Shirley by 14, he never slowed down.
“We had one hell of a run this past summer,” said longtime Barris employee Tony Wood. “He went to Canada, Australia, to the Corvette Fun Fest in Illinois, to Pebble Beach. They said, ‘If you feel like going, go crazy.’ And he went. He had a blast. Last month he was at a party dancing with Linda Vaughn.”
“The past eight years he has lived life,” said custom car photographer Tim Sutton. “He went out well.”
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