Barris the Kustomizer King

The Father of the Batmobile made Tom Wolfe’s career, and he’s still alive and kicking in Los Angeles.

With its unique double-bubble canopy, the car looks like a 1950s Popular Mechanics version of the future. Except for a band of fluorescent orange outlining the edges. And inside the cockpit, the oversized red labels that read “Chains” and “Smoke.” Labels that were designed to be visible if seen on a small black and white television.

This is the original Batmobile, from the 60s TV show Batman. For over 40 years it’s traveled the globe to conventions and car shows. Three generations of fans have wiped their sticky fingers on its sleek velvet-black metalflake finish.

Everyone in the world knows the Batmobile. For many of us, it brings the image of a leotarded Adam West and Burt Ward cruising the streets of Gotham, thwarting crime at every turn. And respecting all parking laws:

Batman: Better put 5 cents in the meter.
Robin: No policeman’s going to give the Batmobile a ticket!
Batman: This money goes to building better roads. We all must do our part.

Batman was possibly the goofiest show on television at the time. For legendary Los Angeles car designer George Barris, Batman gave him his career.

Barris has created literally thousands of cars for celebrities, car companies, private clients, and TV and film productions — The Beverly Hillbillies, Dukes of Hazzard, Starsky and Hutch, Mannix, Knight Rider, Flintstones, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, the list is endless. But for eternity, he will be known as the Father of the Batmobile.

Here at his Barris Kustom Productions showroom on L.A.’s Riverside Drive, jammed with cars, movie posters and other memorabilia, he gives me the rundown on how he pimped the ride of the Caped Crusader.

Batman’s producers had only three weeks and $15,000 to come up with a vehicle. Barris happened to have an experimental car sitting on his lot, a peculiar one-off Lincoln Mercury concept vehicle called the Futura, which had been used in a 50s film and then retired. Barris and his crew quickly re-sculpted the entire car, and shaped it to match the theme of the show.

“This…is the ears of a bat,” he gestures to the front end. “These are the lights, which are his eyes. This is his nose, which comes down…there’s a chain-slasher which comes outta there. And then outta the front, gas nozzles come out to shoot this way. As you carry down the side, you find out that all of a sudden — boom — there’s a set of 15-foot bat wings. Very aerodynamic.”

Barris is a master promoter, full of endless soundbites and anecdotes. He’s described this car to people for four decades, but the project still genuinely excites him.

“Everything had to operate, all the trinkets had to actually work. Because they had to do it on camera. Nowadays, they can blue-screen it, put it on a computer, give you whatever you want.”

The enduring popularity of the Batmobile isn’t surprising. America boasts an ongoing obsessive relationship with customizing our automobiles, from reality shows like Monster Garage and Pimp My Ride, to the popularity of souped-up imports. Car owners scour catalogs and websites, hunting for parts and accessories they cannot live without.

The car custom scene developed after World War II, when restless young servicemen raced hotrods on dry lake beds of the California desert. Car shows sprouted up to support the racing, and began featuring customized cars built by designers that were street-legal and still attracted attention. Robert E. Peterson launched Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines, which began covering the nascent world of car customizing. George Barris, a young Los Angeles hotrodder and car builder who had opened his shop in 1944, was in the right spot at the right time.

The rebellious life of hot rodders gave him credibility when he started working with Hollywood.

“We used to race up Sepulveda, where there was nothing coming up over the hill, and the cops would chase us,” he says. “Yeah, it was dangerous. That’s why the movie industry liked us. We were rebels. We enjoyed doing things to cars. We were all young engineers and designers.”

One of his first big jobs was creating cars for the teen exploitation film High School Confidential. Barris points to a poster for the movie, hanging on the wall of the main showroom. More films and TV productions needed cars, and Barris kept building. For the Dobie Gillis show, he adapted a Ford Model A coupe, which had been used for actual racing at Bonneville Salt Flats.

By the early 1960s, Barris was a go-to name for producers who needed a custom car for a project. People on the West Coast all knew him, he was the guy who insisted on spelling Kustom with a “K.” But the rest of the country discovered him after an article appeared in Esquire magazine in 1963, written by a journalist named Tom Wolfe.

In describing Southern California’s custom car culture, Wolfe focused primarily on Barris and car designer/Rat Fink cartoonist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, christening them the emerging icons of this strange new art form. With typical Wolfian art-brat flourish, he described Barris as wearing a white T-shirt and off-white pants, “in the manner of Picasso walking along in the wind on a bluff at Rapallo.”

Although he’s traded in the white t-shirt for a Baywatch Hawaii jacket, Barris remembers Wolfe and liked the story very much. “He loved my wife because he was a gourmet cook, and they loved cooking Lebanese food together.”

Wolfe’s article and subsequent book “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” exploded on the national consciousness, and made Barris a known entity. In the 1960s, pop culture was all about cars. TV shows had cars, music groups had cars. You were what you drove.

The work kept pouring in. Barris and his designers built matching beach carts for The Beach Boys. He devised a coffin-themed hotrod for the Munsters. He made an outrageous twin-engined coach for Paul Revere and the Raiders, and a guitar-shaped car for the Vox guitar company.

Celebrities began approaching Barris for often-ludicrious requests. Elvis Presley wanted a stereo turntable. Frank Sinatra demanded two gas pedals and two brakes, in case one might fail. Zsa Zsa Gabor insisted that her Rolls Royce limo drip with jewels, from the gold wine goblets and make-up kit, to upholstery encrusted with diamonds and rubies.

The spry 82-year-old Barris walks me through a room lined with framed photos of celebrities and their cars he built:

“There’s the Beatles, Clint Eastwood, there’s Travolta, Farrah Fawcett, Joe Namath, Sammy Davis, Redd Foxx, Frank Gorshin, the Riddler. Frank was great. Four packs a day. There’s Phyllis Diller, John Wayne’s son Pat Wayne. So you can see, we’ve been pretty fortunate.”

Many of the shots feature a younger Barris with flashy sunglasses and bell-bottoms. He was becoming just as famous as his clients.

Because of the saturation of television, Barris creations were now in every household. Jay Leno has said, “While other kids watched TV to see the stars, I watched TV to see the Barris cars.” In the 60s, Barris also seized the potential of licensing, and saw additional revenue from toys, model kits, bolt-on car kits, and Kustom Kandy car paint.

The 1970s gas crisis put a crimp in the car custom market, Barris remembers. “The government said, no more big engines, get rid of performance, downsize your car. Of course when you tell the American public you can’t have this, they’re going to do the opposite. So we were flooded with making big coach-built cars.”

Barris’ shop created many convertibles for Cadillac dealers, because convertibles were banned at the time. He modified a Ford Thunderbird into a Titan, for Sammy Davis, Jr. He did the Partridge Family’s mondrian-psychedelic bus, the muscle cars for Mannix and Starsky and Hutch, vehicles for RoboCop and Tucker. The Dukes of Hazzard show was so rough on cars, he built 21 identical Dodge Chargers to stand in for the “General Lee.”

In the 1980s and 90s, he created a talking car for Knight Rider, the driverless vehicles in Jurassic Park, and the Ghostbusters ambulance, among others. But the industry was changing. The Batman and James Bond films were using computer effects to depict their cars, rather than use custom shops. Car manufacturers were producing more custom-styled cars, like the Plymouth Prowler. And there was also the issue of product placement.

“We did Fast And Furious one. We did Fast And Furious two. Now, Fast And Furious three, it’s all business,” he admits. “Mazda comes in, here’s five cars and $10 million. Toyota comes in, here’s five cars, here’s $10 million. Before they even start production, they got $50 million from the product placement. And of course the cars are done either by prop department or by the manufacturer, rather than individuals like us.”

Perhaps Barris should have gone into the clothing business. The Von Dutch garment line, named for the cranky but talented artist who virtually invented pinstriping, is today a multi-million dollar enterprise. Von Dutch passed away in 1992, and never saw his renaissance. But every time Paris Hilton is photographed wearing a Von Dutch cap, it seems, a new retail store opens somewhere in the world.

“He’s in his grave right now saying, ‘What the fuck happened? Where did this come from?’” laughs Barris, who was friends with the madman and even hired him on occasion. “I see some gal with a Von Dutch shirt on, and say, ‘Gee you got a Von Dutch, that’s great looking. You know anything about it?’ ‘Oh yes, he’s a young 35-year-old artist that creates this.’ He was a car pinstriper that died 25 years ago! The money didn’t mean nothing to him. But today he’s the biggest marketing value there is.”

Not to say that Barris isn’t busy. He’s not just showing off the Batmobile to the eleven-thousandth journalist. In another corner of the shop, his newest concept creations are waiting to go to another car show. The Pontiac GTO appears, on the surface, a stock model from the factory. But the color is vintage Barris, a pearlish metallic tangerine color, with hydraulic vertical doors popularized by Lamborghini. Instead of rear-view mirrors he’s added tiny cameras connected to monitors on the cockpit panel. The wheels are larger, 22 inches, with low profile tires.

Next to the GTO sits a Toyota Prius hybrid, one of the ugliest cars on the road today. The Barris shop has accepted the challenge, and sculpted the front end, opened up the wheel wells, added 18-inch wheels, and sprayed the car with a beautiful two-tone pearl Kandy metallic and green scheme. Barris says when Toyota approached him to customize it, he thought the car looked like a turtle. But it would be fun to do, so he agreed.

“The thing today is it has to be quicker, and you do have budgets,” he says. “But you have more to work with. In the old days we had nothing.”

By the end of the year he’ll have finished another new project, an electric/gasoline hotrod combination of a Prius, ’32 Ford, Mustang, and Prowler. “I got four-wheel steering. I’ve got steering on the rear, with power, I’ve got steering on the front with power. It’s the new hot rod of this decade!”

And just to keep the eccentric ‘60s alive, Barris is also finishing up a green toilet on wheels, an electric street legal vehicle called the Flushmobile. He points to the toilet, sitting in a corner, and explains, “It’s for a cartoon that’s being filmed in New York.”

From a distance, the fact that George Barris is still creating any cars, whether it’s a Prius or a toilet, is astonishing. Most 82-year-olds would rather sit on a porch. But Barris keeps on going with the energy of a man 30 years younger.

He is among the last of his generation of Kustomizers. Von Dutch is gone. Ed “Big Daddy” Roth has passed away, along with Robert E. Peterson. Many younger designers who were inspired by him, like Darryl Starbird, Chip Foose and Boyd Coddington, are now in some ways his competition for commissioned work.

Barris has survived for such a a long time, in part because of clean living and a keen sense for business. Barris Kustom Productions still works out of the same building Tom Wolfe visited in the early 1960s. A crew of 25 employees create the cars in three facilities in San Diego, New York and New Jersey. Twenty or so cars are always in circulation at various car events. Many of his older creations are in a Star Cars Museum in Tennessee. A few are on permanent display at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, a few other in the hands of collectors. The rest is anybody’s guess where they ended up.

I get the sense that he still gets the Hollywood meetings, and people constantly pitch him ideas. But his staff – including daughter, son and grandson — tells me he’s home only two days a week. The rest of the time he’s on the road, touring car shows with his cars and signing autographs. After our conversation he will leave for another show in Sweden.

Gearheads around the world consider him an elder statesman, the “King of Kustomizers.” At a car show, anyone can actually walk up to Barris and get their picture taken with him. His press kit bulges with photos of fans, from wealthy concourse auto collectors, to long-haired rock musicians, to young kids in Japan. Occasionally someone will come up to him at a show and stare uncomfortably, and say, “Don’t you remember me? I came into your shop in 1942, and I brought in this 1940 Ford, and you put a bullnose on there for me.”

Barris chuckles. “That car? Out of 17,000 cars? How can you remember the guy? That was 40 years ago. I don’t want to be rude. The people are people. Everybody changes in age and looks.”

He wants to show me something else. We walk over to a wall of children’s toys and he pulls out a series of design sketches. “This shows you what us, as a family, thinks about doing with a car project.”

Dodge has proposed a new idea to Barris, and it involves his family. Each member of his family will receive a Dodge Magnum, to redesign however they wish. The varieties of Barris DNA are amazing. Grandson Jared’s version of the Magnum is completely tricked out, like something from the Pimp My Ride show. He’s a musician, so there are giant audio speakers everywhere. Son Brett has envisioned the Magnum as a hearse, because “He likes the casket look – there’s a big group of guys just into hearses,” Barris says. Joji, the daughter, will chop up the Magnum into a pickup truck, because she’s a motorcycle nut and it will carry bikes in the back. George’s version is more dramatic than the others, somewhat conservative, but at the same time very Barris.

“We start compiling all the parts,” he continues. “We get together with the different manufacturers. The ram air scoops, the American racing wheels, the Goodrich tires. And we’ll photograph it and assemble it, showing which car each one of us is doing.”

He looks at the sketches proudly. This is the work of his bloodline, continuing the family tradition, ensuring that there will be Barris Kustom Kars being made for many years to come.

I say goodbye to Barris, and stumble out into the LA sunshine, my brain loaded with way too much information about cars. I look back at the showroom window, at the outlines of one-of-a-kind vehicles — James Dean’s Porsche, the Knight Rider car, William Shatner’s motorcycle — and think, George Barris is an American treasure. Even if, God forbid, you’ve never seen an episode of Batman.

(A version of this story first appeared in Southwest Spirit magazine)