George Barris, King of ‘Kustom’ Cars Dies at 89

The Batmobile has revolutionized the way the world saw custom cars If it wasn’t for the brilliant mind of King of ‘Kustom’ cars, George Barris, the iconic car may have never seen the light of day.

Sadly, George Barris passed away recently in his Los Angeles home. Edward Lozzi, his longtime publicist and friend broke the news to the public. He died with his family at his bedside. He was 89. Reports show that the late custom car designer died of a brain tumor.

“He was the man who started the American pastime for Baby Boomers,” Lozzi said.

Shaping California’s car culture

If there was one thing George Barris was known for, it was defining California’s love for cars. His unique, at times outrageous designs, have helped shaped car culture throughout history.

For decades, Barris worked in a shop in a modest North Hollywood neighborhood, nearby Universal Studios. His was a shop that stood as a tourist attraction on its own. Passers-by are often astounded at the very sight of the Batmobile or another breathtaking vehicle parked in his shop. Barris, always the congenial man, was always happy to meet and greet visitors as they stroll in.

Beyond the Batmobile, Barris is renowned for his innovative and imaginative automotive work including the funeral home on wheels for The Munsters, the old, rickety car for The Beverly Hillbillies, the tricked-out crime-fighting car for Knight Rider and the Bruce Lee car used in the TV show, “The Green Hornet.”

Transforming the 1955 concept car, the Lincoln Futura, into the Batmobile cost the designer $15,000. Every penny was worth it. “I saw the script and it said, ‘Bang’, ‘Pow’, ‘Boom’. That’s exactly what I wanted the car to be able to do. I wanted it to be as big a character as the actors themselves,” Barris once said.

Apart from the decked-out four-wheeled beauties, George also created custom designs for countless touring rock stars and private collectors.

After building the Batmobile, Barris was already a reputable car designer in California. He also happens to be one of the subjects of the title essay in Tom Wolfe’s 1965 book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Wolfe Barris was, “a good example of a kid who grew up completely absorbed in this teenage world of cars, who pursued the pure flame and its forms with such devotion that he emerged an artist.”

From Chicago to California

Born George Salapatas in Chicago, Barris was the son of Greek immigrants who later on changed the family name. In 1928, his mother passed away leaving George and his older brother, Sam to live with an aunt and uncle in Roseville, California.

Both brothers worked worked part-time for a family-owned Greek restaurant. Because they were hard working, George and Sam were rewarded with a gift of a battered old Buick. They took it on their own to customize it and selling it. The brothers then bought a 1929 Model A Ford to refurbish, forming the Kustom Car Club. The rest, as they say, was history.

After leaving San Juan high school in Citrus Heights, near Sacramento, George Barris moved to Los Angeles and opened his custom shop in the nearby town of Bell. After his service in the US Navy, Sam joined him. They then relocated to a new venture in Compton, also in Los Angeles county and called their shop, the Barris Brothers Custom Shop.

Before fully committing himself to custom car designs, George tried his hand at car-racing. However, his shop was rapidly growing and it needed his full commitment. In 1948 Robert E Petersen staged the first hot rod show in Los Angeles, and the Barris brothers’ Buick was the only custom car included.

Once again, the brothers moved to Lynwood, where they masterfully created the “Hirohata Merc”, a 1951 Mercury owned by a customer, Bob Hirohata. The brothers didn’t hold back and radically customized the car as they pleased. True enough, the car caused a massive rave and swept auto magazines and car shows across the US. In 1957, Barris unveiled Ala Kart, a customised 1929 Model A Ford, which won over 200 trophies and appeared in movies and magazine articles.

Sam quit the business come 1956 but Barris pushed one to become one of the world’s most coveted names in custom cars. He went on to work with the likes of Buick, Chrysler, Ford’s Custom Car Caravan and Lincoln-Mercury’s Caravan of Stars as well as Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone and Liberace, to name a few.

His wife, Shirley Barris passed away in 2001. George Barris is survived by their daughter Joji, son Brett, and grandson Jared.