Cut-up photographs of a black Ford F-150 lie scattered across George Barris’ desk, forming a mosaic of fenders, headlamps and rear-quarter panels.
Barris’ eyes flicker over each fragment as he rearranges the parts of a normal-looking pickup truck and transforms it into the lunatic hot rod vision he has bouncing around in his head.
He dabs glue onto one scrap and sets it on paper. Then, another and another. Finally, he stands back and examines what has come together. The disorder has taken the shape of a mean-looking motor machine with a modified front grill, flared fenders and enlarged hood scoop.
“Pretty cool, isn’t it?” he asks. “Wait until you see the real thing.”
Barris, 87, has worked this way — using scissors and glue — for the past 70 years, taking ordinary vehicles and mutating them into hell-for-leather roadsters. Many of them have found a place in automotive history.
Others have been immortalized on television and in the movies. He turned a 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura into the Batmobile. He stretched out a Model T body and, with a few tweaks, made it into the ghastly vehicle that the Munsters drove in the TV show.
What began as a slightly subversive trend in the ‘40s is now a bona fide profession, running at full speed today behind garage doors — even in a world where gas-sipping hybrids and subcompact cars seem to be getting all the attention.
Many hot rodders and customizers see their work as art and Barris as an old master.
“He’s a legend when it comes to developing the passion, sport or whatever you want to call the hot rod industry,” said Troy Ladd, the founder of Hollywood Hot Rod, a custom car shop in Burbank, Calif.
Barris’ love of cars came early. By the time he was 7 years old, he was piecing together balsa wood car models, changing the way they’d look, maybe with a dash of paint or a modification to the body. His attention to detail paid off. It didn’t take long before he was entering and winning model contests sponsored by hobby shops.