EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

November 4, 2012

Barris' custom cars are legend in hot rod industry

By W.J. Hennigan Los Angeles Times
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — 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.

His family wanted him to work at its Greek restaurant in a Sacramento, Calif., suburb, but Barris resisted. When he was a teenager, he rushed to sweep floors at a local auto body shop as soon as school let out. Before long, he was handling a blowtorch, shaping the immense metal auto bodies of the era.

When he turned 18, Barris left and moved to Los Angeles to become part of the emerging teen car culture. With his savings, he opened Barris Custom Shop in Bell, Calif. He later switched it to “Kustom” because it looked more creative.

“Because I was Greek, I spelled it with a K,” Barris said. “I wish I would have trademarked that. I’d be a millionaire.”

Soon, Barris’ custom cars were causing a buzz. People sought him out, and his business took off.

His work caught the attention of Robert E. Petersen, who published Hot Rod, Street Rodder and Motor Trend magazines. After Barris’ curvy, candy-colored cars appeared in print in 1948, he began getting more attention than the top designers in Detroit. Hollywood took notice too.

The entertainment industry turned to Barris to create cars for films with titles like “High School Confidential!” (1958) and “For Those Who Think Young” (1964). More cars ended up becoming major figures in scripts.

When producers of the “Batman” television show asked for a car that Adam West could battle villains with, Barris turned out a midnight-black and fluorescent-red pinstriped monster. The car features bulletproof Plexiglass bubble windshields; the Bat Ray (dual 450-watt laser beams that blasted obstacles to bits); the Bat-O-Meter, which identified where the bad guys were; and the oil squirters (once lawn sprinkler heads) to foil evildoers.

“I saw the script and it said, ‘Bang,’ ‘Pow,’ ‘Boom,’ “ Barris said. “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 said he transformed the Lincoln in just 15 days for $15,000.

Producers of “The Munsters” asked Barris to get a hearse for the TV family’s car. But he had a better idea: He welded together three Model T bodies, put casket handles around the engine and decked out the interior in blood-red velvet.

Under the hood, he put a Ford Cobra engine with 10 chrome-plated carburetors. Barris designed and built it for $18,000 and called it “The Munster Koach.”

Elvis Presley, a frequent customer, became a close friend. Barris decorated the ceiling of Elvis’ 1960 Cadillac limo with gold records and built in a 24-karat gold cabinet with a gold-plated swivel for a TV.

Barris’ phone — its ring tone is a familiar theme song: “Na na na na na ... Batman” — doesn’t ring nearly as often with crazy requests as it once did. He’s always had help running the business. First he worked with his brother, Sam. Then with his wife, Shirley. Now his daughter and other family members have taken on a larger role.

His grandson Jared, 23, took what Barris had pasted on paper and created a computerized model of the reimagined F-150. The two said they blended their “new school and old school” techniques and refined the truck’s design. Then they fabricated a custom grill. They lowered the frame about 10 inches. They built new side rails on the bed of the truck.

After five months, they ended up with a black-and-red roadster with sharp bat-wing fenders — a new spin on the classic Batmobile.