George Barris is without doubt one of the most influental car builders to have ever welded on this planet. Here’s the fascinating story of his life, his cars and the times he’s lived in.
You can find Barris Kustom Industries on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood, CA. We’re still not sure about actual shop opening hours, since the door was locked when we got there. After a soft knock on the glass we were warmly welcomed inside and could look around. There are tons of interesting things to see at the shop, there’s always a bunch of Barris’ iconic cars there like the Munster Koach or the Batmobile and there’s hundreds of pictures from the old days and die-cast models of cars and other stuff. We even met George Barris himself who was drawing stuff at the shop. With his passing we’ve lost one of the greatest heroes of automotive customizing ever. This very article doesn’t only want to show you some of the super-cool stuff you can go see at Barris Kustom Industries but also tell you stories behind some of his creations.
George and his brother Sam were both born in Chicago in the 1920s. After their mother died, their father sent them to Roseville, California to live with their uncle and his wife. By the age of 7, Barris was already making models of cars using balsa wood and modifying their design and appearance. He even won contests that were sponsored by hobby shops. Both of the Barris brothers also worked at the Greek restaurant that was owned by their family, eventually getting a 1925 Buick for their work. The car wasn’t in good shape so they restored it to running condition and began to experiment with changing its appearance. This actually became the first Barris Brothers custom car.
After selling the Buick they started other projects. Before even graduating from high school, demand for their custom work was growing and they formed the Kustoms Car Club, here’s also were one of the first uses of Kustom with a “K” originates. When George finished high school, he moved to Los Angeles to become part of the emerging teen car culture and opened the “Barris Custom Shop” in Bell, California, just around the corner of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s and Larry Watson’s shops. Sam had by then entered the Navy and after being discharged at the end of World War II, joined George in his shop.
By 1951, Sam had customized a Mercury for himself and had to build a second one when a customer wanted a similar one. This car was shown at the 1952 General Motors Motorama auto show and was so popular that it overshadowed some of the best work of Detroit’s top designers. This car also helped establish the early 1950s Mercury as a popular basis for custom cars. Sam though decided to leave the business during the 50ies which led George to form Barris Kustom Industries. He began to license some of his designs to model car manufacturers such as Aurora, Revell, MPC and AMT, which helped establish the name Barris as an authority in building custom cars.
In the 1960ies, Barris became heavily involved in vehicle design for television productions. At the beginning of the decade he had purchased a Lincoln Futura concept car which later became the famous Batmobile in the 60ies TV series. Other television cars built by Barris include the Munster Koach and a dragster that was made from a coffin, the DRAG-U-LA. He also redesigned K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider and a lot of other movie cars. He kept building cars for movies, TV shows and various celebrities until the early 2000s. George Barris died on November 5th 2015 at his home in Encino, CA at the age of 89.
If you really want to experience the importance that George Barris had in the film industry, make sure to check out the archives that are somewhere in the back of his shop in North Hollywood. There you can find all these carton boxes with titles from movies, celebrities or other custom car builders on them. I guess I would probably kill somebody to get unlimited access to all of those files and the amazing stories that just wait there to be unearthed.