George Barris, builder of modified cars, died last week after a full life.
The creator of such novelties as the Batmobile and the Munster Koach, he was also a prolific customiser to the Stars when, on a (very) slightly less excessive scale, he produced vehicles for a plethora of celebrities. Back in the Sixties, my dad made occasional trips to the USA and brought back various insights into, what seemed then, a rather different culture. There was an LP by the novelty horror actor John Zacherle, including the song Dinner With Drac which had the lines
For dessert there was batwing confetti
And the veins of a mummy named Betty
I first frowned upon it
But with ketchup on it
It tasted very much like spaghetti!
The US seemed a weirder place than I’d previously assumed and, just as weird, was a copy of Rod & Custom Magazine that came back with him at the same time. I’d already picked up on the T-Bucket driven by Edd Byrnes, Kookie in 77 Sunset Strip (“Stay cool daddy-o!”) but the size and full nature of the US custom scene was unknown to me. From my copy of R&C, I learnt about chopping, deuces, channelling, frenching, flatheads, tunnelling, toploaders, raking and, of course, the need to finish it all with at least 30 coats of paint such as Clear Lacquer applied over translucent Blue Indigo Candy Apple over a Gold Metallic base. And of course, copious use inside the car of a mysterious material called Naugahyde – which animal did that come from? I was in awe.
Three names stood out to this schoolkid, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, George Barris and Gene Winfield. All were showmen, but probably in descending order with Winfield being the most serious of the trio though, in this context, maybe that’s an oxymoron. Barris first made his mark in the early 50s with the influential Hirohata Merc, a chopped and greatly altered 1951 Mercury Coupe.
In some ways his career reflected that of a sometime customer, Elvis Presley, with a credible and influential beginning being hijacked by the lure of Tinseltown. He’s credited by some as being the man who put the K into Custom and, by the 60s, he had become heavily involved in producing vehicles for film and TV. His customers wanted to get noticed and, although he toured Europe in 1951, collecting a wealth of reference material, his was no restrained European carrosserie.
Barris outlived Rod & Custom magazine which, after over 60 years, finally closed last year. Look at his creations and find some of them a bit tacky if you will. But there’s a humour that you won’t find in the products of Dany Bahar’s ARES.