George Barris – A Kustomary Farewell

George Barris, builder of modified cars, died last week after a full life.

The Hirota Merc
The Hirohata Merc : Image customcarchronicle.com

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!

1958 : Barris and "Ala Kart"
1958 : Barris and “Ala Kart”

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.

Barris Cards

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.

Aaah. True Love. Probably not a high point. Sonny & Cher's Matching Mustangs. Photo - Jalopnik
Aaah. True Love. Probably not a high point. Sonny & Cher’s Matching Mustangs. Photo – Jalopnik

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.

1967 Barris Oldsmobile Toronado
1967 Barris Oldsmobile Toronado

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.

Barris Prius
Keeping his finger on the pulse for the greener Millennium, Barris’s Prius.

6 thoughts on “George Barris – A Kustomary Farewell”

  1. Modern cars aren’t suited to customisation, are they? The Prius is vile. Barris was very much a man of his time which allowed wild and humorous themes and there was the flamboyant spending of cash to go with it. The optimism made it possible.

    1. Although I enjoyed my one year’s subscription to the lavish “Rodder’s Journal” a few years back, I felt that the custom scene had become quite hidebound. And far more serious. There are some beautifully crafted creations out there, but there is the feeling of a certain formulaic, even dogmatic approach. There are only so many variants of a Deuce that the world needs and, as you point out, a Prius or a Focus is never going to become the customiser’s base choice for the 21st Century.

    2. Actually, I’m not sure I don’t see Mercedes’ design language for the third decade of the 21st Century in that Toronado. Are you watching Gorden?

  2. Rest in peace, George. As with many musicians, Barris’ early stuff was his best. Also notable was the role of his brother Sam in the Barris business, the uncredited metal worker to whom the famous Hirohata Merc is largely attributed.

    1. Certainly there is a downward craftsmanship gap between the fine-looking Mercury and the Sonny & Cher Mustangs, whose grilles look as though they came off office air conditioning ducting. Possibly the passion was in the earlier work, the money in the latter and, in many spheres, people’s best creative window spans only a few years.

      This site is very nice :

      http://www.customcarchronicle.com/

  3. Thank you Sean for this nice tribute to the King of Kustoms, now appearing exclusively at rod & custom shows in the afterlife. As you pointed out, the Barris legend was formed early in the postwar US custom car scene, and his output in more recent years was more about reminding the world of that legend than producing cars. In that sense I like the idea of modest Gene Winfield still happily working away on panel and paint in his Mojave workshop in between rod & custom show appearances. But I can’t deny being thrilled when I peered through the windows at the Barris Kustoms showroom in Burbank and saw a Batmobile (there’s too many of them around now to be able to say it was the definitive car). RIP.

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