George Barris? If they’ve heard the name at all, most only know him as the creator of a Batmobile for the 1966 Batman television show. Few are aware of his amazing number of movie cars, celebrity customs, show cars, and novelty rides that ranged from mild to wild in a career that’s spanned six decades. Still going strong, there’s no question Barris has earned his self-created title, King of the Kustomizers.
Mid-20th century California was America’s incubator of youth trends. From hot rodding, to surfing, skateboarding, and hippies, fads and fashions flourished in its sunny climate, later blowing up to influence the country’s (and the world’s) culture in major ways. Sam and George Barris were born into this fertile cultural “petri dish” at just the right time. Customizing an old clunker their parents had given them, the brothers realized innate talents that soon lead to their accepting work from others. Sam was an artist/craftsman who was oriented towards creating artistic bodywork. George was a visionary and a genius promoter who made sure their names appeared in the budding array of magazines dedicated to the then-new art form. Sam soon dropped out of the partnership to move north, leaving George in Los Angeles where he quickly realized the value of working with and for the entertainment industry.
George Barris created a pair of custom Mustangs for Sonny & Cher, a novelty golf cart for Bob Hope, a coffin-based dragster, for the Munsters, an air car that actually levitated, a Raiders’ Coach for Paul Revere & the Raiders, a moon buggy that earned praised from NASA, several “America’s Most Beautiful Roadster” award winners, and show cars for Detroit manufacturers, all the while photographing cars for magazines, consulting with plastic model kit manufacturers, and making personal appearances at car shows nationwide.
After some sixty years, Barris has finally consented to having it all put down in a proper book, King of the Kustomizers, the Art of George Barris. At nearly five hundred pages, this exhaustive volume stands to be the definitive look at Barris’ work. Copious color photos meet informative text that finally puts all of Barris’ mind-boggling output in a single, deluxe volume. More than a mere car customizer, Barris has proven to be a cultural force. Tom Wolfe named his breakthrough 1963 collection of essays The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby after a car that Barris was working on when he interviewed the Kustom King.
As a disclaimer, I should mention that I wrote a chapter “George Barris from the 1960s to the Present” that appears in this volume.