Now 85, George Barris still shows up daily at his office in the North Hollywood business that is run by his daughter these days. On weekends, Barris heads out to car shows and regales those he meets with stories of his heyday in car customizing.
George Barris, for decades the maker of customized cars for celebrities, doesn’t recognize the “c” in customizers.
“I’m Greek,” he said as he spoke by phone from his California business, Barris Kustom Industries. “We don’t like c’s in the Greek language.”
That’s how Barris, who will appear Sunday as an honorary judge at the Glenmoor Gathering of Significant Automobiles, became known as the “King of the Kustomizers.”
The title also was earned by his creation of such television and movie cars as the Batmobile, the truck in “Beverly Hillbillies,” the Munster Koach, and the KITT car from “Knight Rider.” He also created or adapted personal cars for such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Elton John, Clint Eastwood, John Lennon, Ann-Margret, and John Travolta.
Now 85, Barris still shows up daily at his office in the North Hollywood business that is run by his daughter these days. On weekends, Barris heads out to car shows and regales those he meets with stories of his heyday in car customizing.
“He’s a guy who truly enjoys who he is,” said David Schultz, director of the Glenmoor Gathering, who said that Barris has appeared at the show a handful of times. “People remember him, and he loves talking to them. He’s what they call a living legend.”
CUSTOMIZING FOR THE STARS
During his phone interview, Barris recalled customizing a limousine for a young entertainer who had a clear picture in his mind about what he wanted for the vehicle.
“He came in to inspect it and the first thing he did was go to every single one of the 20 men I had working for me and talk to them. But, not about the car. He talked about what was going on in their lives. He asked about their families,” remembered Barris. “Then, he came into my office and we talked about his car.
“That young man was Elvis Presley.”
At his request, Barris tinted the windows of Frank Sinatra’s car.
“I told him, ‘You don’t want that, you won’t be able to see out at night.’ But if Frank Sinatra tells you he wants tinted windows, you tint the windows. The next morning he came in and said, ‘You were right. I couldn’t see a thing.’”
Barris customized matching Mustangs for Sonny and Cher for the movie “Good Times.”
“She wanted one that was white pearl and hot pink, with white fur carpet. He said, ‘I’m not going to drive a pink car.’ So I made one out of leopard skin and gold tones for him.”
His most well-known vehicle, of course, is the Batmobile — a car that he was given only three weeks to create.
Page 2 of 2 - The customized Lincoln weighed 5,500 pounds and was powered by a 429 Ford Full Race engine, according to the Barris website. The front-end design characterized a bat’s face with eyes, ears and a mouth.
The dashboard is full of “Batman innovations” — the Batscope closed-circuit vision aid, the Bateye antitheft control, an antenna for communicating with the Batcave, the Batray reactors and laser beam controls.
“I had the car perform like a star actor,” said Barris. “That’s why even today, Motor Trend magazine did a (popularity) survey and the number one car in the world is still the Batmobile.”
But, Barris didn’t just work for movies and television and the celebrities that resulted from the screens. He helped usher his designs into model car kits. He created custom miniature cars for such collectibles as Hot Wheels. He did concept car work for automobile manufacturers.
The latter has led him to a current quest — one that is green in nature.
“I’m now working on the Chevrolet Volt. This is on my own. I’m going to solar energize it. I’m going to get away from only driving that car 48 miles before I charge it. I’m going to be able to drive 188 miles.”