If you were raised on a tropical island with no TV and radio, you can probably reasonably claim that George Barris didn’t influence your life. But let’s assume you turned on the boob tube at least once (either during the golden age of the '60s and '70s, or more recently in endless TV Land reruns) then “King of the Kustomizers” Barris, who died at 89 on Nov. 5, got his mitts on you.
He certainly hit some chords with me. Let’s start with perhaps his most famous car, the Batmobile, piloted by TV immortals Adam West and Burt Ward. Barris, born in 1924 and a California-based customizer since right after World War II, started with the 1955 Lincoln Futura show car. In those days it wasn’t considered sacrilegious to carve up a concept vehicle, so Barris built the first Batmobile from that platform in just three weeks.
That car had a 429 Ford lump under the hood, and the requisite laser beams, rocket tubes and plexiglass canopies. The Batscope was hooked up with a “revolving closed-circuit antenna.” And don’t forget the Cable Cutter Blade, Bat Ray Projector, Anti-Theft Device, Detect-a-scope, Bat Eye Switch, Antenna Activator, Police Band Cut-In Switch, Automatic Tire Inflation Device, Dual Deist Parachutes, Batphone, Emergency Bat Turn Lever, Anti-Fire Activator, Bat Smoke and Bat Photoscope.
I once piloted a Batmobile, but unlike this one, it turned out to be a fake. (Photo: Barris Kustom Industries)
It all looked cool on television. A bunch more Batmobiles were built for filming, though precisely how many is unclear — and lots of clones were constructed later.
I have a funny story about that. I drove a Batmobile once that came with a letter from Barris himself attesting to its authenticity, but I wasn’t sure. The original Batmobiles all had Ford power and this one was GM. I later learned it was a 1980s replicar, though it sure fooled the people waving from the side of the road.
Barris built tons of cars, some of my favorites being the mild customs and hot rods he built early in his career — like a pair of Mercurys, including the lovely Hirohata Merc based on a ’51 Club Coupe. But a lot of Barris’ are seared in memory, because he built cars for mega-popular shows like "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Munsters."
The Munster Koach (spellings were unique to Barris) started out as three Model T Fords and (again with a three-week deadline) gained a hand-formed frame, a built 289-cubic-inch Cobra engine from a ’66 Mustang GT, blood-red velvet interior (Barris didn’t thrive on taste), and hand-formed steel scrollwork.
The original Beverly Hillbillies car, known as The Jalopy, was based on a 1922 Oldsmobile truck chassis. There were five of those built, too, and I’m sure at least that many were “documented by Mr. Barris.” A second hot rod was built for the Jethro character. It began life as an unassuming 1921 Oldsmobile roadster. Shoehorned into that was a 442-cubic-inch V-8 from a ’69.
Did I mention that Barris also built a Green Hornet car, KITT from "Knight Rider," the General Lee and the Monkee Mobile? Starsky & Hutch got a car, too.
George Barris, larger than life — and one more legend is gone. I wish I had gotten a chance to interview him; I’m sure he had great stories. His contemporary Carroll Shelby certainly did.
Here are two videos, the first one a warm and loving visit to the great man's 88th birthday party:
And the second one a montage of some of the wild (and "krazy") cars he built:
Inset photo of Barris: Wikipedia