He set the tone of car culture for 60 years and there’s more to come.
Few people can say they have shaped a culture. Fewer still can say that, after six decades, they still are. But, then again, most people aren’t George Barris, the undisputed king of TV and movie cars: Batmobile; Back to the Future Delorean; Fred Flintstone’s car; Vin Diesel’s GTO in the movie XXX; the Fast and Furious Mitsubishi Eclipse . . . the list goes on and on . . . and on. What’s more, after 60 years in the movie-car business, he shows no signs of slamming on the brakes.
Forget that this man is pushing 80, Barris thrives on the far-out, igniting smiles wherever he and his wonder cars roll.
Celebrity Car’s two-day visit with the acknowledged pioneer of custom cars left us spent, but delighted to bear witness at Barris Kustom Industries in North Hollywood, Calif. Then, at the Kustomizing King’s invitation, we flew to Las Vegas, Nev., to check out his movie-car exhibit, a one-millionsquare-foot automotive attraction and entertainment complex where his most famous movie and TV cars were being displayed on specially built Hollywood production sets.
With all that, we wanted to know the obvious: what’s his daily driver?
“It depends on my mood,” chuckled Barris. “If I’m upset, it’s the Jeep because it makes easy work out of taking curbs. On happier days it’s the Jag XK8. And if I must get fancy there is the Rolls-Royce.”
Style, according to Barris, is “Innovation, something that keeps things moving, not a repeat of tradition, no matter how well done.”
The auto-styling world is a volatile cauldron, but Barris never felt he was gambling with his career on any design.
“I always felt comfortable,” he says, “but every project was a challenge of its own and that’s what motivated me.”
Motivation? Beginning in 1958, Barris picked up the first of five straight Grand National Awards, the Oscar of the custom-car world, for his innovative creations.
After five, Barris stopped entering the competition.
Today, he believes hot rodding has regressed back to the stoic designs and ideas of the 1950s and that has all but killed styling expression. Not to be confused with craftsmanship and engineering, it is conceptualization that he finds lacking.
“We couldn’t do what some of the builders are producing today,” he explains. “We didn’t have the equipment, tools, and off-the-shelf parts. We had to build everything by hand. But for all they have, what kind of hot rod do we get? The same old slanted nose, billet grille inserts, painted head lights — it’s all the same — why did ingenuity get lost?”
He believes it’s tough to be a successful customizer today because much of the design work is now done through mail order. “Pick up any magazine, look in the back, pick the pieces and put them together,” he sighs. “It’s all there, anything you want from bumper-to-bumper, just wait for the mailman to arrive.”
“Hand built” to Barris means a torch, hammer and a hacksaw. In the beginning he didn’t even have tin snips, everything was cut with a torch. “When I chopped a top, I would cut it into a hundred little pieces, stretch them and hammer them and then weld it all back together again to get the contour I wanted.”
Still as passionate about his craft as ever, Barris points out that the movie-car business has dramatically changed.
“Before, I had to hand build every trick and special effect, today the computer does most of the special effects. I like Mel Gibson because he insists the cars are real; he wants realism not pixels.”
“Understand that my career and craft has been done in decades. In the ’40s we pioneered things, by the ’50s the film industry started to grab at the hot rodders because we staged some dramatic street races . . . By the ’60s, TV was booming and suddenly I’m in every home with Batman, The Monkees, The Beverly Hillbillies, the Green Hornet. No computer graphics to rely on, all those cars had to be drastically changed. We had to build it!”
Barris is convinced that today’s tuner-car crowd mimics what he did in the ’50s. “The domestic manufacturers dropped the ball,” he says. “Detroit forgot the kids and they jumped into imports — what they could afford — just like we did with flatheads (Ford V8s).”
With two grown children, one has to wonder what marvels have yet to be designed, built and graced with the Barris Kustom Crest.
“I made wonder a part of my life,” says Barris. “I am trying to teach the same thing to my grandson Jared, telling him that where there is a will there is a way and that way can be fun.”