George Barris is a legendary vehicle customizer, well-known for his celebrity creations that include the Batmobile, Munster Koach, KITT from Nightrider and the Dukes of Hazard’s General Lee. In addition to building vehicles, Barris authored many “how to” articles for magazines, such as Hot Rod Magazine, Motor Trend, Car Craft and Rod & Custom.
As a pioneer and icon in the industry, Barris continues to actively influence the industry’s styles and trends. A regular attendee at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Barris is admired and respected by many in the industry.
We recently sat down with Barris to take a journey through his amazing career.
Q: Tell us about the first car you got paid to customize and a little about your childhood.
GB: My parents owned a restaurant called Dan’s Grill in Roseville, CA, right on the edge of town. When I was 15, my dad taught me how to be the dishwasher but it didn’t interest me at all, so I focused on my models pretty much. About a year later, we moved to San Juan, CA, and that’s where I got my first customizing job. A kid drove up in a 1932 Ford and told me he wanted to customize the car. I told him that I was going to put in a set of cat eye tail lights and he agreed to pay me 10 bucks. 10 bucks! And that’s when I determined that I would make it a career. I thought, I’m going to be a big customizer and a billionaire! I made up my mind right there that I would name my company Kustoms of America. I threw that “C” out of there and turned it into a “K.” People use it now all the time, but I was the one who came up with it when I was 16.
Q: Your first passion was building models as a teenager and you won a lot of awards for doing it. Please talk about that hobby and how it turned into bigger and better things.
GB: As I said before, we grew up in Roseville, CA, and one day I went to the five and dime store and saw a flyer announcing a model airplane contest. I would go in there with a model car and they would tell me, “This is for airplane models,” and I told them I’m into cars. I want four wheels, not two wheels! We (my brother Sam and I) stuck to it and eventually we started winning some contests. That’s how we started in the model business with Revell. Then, in 1960, I started working with Aluminum Model Toys (AMT), a company that was making models for all the car companies. So, I was able to see how the new cars looked before they hit the market. That way, I could create models of them well before anyone had seen them, so I had an advantage there. I made custom kits for those vehicles and then eventually we started making 3-in-1 model kits, so that the hobbyists could pick which design to use. That way, they could customize the models and use their creativity. During that time Lee Iacocca from Ford Motor Company started something called the Ford Custom Car Caravan, where they would take this little racing track and go out there and do model racing. We went to all the World of Wheels and Motorama shows and it got very popular real fast.
Q: Meeting Robert E. Petersen (the founder of Hot Rod and Motor Trend) was also a big deal and brought you a lot of worldwide attention. Your “How-To” articles in these magazines became popular as well. Describe that long-running relationship with Petersen and how it brought the Barris name to the hot rod world.
GB: We called him “Pete” and I met him when he was 18 and he was putting on a car show in L.A., and everyone loved it. After that, he started Hot Rod, then Car Craft, Rod & Custom and I got involved in all of it. As a result, people all over the world got to know my name. I wrote columns and helped Pete with his “little book” series and we also started the very first Motorama car show, which we held right next to the Chinese Grauman’s Theatre in Los Angeles and that was a winner and a half. I had 60 cars in there, including the Batmobile and the Munsters cars and it was the #1 car show in the world. They closed down Hollywood Boulevard and that was the first time that ever happened. Don Prudhomme did a burnout with his dragster right down the middle of the street. Boy, that was an exciting time!
Q: Of all the celebrities you customized vehicles for over the years, who was your favorite?
GB: There was one young man and I was doing a limousine for him and he would come into the shop to visit and check on our progress now and again.
One day, he walked into the garage area where we were working on the car and started talking to my guys one by one. He knew everyone’s names and everything about them, asking about their kids and families, etc., because he really cared about them. He wasn’t just doing it to impress anyone, he was doing it because he wanted to. And that was Elvis Presley—a really wonderful man. He cared about people and did everything for everybody. He was an exceptional individual. I did a Cadillac, a bus and a limousine for Elvis and we became very good friends with him and Priscilla. He was a real car guy, that’s for sure.
Q: Some of your first film work involved working with Alfred Hitchcock. After that you worked with Orson Welles and provided special vehicles for movies like “The Car,” “The Silencers,” “Thunder Alley” and “Fireball 500.” How was it working with top names and creating cars for the film industry?
GB: My first movie was “High School Confidential” with John Barrymore. Jr. where we built a cute little chopped Chevy for that film. They wanted to use it in a race scene and roll it over. But as hard as I tried, I could not roll that car, because it was too low to the ground. So we had to get a lift and a cable down on that vehicle, to flip it and drop it. A whole career started right there. We went on to work with “Sonny and Cher,” “Fireball 500,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Super Van,” “Mag Wheels” and “High School Confidential” was the start. As far as Alfred Hitchcock, yes we worked with him on “North By Northwest.” He wasn’t a car guy, but he was interested in what we were doing to get this car in his film. The most interesting film or TV car that we created was for the TV show “Knight Rider.” The studio wrecked the car every episode, so we had to fix it pretty much every week. They always broke the fiberglass nose piece on it and one day the producer told me this is costing us a lot of money. So, I made a mold of that nose and created a rubber one and didn’t tell them about it. The next time they wrecked it, I just walked over there, popped it off and showed them! We had to do a lot of funny stuff to make these cars work and it was a lot of fun. We also did the “Blues Brothers” film, building a lot of police cars, “Blade Runner” and “Thunder Alley.” We worked with Clint Eastwood, the Rat Pack, Michael Jackson and Bob Hope and so many more!
Q: In the 1960s, you got more involved in T.V., which is where you really made your name. During this time, Batman, The Munsters, Mannix, the Beverly Hillbillies, My Mother the Car, The Monkees, Starsky and Hutch, Banacek and Power Rangers were touched by the Barris magic.
GB: The Batmobile is definitely the most well-known of all the cars I’ve created. I wanted it to be the star of the show, right along with Batman and Robin. I told the producers, I’m going to have rocket launchers, oil squirters—I am going to make this car a star. And that’s why it was such a hit, because it had all these different things it could do. The oil squirters were made out of lawn sprinklers and those were what we used. I was on that set all the time and it was a great experience. The first Batmobile they wanted was all flat black, but when it came out of that Bat Cave, it looked terrible. So, I found some glow orange paint and outlined the car with stripes so they would reflect and man, that made it pop. It was a people car and that’s why it became so popular. The first show I did was the “Beverly Hillbillies” in 1960. I met with the producer and they said we need a jalopy. How am I going to find a jalopy in Beverly Hills? So, I traveled to San Bernardino and that’s where I saw a feed store. The owner of the store had an old 1922 Oldsmobile four-door sedan and he cut the back off of it and made it into a feed truck so he could carry his hay. So, I took pictures of that and went back to the producers and that eventually became the car for that show.
Q: You’ve been nominated to the SEMA Hall of Fame. Please tell us some of your greatest memories of SEMA Shows over the years.
GB: I remember back when SEMA first started in 1963 and they had 18 tables. It was basically a hot rod show back then. All the old-timers were there and I was representing California Custom Accessories. I did all their aerosol paints and the different parts we designed for them. That’s how I started with SEMA and then of course it exploded to where it is today. They asked me recently do you want to be in the SEMA Hall of Fame and I said of course. At first they said, you don’t qualify because you don’t manufacture aftermarket parts. And I told them I was making aftermarket parts before you were born! I’m honored to be associated with SEMA and proud to be in their Hall of Fame.