Is there a movie, television series or celebrity that George Barris hasn’t customized a car for?
That’s the question you have to ask when visiting his shop in North Hollywood, California. Every inch of the place is packed with photos and memorabilia from the countless stars he has known and the Hollywood vehicles he has built for them over the course of his 60-plus-year career.
Remember K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider?” The General Lee from “Dukes of Hazard?” The “Munsters” coach and the “Beverly Hillbillies” pickup? Those are just a few of his many iconic creations. Oh, and then there’s also one of six Batmobiles he built for the 1960s “Batman” television series still sitting in his showroom. (The first of the group, which Barris customized from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car, went for $4.62 million at auction earlier this year.)
But it’s not his cars that Barris is most proud of; it’s the relationships he’s forged.
“I’m a people guy,” he smiled. “People to me are more important.”
Indeed, Barris has known—and built cars for—an extensive roster of legendary customers: Clark Gable, James Dean, Elvis Presley, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra and the entire Rat Pack. The names go on. Given all his achievements, it’s amazing that his high-school principal considered him least likely to succeed.
Barris was born in Chicago, but his mother died when he was only three, leading him and his brother to move in with an uncle in Sacramento, California.
“When I went to school, I wanted to do cars,” he recalled, “so I went to Roseville High where they regretfully sent me to the metal class to make drainpipes. I didn’t want to make drainpipes. So I quit. Next I went to San Juan High School. Same thing. I said I wanted to design and make cars. They said, ‘We’ll put you in cooking class.’ I quit. I went and hung around a body shop. They taught me how to weld with an acetylene torch….”
Barris quickly put his shop skills to work, customizing his first car at age 14—a ‘32 Ford with cat’s-eye taillights. He did eventually make his way back to high school for his diploma. Then, after his brother completed military service, the two resettled in Lynwood, California, where Barris opened his first custom shop.
“I got really strong into aftermarket parts, but I not only did car parts; I did toys,” he said, explaining that he designed and constructed model cars for Revell and other toymakers in advance of real-life vehicle debuts. “Then, when I got married, my dear wife, who has since passed away, was very energetic about marketing,” he said, “so I learned how to be a marketing wizard along with creating and designing cars.”
And what’s his favorite all-time innovation?
“I really don’t have one, because each one was a different challenge,” he answered modestly. “And I love challenges.”
Moreover, Barris has always drawn heavily on specialty equipment to meet his challenges. In fact, if he faults today’s customizers for anything, it’s in forgetting their aftermarket roots.
“The custom industry is growing by leaps and bounds,” he said. “Every show I go to is expanding. But we’re losing aftermarket parts—and by that I mean bolt-ons. Most everyone nowadays is chopping tops and so forth. They’re not putting on a bolt-on bumper, a headlight or something like that. They make everything now. The industry and SEMA need to continue to make it easier for the enthusiast not only to home-build but shop-build a vehicle.”
Barris has promoted grassroots customizing with many how-to articles for Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Car Craft and related magazines. And he’s still pushing fresh design trends for new cars, including hybrids. Despite a long list of international accolades, Barris considered induction into the SEMA Hall of Fame a special honor.
“I’ve belonged to a lot of associations, and I’ve gotten a lot of awards from the movie industry, but SEMA is my world,” he said. “I’m a car guy.”