George Barris: Not your ordinary auto customizer

George Barris may not be a household name, but he’s known for building the Batmobile from the original 1966 Batman TV show – one of the most iconic custom cars of all time. But there’s much more to Barris’ life and work than just the Batmobile.

The late, great George Barris, King of Kustomizers

From Chicago to California

George was just three years old when he and his four-year old brother Sam were sent from Chicago to Roseville, California to live with relatives following the death of their mother. Their father, an immigrant from Greece, couldn’t care for the boys on his own, so he entrusted their care to their aunt and uncle.

The move certainly didn’t hold George back. By the time he was seven he was making car models out of balsa wood and winning awards for his work. Later on, George and Sam successfully restored and customized a 1925 Buick.

Robert Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury, customized by George and Sam Barris
Robert Hirohata’s 1951 Mercury, customized by George and Sam Barris

As a result of their flair for customization, the brothers soon enjoyed strong demand for their work, even though they were still in high school. Before finishing school, George formed the Kustoms Car Club. “Kustoms” is now a common name for car customization businesses, but this was the first time the letter “k” was used in the spelling. The “k” variation stuck and George would use it for the rest of his life, most notably as Barris Kustom Industries.

George moved from tiny Roseville to bustling Los Angeles soon after he turned 18 to open a custom shop and join the emerging teen car culture of that era. After Sam served in the World War II, the brothers reunited to advance their passion. By the 1950s, Sam set out on his own, leaving George to continue with his work, including building movie props – 1958’s “High School Confidential” was his first big break.

Even greater opportunities were to come as television became another source for showcasing the works of Barris Kustom Industries.

Munster Koach and the 1966 Batmobile

George Barris’ legendary 1966 Batmobile

The Munster Koach became the ride of choice for the Grandpa character in the popular 1960s TV series, “The Munsters.” The 18-foot-long vehicle was made from three Model T bodies and featured a custom hearse body. Power came from a 289 cubic-inch V8 engine paired with a three-speed top-loader manual transmission.

As well-known as the Munster Koach was, it was quickly followed by Barris’ most famous creation: the 1966 Batmobile. Featured in the TV series, the Batmobile was based on the Lincoln Futura concept, a vehicle Barris had added to his collection in the 1950s. Barris worked with custom builder Gene Cushenberry to modify the car, completing the project in just three weeks. The rest is history – Barris’ cars began to appear regularly on home and theater screens.

Other models customized by Barris included an Oldsmobile Toronado touring car used in the “Mannix” television series, a fictional “1928 Porter” featured in “My Mother the Car,” and dozens of vehicles modified for celebrities like Ann-Margret, Elton John, and Elvis Presley.

Barris’ later years

Losing his brother Sam to cancer in 1967 caused Barris to redouble his efforts. His talented wife, Shirley, supported him in all his endeavors until she passed away in 2001. George continued his auto customizing work until his own passing in 2015, leaving behind a long custom car building legacy highlighted by the iconic 1966 Batmobile.

Photo credits: Pop Culture Greek, ATOMIC Hot Links, Rex Gray

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