The cars we loved.
Ever since the first cars rolled off the assembly line, they have become the subjects of customization. Individuals then shops sprung up that allowed the mass produce car to have some distinct individuality or to reflect the owner’s taste or lack thereof. One of the most popular of the customizers to rise to fame in Post War America was George Barris. Called “the King of Kustomozers”, George and his brother Sam started a business that would be known as the customizer of the stars.
Hollywood celebrities that ranged from members of the Brat Pack to Jay Leno had called on George Barris to customize their cars. Often the cars reflected the trends of the day or the owner’s personality, usually in an exaggerated way.
John Travolta, who during the height of his Disco era fame commissioned a 1979 Firebird from Barris. Called the “Firebird Fever” It embodied all the macho attributes he displayed in films like Saturday Night Fever and the Welcome Back Kotter TV show. The wide fender flares and outrageous whale Tail spoiler were in keeping with the wide body look popular during the ’70s in racing and custom circles. It was so popular, that it became the subject of a plastic model kit from Revell and was copied in popular aftermarket kits for the Firebird.
The Barris Custom design language included elements influenced by everything from the West Coast hot rod/fantasy world of Ed Roth to East Coast Blackspotation style.
Making Travolta’s Firebird look tame, other customizations like Bo Dericks “Barrister” were typical of the garish baroque design touches from Barris and were more likely to be seen on celebrity one offs. The Barrister started with a stretched 1980 Corvette chassis and evolved to blingtastic splendor.
An example of more subtle
tasteful modifications can be seen Dean Martin’s Gia 6.4L. The Barris Customs’ West Coast version of the Superfly look was popular not just with high ballers, but with the general car buying public as well. Barris Customs sold a few of its creations at the dealer level for those who could afford it. While not endowed with official factory blessing, cars like the 1967 Cadillac Eldorado based Del Cagallero was available at select dealers for a premium over the top of a base Eldorado.
These Eldorados embodied what we now think of as the worst ’70s era design impulses. Bolt-ons like landau top mounted metal irons and elaborate custom grilles added splendor to an already lavish car. Mechanically, these cars were mostly untouched to retain their factory warranties. Often the base cars for Barris one offs were hardly recognizable when completed. Not all of the Barris customizations were outlandish. Some practical commissions included raising the roof of various Pontiac station wagons for John Wayne. The taller greenhouse made it easier for the 6′ 4″ actor to slip into and out of his beloved Catalina and later Grand Safari wagons.
While there were many cars commissioned by individuals, it was the high-profile projects for television and film that Barris would get the most notoriety. The list includes some of the most famous TV cars from the 60s,70s and 80s. The original Batmobile, Munsters Coach, the menacing Lincoln from “The Car” and the Dukes of Hazzard General Lee are a few of Barris most high-profile projects. Other cars that he was involved with were collaborations like the GTO based Monkeemobile and the Black Beauty from the Green Hornet TV show.
What was equally amazing was the scope of the creations. Barris Customs could create steampunk fantasies like the flying Chitty Chitty Bang Band car to the 80s high-tech KITT Knight Rider Trans-Am. There was a 40 year or so span where many of pop cultures biggest automotive icons had some direct or indirect George Barris influence.
While the Barris creations found inspiration in popular culture items, some of his designs may have indirectly inspired actual production cars. Take the 1966 Batmobile for instance. The front of it resembled the basic design that Pontiac used for its Firebird more than a decade later for the 79-81 model years. As a kid I had always heard of that era of Firebird referred to as the Batmobile” due to the large twin grill slots.
Barris Kustom is still around today and continues to modify cars. While there are fewer high-profile TV and film projects, the customizer still influences the art. One off projects and restorations make up the bulk of the company’s business today. Those projects are joined by a range of everyday cars ranging from the Toyota Prius to the muscle cars like the Dodge Challenger. A recent project based on a 2010 Camaro SS called the Spirit Camaro looked almost factory compared to wild projects from the past. The Spirit sported a new two-tone paint scheme, custom color matching wheels and a distinctive horizontal chrome bar grille. The nearly stock look made it a natural for distribution at Chevy’s dealer network, especially because it left the mechanical alone.
The Challenger however continues the Barris tradition of the outrageous. The customization world has changed considerably since the ’50s and ’60s. The crazy fantasy inspired creations of Barris and his contemporaries seem to have fallen out of favor. Today’s style leaders seem to have moved on to more refined tastes. For instance, today’s rappers led by P. Diddy and Jay Z have taken to more factory based exotics as opposed to lavish customizations. Instead of buying a $50k Corvette and getting $100k worth of work done to it, many now will just buy a $200k+ Lamborghini, Bentley or Ferrari with most of its factory look intact.
For the rest of us who want outlandish style, there may be some constellation in knowing that you don’t have to be a celebrity to own a Barris custom anymore, although it might help if you have lots of money and live in Southern California.