Barris’ custom cars are legends in the hot rod, TV and film industries in Detroit, MI
Cut-up photographs of a black Ford F-150 lie scattered across George Barris' desk, forming a mosaic of fenders, headlamps and rear-quarter panels.
Barris' eyes flicker over each fragment as he rearranges the parts of a normal-looking pickup truck and transforms it into the lunatic hot rod vision he has bouncing around in his head.
He dabs glue onto one scrap and sets it on paper. Then, another and another. Finally, he stands back and examines what has come together. The disorder has taken the shape of a mean-looking motor machine with a modified front grill, flared fenders and enlarged hood scoop.
"Pretty cool, isn't it?" he asks. "Wait until you see the real thing."
Barris, 87, has worked this way -- using scissors and glue -- for the past 70 years, taking ordinary vehicles and mutating them into hell-for-leather roadsters. Many of them have found a place in automotive history.
Others have been immortalized on television and in the movies. He turned a 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura into the Batmobile. He stretched out a Model T body and, with a few tweaks, made it into the ghastly vehicle that the Munsters drove in the TV show.
What began as a slightly subversive trend in the '40s is now a bona fide profession, running at full speed today behind garage doors -- even in a world where gas-sipping hybrids and subcompact cars seem to be getting all the attention.
Many hot rodders and customizers see their work as art and Barris as an old master.
"He's a legend when it comes to developing the passion, sport or whatever you want to call the hot rod industry," said Troy Ladd, the founder of Hollywood Hot Rod, a custom car shop in Burbank, Calif.
Barris' love of cars came early. By the time he was 7 years old, he was piecing together balsa wood car models. It didn't take long before he was entering and winning model contests sponsored by hobby shops.
His family wanted him to work at its Greek restaurant in a Sacramento, Calif., suburb, but Barris resisted. When he was a teenager, he rushed to sweep floors at a local auto body shop as soon as school let out. Before long, he was handling a blowtorch, shaping the immense metal auto bodies of the era.
When he turned 18, Barris left and moved to Los Angeles to become part of the emerging teen car culture.
With his savings, he opened Barris Custom Shop in Bell, Calif. He later switched it to "Kustom" because it looked more creative.
"Because I was Greek, I spelled it with a K," Barris said. "I wish I would have trademarked that. I'd be a millionaire."
Soon, Barris' custom cars were causing a buzz. People sought him out, and his business took off.
His work caught the attention of Robert E. Petersen, who published Hot Rod, Street Rodder and Motor Trend magazines. After Barris' curvy, candy-colored cars appeared in print in 1948, he began getting more attention than the top designers in Detroit. Hollywood took notice, too.
The entertainment industry turned to Barris to create cars for films with titles like "High School Confidential!" (1958) and "For Those Who Think Young" (1964).
When producers of the "Batman" TV show asked for a car that Adam West could battle villains with, Barris turned out a midnight black and fluorescent-red pinstriped monster. "I saw the script and it said, 'Bang,' 'Pow,' 'Boom,' " Barris said. "That's exactly what I wanted the car to be able to do. I wanted it to be as big a character as the actors themselves."
Barris said he transformed the Lincoln in just 15 days for $15,000.
Producers of "The Munsters" asked Barris to get a hearse for the TV family's car. But he had a better idea: He welded together three Model T bodies, put casket handles around the engine and decked out the interior in blood-red velvet. Under the hood, he put a Ford Cobra engine with 10 chrome-plated carburetors. Barris built it for $18,000 and called it the Munster Koach.