George Barris: Kustom Kar King

This month’s blog series is “Potpourri.” We begin the month with “Autopourri.” Take a moment and think about some of your favorite cars from classic television: the Batmobile, the Beverly Hillbillies’ jalopy, the Munsters family car, or Kitt from Knight Rider. There is one thing they have in common: George Barris. Today I thought it would be fun to get to know a bit more about George.


Barris was born in Chicago in 1925 to Greek immigrants and his name was George Salapatas. After his mother’s death in 1928, their father sent George and his brother Sam to California to live with an uncle and aunt. George loved building model planes and eventually model cars. He won several competitions for his design and construction. George was also interested in the fine arts of painting, sculpture, and music. He became a great piano and saxophone player.

The brothers began restoring a 1925 Buick. It became the first Barris Brothers custom car. They straightened the body and added accessories. They gave it an orange paint job with blue stripes. Once they sold it, they used their profit to buy a 1929 Model A.

The brothers started hanging out in some of the local body shops, including Brown’s and Bertolucci’s in Sacramento. Harry Westergard, a tradesman at Brown’s, became George’s mentor. He taught him the skills of layout and paneling. While still in high school, Barris formed a club called Kustoms Car Club. George took classes in shop work, mechanical drawing, and design.

In one of his first cars, he cut the suspension coils, so it would ride lower in the front and be kicked up in the rear. He would “french” the headlights, which basically means molding them into the body to get a smoother look. At one point, it was said to get the right shade of pearl, he grated the scales from a sardine and mixed them up in the paint.


A lot of the Sacramento teens, including George and Sam, showed off their custom cars and drive-in movies and restaurants in Southern California. George gave his 1936 Ford convertible a custom silver paint job (probably the sardine story above) and removed the door handles to make it look more streamlined. He removed the running boards and shaved the fenders for a pointed front end.

After high school, Sam entered WWII, but George was turned down. He moved to Los Angeles. He opened his first shop in Bell, an LA suburb, in 1944. When Sam came home in 1945, he partnered with George. They opened a new shop called Barris Brothers Custom Shop on Compton Ave in 1946. Sam concentrated on metal craftsmanship, while George devoted his time to design, painting, and promoting.

In 1947 George dipped into racing at the Saugus Speedway, but the business was expanding and soon all his time was focused on customizing cars. George and Sam received a request from Robert Petersen, founder of Hot Rod magazine to exhibit at his first Hot Rod Show.

The Munsters’ cars Photo:

Several magazines devoted to customizing cars debuted, and George took on the role of writer and photographer for several of the publications. The business was promoted in his “how to” articles.

From 1949-1950 the brothers were back in Bell before moving to a new shop that they found in Lynwood. Sam bought a two-door Mercury to renovate. Bob Hirohata loved the new style and brought his 1951 Mercury to the business for a full custom job. The car was exhibited at the 1952 Motorama. In August of 1951, George traveled to Europe to study automotive styling there. He visited Italy, Germany, and France. He returned home with plenty of new inspiration.

Sam left the business 1956. He had grown tired of the hectic pace of LA. He went back to Sacramento and married his childhood sweetheart. He worked as a firefighter and was later Fire Commissioner for Carmichael. He passed away from cancer in 1967.

George took on a new partner–his wife Shirley. They produced a couple of creations of their own: Joji and Brett. In addition to supporting George, Shirley spent a lot of her time raising money for Child Help USA, The Boys & Girls Clubs of Pasadena, St. Jude Hospital, and the Jerry Lewis Telethon.

George ramped up his promotion traveling the country, appearing on talk shows, attending car shows, and working with Revell to manufacture car model kits based on his cars.


George’s business continued to expand. He brought in some of the best fabricators and craftsmen in the business: Bill Hines, Lloyd Bakan, Dick Dean, Dean Jeffries (creator of the Monkeemobile and the Black Beauty in The Green Hornet), Von Dutch, Larry Watson, Herschel “Junior” Conway, John and Ralph Manok, Bill De Carr, Richard Korkes, Frank Sonzogni, Jacko Johnson, Lyle Lake, Curley Hurlbert and Tom McMullen.

He moved his business to a larger shop in North Hollywood in the early sixties. It occupied most of an entire block on Riverside Drive. His daughter Joji continues as a partner in Barris Kustom Industries with her husband Barry, son Jared, and brother Brett. The building went up for sale in 2021.

In addition to private customers, the movie studios took notice of the work the Barris brothers were doing. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant’s Mercedes Benz is hit by a police car. Barris made soft aluminum fenders for the police car to prevent serious damage to the Mercedes. Barris made a car for High School Confidential and his work for movies and television only skyrocketed.

In 1966, George was asked by ABC to design a car for the upcoming Batman series. There was not a lot of time to design and build a car, weeks actually. Barris had purchased a Lincoln Futura built in Italy and it was in his collection. He hired Bill Cushenbery to modify the car, and it was ready in three weeks. The parachutes on the back really worked. At one point, George tested them on the Hollywood Freeway and was pulled over. Where was Commissioner Gordon when you needed him? Barris retained ownership of the car which was sold at auction in 2013 for $4,620,000.

Batmobile Photo:

In an interview with the Television Academy, Barris discussed making the car for Batman. He wanted the scoop to be the nose, the grill the mouth, the lights eyes. He incorporated sprinkler heads from his lawn system. He made long, aerodynamic bat fins. He designed rocket tubes coming out the back. He had to build it so quickly so he turned to some of his concept cars. Concept cars were sent to car shows to gauge people’s interest in them for future designs. He decided that the Futura would be a good one to modify. He put Indianapolis speed tires on the car to film it blasting out of the bat cave. The tires didn’t work, so he had to run to the local Goodrich plant to buy tires. He included anti-theft and smoke control to make it 20th-century-crime-fighter worthy. He said they spit nails out to get the Riddler and poured out oil to get Cesar Romero as the Joker. Barris was paid $15,000 to make the car and $150 a day when he was on set to film special effects.

George then went on to build the 18-foot-long Munster Koach, which was built from three Model Ts for The Munsters. He included blood red velvet interior and hand-scrolled details. He also designed the casket-turned-dragster, the Drug-U-La, Grandpa’s car on the show.

He customized two 1920s cars for television. The Beverly Hillbillies had a 1922 Ford. He said that he found it at a feed store near LA. The farmer had cut the back off and made it into a bed to haul hay. Barris decided that would be the perfect place to put Granny’s rocking chair. Barris was also asked to design the 1928 Porter for My Mother the Car. There were only a handful of Porters made, so he used a Model T Touring Car with a Chevy 8 engine.

Hirohata Mercury Photo:

He later updated KITT for later seasons of Knight Rider; Michael Scheffe was responsible for the original design.  George also created the 1914 Stutz Bearcats replicas for Bearcats!

In addition to these well-known automobiles, Barris also designed a car for the Banana Splits in 1968, the Oldsmobile Toronado for the roadster on Mannix, the Torino for Starsky and Hutch in the late seventies, and modified a car for The Dukes of Hazzard in 1979.

George also continued with his private customer work including a Rolls Royce for Zsa Zsa Gabor that included butterflies, roses, and hummingbirds.

The star requests kept coming in, so he worked on cars for Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Ann Margret, Glen Campbell, Redd Foxx, Frank Sinatra, and Elton John. He made a Cadillac for Elvis Presley’s limousine, stations wagons for John Wayne and Dean Martin, and his and her Mustangs for Sonny and Cher.

Fire Bug from The Banana Splits Photo:

Even NASA reached out to him about a Moonscope vehicle he had designed in 1966 which became a model car for collectors. The six-wheel spider suspension and large wedged tires intrigued engineers working on the Martian rovers.

In 1960 during the National Roadster Show, nine pioneers in creative auto building were inducted into a new National Roadster Hall of Fame. The nine members were Joe Bailon, Ezra Ehrhardt, Romeo Palamides, Gordon Vann, Harold Casuaurang, Robert Petersen, George Barris, Wally Parks, and Walt Moron.

In 2005, The New York Times recruited Barris to customize a Toyota Prius for $10,000.

Shirley passed away in 2001, and George died in his sleep in 2015, a couple weeks before turning 90.

I so enjoyed getting to know a bit more about George Barris and his incredible career. Let me know which television car is your favorite; I have to go with the Batmobile.

4 thoughts on “George Barris: Kustom Kar King

  1. The custom car business would be an interesting one to be in. it seems like there’s quite a bit of money in it but I don’t have the vision for that type of thing. It’s very cool to see the different cars and details they come up with. I remember watching a show where they would take somebody’s old car and make it into a stylish looking new vehicle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.