By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Petersen Archive
Farewell to the King
When George Barris, the “King of the Kustomizers,” passed away in November at the age of 89, the stories and obituaries in the mainstream media focused on his television and movie cars—especially the original Batmobile, which he built for the campy ’60s TV show in just 15 days by modifying Ford’s ’55 Lincoln Futura concept car. Lost in much of the reportage was the reason Barris wore that crown in the first place.
Barris and his brother Sam started tinkering with cars as teenagers in Northern California. In the mid-’40s, Barris moved to Los Angeles and opened his first custom car shop, and Sam joined him soon after mustering out of the Merchant Marine. It wasn’t long before George and Sam became pioneers of what’s considered the “classic” custom-car era. Sam’s own ’49 Mercury, with its deeply chopped roof, pavement-scraping stance, frenched headlights and smoothed sheetmetal, set styling trends that have been echoed on Merc lead sleds ever since.
The brothers were an effective team. Sam’s skills as a metal shaper complemented George’s knack with a paint spray gun. George also took on the role as the business’s front man and chief marketer. His talent for photographing the shop’s various project cars—and the procedures used to modify them—became feature articles and tech how-to’s that were a mainstay of ’50s car magazines.
As customizing trends evolved, so did Barris cars. The clean lines of Sam’s Merc gave way to a “more is better” aesthetic, as cars were liberally decorated with flashy trim, tail fins, bumper bullets, candy paint and other eye-grabbing styling cues.
Many of those features are visible on the Ultra Bird, a 1958 Thunderbird that Barris built as a gift for his wife, Shirley. These black-and-white photos don’t do justice to the Bird’s 30 coats of candy-red paint, but other details are easy to spot: the white Carson-style top and matching white pearl striping, the custom grille with bullets, the extended headlight housings and the louvered side moldings. The car earned Barris Motor Life magazine’s Custom Car of the Year award in 1959, a plaque he and Shirley hold proudly in the photo from the Petersen archives.
The late ’50s and early ’60s were a pivotal time for Barris. Sam left the business in 1956, and a shop fire in 1957 nearly put an end to George’s customizing career. But with a lot of help and support from then-girlfriend Shirley, he rebuilt the shop.
One of the projects that escaped the fire undamaged, Richard Peters’ Ala Kart show truck, went on to win the prestigious America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at the Oakland Roadster Show in 1958 and again in 1959—the first car to win back-to-back AMBR awards. George followed that feat with an AMBR for Chuck Krikorian’s Emperor roadster in 1960.
Ala Kart also became a hugely successful AMT plastic model kit, introducing Barris’ styling to countless young enthusiasts. And in 1961, Barris moved his shop from Lynwood to North Hollywood, just a stone’s throw from the studios that would soon come calling for Barris’ brand of outrageous, camera-ready creations.