Custom car legend George Barris passed away yesterday at the age of 89. Barris made his name in the 1960s with cars like the Batmobile, the Munster Koach and later, with KITT, the Trans Am from Knight Rider.
Back in the 1950s, the Detroit Autorama show was an opportunity for car customizers to show their work alongside the work of Detroit’s heavy hitters in the auto industry. In 1951, George Barris’s brother Sam customized a new Mercury coupe known as the Hirohata Merc, and it appeared at the 1952 General Motors Autorama. The car was legendary and was known as one of the most influential custom cars of the era.
Sam’s work and George’s involvement eventually turned into Barris Kustom Industries, which began to license its designs to model companies that sold millions of copies of model kits to kids in the 1950s and 1960s.
Barris’s reputation transcended the kustom car movement after author Tom Wolfe titled his first collection of essays The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby named after the title story focused on Barris.
If you’ve never heard of George Barris, you’ve definitely seen the cars his company was involved in. Most famously, his company took on the Batmobile used in the 1966 TV series Batman. His company also designed cars for the the show The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies, and later, the Trans Am known as K.I.T.T. for the show Knight Rider.
Barris’s life wasn’t without controversy. He had long been accused of taking credit for famous cars that he never had any involvement with. Most famously, he took credit for the Monkeemobile, which the “Pre-fab Four” used in the TV series The Monkees. Dean Jeffries designed and built the Monkeemobile, but Barris took ownership of it after the series wrapped. The biggest bone of contention for Jeffries was that in later model kits of the Monkeemobile, the box had Barris Kustom Industries’ logo plastered on it, without credit to Jeffries at all, which the TV series had in the credits of every episode (below).
Similarly, Barris’s website took a lot of credit for the Black Beauty (below), the car from the popular TV show The Green Hornet, produced by William Dozier’s Greenway Productions, the same company that produced Batman. An article for BoldRide.com features documentation from Greenway Productions that shows Dean Jeffries as the Black Beauty designer, as well as a design that Barris had submitted for the show that was rejected in favor of Jeffries’ car.
In 2007, the L.A. Times reported that Universal Studios sent Barris a cease and desist order, “demanding that Barris never again make misrepresentations regarding any involvement with the ‘Back to the Future’ films. They called upon Barris to remove images of the flying DeLorean from his company’s website.”
Barris was also famous for creating novelty cars for celebrities, including Sonny and Cher, Bob Hope, John Wayne and Farrah Fawcett. Those cars are collected in a 2008 book entitled Barris Cars of the Stars.
Barris’s legend lives strong. In 2013, on of the Batmobiles used in the show sold for $4.62 million at the Barrett-Jackson auction in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Look, I’m just a crazy car guy, and I’m proud of it,” Barris told USA Today. “My love for this nutty stuff keeps me coming in the office every day, 8 o’clock sharp.”