The name George Barris is synonymous with car customising. It was George and his brother Sam that revolutionised the art of custom cars in America back in the forties and fifties by reworking the likes of Ford and Chevrolet cars to emulate coachbuilt designs. Their creativity went on to influence the way Detroit designed cars.
But Barris is of course a household name thanks mainly to his involvement with the TV and movie car scene, the most famous of these being the original Batmobile. George is still busy building cars in his North Hollywood shop and recently took time out, at the age of 83, for his first visit to UK shores. We were lucky enough to catch up with him at the Rhythm Riot's Barris Kustom Show and ask him a few questions about his career.
Influx: Welcome to the UK George, it's great to have you here.
George: Why thank you. It's amazing to know that what we were doing all those years ago has such an influence on today's young people.
Influx: We would love to know where the business began for you.
George: Well my brother Sam and I had been playing around with old cars from a very early age, hopping up the family sedan was our first project. It was some time in 1941 that I was first approached by a customer to perform work on a car. I had the job of installing a set of tail lights in a '32 Ford. The customer was happy, paid his money and a seed was sown.
Influx: Business was booming for you right from the start and you attracted Hollywood stars. Who were your more memorable customers?
George: We were doing work for all kind of flamboyant people. Zsa Zsa Gabor had a Rolls Royce that we reworked for her and we installed a drinks cabinet with crystal glasses and more gold than you would believe. It was however a much more modest star that springs to mind. This young man often visited the shop when he was in town and made a point to get to know every member of staff. He would always strike a conversation, asking how so-and-so's kids were doing at school, or how another guys wedding had gone, he always remembered the little details and called everyone sir. That young man's name was Elvis Presley.
Influx: We're guessing it wasn't all glamour back then, hotrodders and customisers weren't always looked on favourably.
George: Man that's right, I was always in trouble with the cops! They always seemed to be waiting for us when we would take a car round the block for a test run. I would get pulled for different reasons, too low, too loud, I even got stopped once for running dual headlamps! This was the early fifties and every production car has single headlamps so the cops didn't understand. It was only a few years later that every car out of Detroit would have the same headlamp set-up we had designed.
Influx: What is your all time favourite car from the shop?
George: That's a tough one, but if there was one car I could have again it would be the Golden Sahara that I built from a my own wrecked 1953 Lincoln.
Influx: We know you suffered a terrible fire at your shop in the late 1950s. How did you bounce back from that?
George: We lost all but one car in that fire, that was the Model A Roadster pickup "Ala-Kart". We just picked up the pieces and got on with it. We got that car finished for the Oakland Roadster Show and came away with the ‘Americas Most Beautiful Roadster’ trophy. We went back the next year and won it again with the same car, something that had never been done before. Everyone in the shop had a real positive attitude and we have a lot of fun. That's my advice to everyone out there, do what you gotta do and have fun doing it.
Neil Fretwell runs the Vintage Hot Rod Association