A Chapter In American Auto Culture Comes To An End

George Barris—King Of The Kustomizers, 1925-2015

George Barris and the Batmobile
George Barris and the Batmobile (Photo by Stephen Russo)

The legendary George Barris, King of the Kustomizers, passed away in his home on Thursday, Nov. 5, surrounded by his beloved family. He is survived by his daughter Joji Barris-Paster, her husband Barry Paster, his son Brett Barris and a grandson, Jared.

Born in humble circumstances in Chicago, on Nov. 20, 1925, to Greek immigrants James Salapatas and Fanicia Barakaris, young George Salapatas had one older brother named Sam. Tragedy struck the small family in 1928, when his mother died, leaving his father to make the heart-wrenching decision to send his two toddler sons to Roseville, CA, to be raised in the home of his brother-in-law, John Barakaris and wife Edith. The family Americanized its last name to “Barris” soon after the boys came to live with them.

Barris and his brother, Sam, began their careers as custom car designers in 1938, after they received an old 1925 Buick from their parents as a reward for their work in the family’s restaurant. The brothers repaired the car inside and out, embellishing it with things they found in their local hobby store to even the knobs off their mother’s dresser to bring the car’s grill to life. This Buick became the first Barris Brothers Kustom. It was soon sold, and this inspired new car projects as well as a growing demand for their work. Eventually, the brothers created a club for owners of custom vehicles, and called it the Kustoms Car Club. This was the first use of the spelling “kustom,” which would become associated with Barris and later the term used to describe the culture that followed it.

World War II changed the fate of many people, including Barris. While his brother went off to war, George remained in California and relocated to Los Angeles. By 1944, Barris started his own business, and his brother rejoined him in 1946 to open Barris’ Kustom Shop in Compton. In time, the Barris brothers became known for their innovative designs and their bold, imaginative approach to using the automobile as a canvas in a new art form seemingly custom-made for the post-war consumer society.

The brother duo built their radical designs for private buyers. These activities brought them to the attention of the movie industry, and they were soon asked to create cars for personal use by the studio executives and some of the world’s most famous stars from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley, just to name a few. Barris Kustom would also later transform a vehicle’s role in movies and TV shows.

Sam Barris decided to leave the business in the late 1950s to move back to Sacramento, but he still stayed involved through the years. George had married by then to his beautiful wife and partner, Shirley, who shared his passion and vision for the industry and everything they decided to conquer along the way. She would eventually be the one who pushed him to achieve his next plateau, especially after his shop in Compton burned down overnight due to an electrical fire; this was a devastating time, but nonetheless they both kept trekking along to make the best of the worst.

The rest of the Barris story is still being written in the ongoing chronicles of modern culture. Most people come into contact with the art of Barris as they experience cultural events, such as movies, television shows, car shows, toys and model kits. People really “get it” when they see creations like some of Barris’ earliest works, the Ala Kart and the Hirohata Merc, as well as his famous ones being the Batmobile and the Munster Koach. These vehicles became cultural icons in their industries. Many will tell you that running home to see the Batmobile soar out of the bat cave on TV would define some of their favorite childhood memories. The vehicles Barris Kustom brought to the screen became stars in their own right.

Andy Perillo (left) and Mike Manning (right) of Autoseum Automotive Teaching Museum in Mineola with George Barris, circa 2013.
Andy Perillo (left) and Mike Manning (right) of Autoseum Automotive Teaching Museum in Mineola with George Barris, circa 2013.

Barris was, is, and will remain, an icon in the industry as he not only created, but he also helped others learn and grow with the industry he was so passionate about.

As many commemorate the extraordinary life and work of Barris, 89, and his wife Shirley, who was with him and inspired him even after her passing, another important chapter in the history of the American auto industry closes. As a consequence of the popularity of his work, Barris began to design cars for Detroit, starting in the 1950s. His innovative designs provided “the look” to many popular models of American cars, and his influence has been a part of the auto industry—now international—for at least the past half century.

Barris derived both his inspiration and his greatest source of pride in the relationships he forged with family, friends, and the world.

At the end of the day, as he stated in 2013 as he stood before the audience to accept his induction into the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Hall of Fame, he said it loud and clear: “I’ve belonged to a lot of associations, and I’ve gotten a lot of awards from the movie industry, but SEMA is my world,” he said. “I’m a car guy.”

For more than 75 years, it was really passion that motivated Barris more than anything else and his family expresses thanks for sharing it with him.

In lieu of flowers the family requests donations to: Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Attn: Paola Werstler (In Memory of George Barris), 8700 Beverly Blvd. Ste. 2416, Los Angeles, CA 90048 or to: City of Hope, Attn: Brittany De La Torre (In Memory of George Barris), 1500 E Duarte Rd. RIV 14.0510, Duarte, CA 91010

—Courtesy of Forest Lawn, Los Angeles

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Christy Hinko
Christy Hinko is the editor of Glen Cove Record Pilot.


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