COLUMN: Remembering George Barris, the Kustom King

Nov 6, 2015

Here at the SEMA Show, I was talking to Barry Meguiar and dream car builder Gary Wales (aka The Prince of Wales) on Thursday following an interview Wales had with “Car Crazy” TV. Wales was showing off his latest creation, a wood-bodied speedster on an early American LaFrance fire truck chassis. 

Wales said he was going to dedicate the car to legendary customizer George Barris. This was before it was widely known that Barris, the legend, had died peacefully Thursday morning at the age of 89 in California. The news quickly quaked through the show.

Barris opened his famous Barris Kustoms shop with his brother Sam Barris in the late 1940s. Their smoothened versions of old coupes and convertibles graced the pages of the earliest hot rod magazines. Barris was the dreamer and the promoter. His brother did the bulk of the hands-on fabrication. The two brothers literally put the “Kalifornia Kustoms Kar” in the national spotlight.

In the 1950s, Barris started doing custom cars for TV shows and movie work followed. The Hollywood character of the Barris creations made the shop famous.

I first saw Barris at a toy manufacturer’s convention at the Toy Building in New York City. The convention also included an English gent who had created the first Matchbox car. A crowd had gathered around this fellow until Barris and his entourage swept through the room, parting the sea of humanity. Barris had on his trademark Elvis Presley-style jumpsuit and immediately stole the show.

I didn’t meet George then, but had that opportunity under another unique gathering in the tower of the Makinaw Bridge in Michigan. Barris was the honored guest, and promoter Ed Reavie arranged for Barris to meet other VIPs in the bridge tower after a boat ride. Barris brought his famous Batmobile to St. Ignace that year.

We had our first private meeting with Barris during the opening of a car museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tom Monaghan, the founder of Dominoes Pizza had made a big splash in the collector car hobby for buying two Duesenburgs for $1 million each. He then proceeded to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-style museum and filled it with more cars. His celebrity guests were Andy Griffith and Barris. We were all housed in a brand-new Hampton Inn and the only open set in the breakfast room was with Barris and Griffith. It turned out that Barris had built a Ford woodie for the TV star.

We were fortunate to see Barris at many events. At the Corvette Funfest in Effingham, Illinois, we watched him “get down and boogie” with Linda Vaughn. Barris was always a gentleman and a fun guy.

We last saw him in 2013 leading the parade of cars out of the SEMA Show at the Friday afternoon closing with the Batmobile and Munster Koach. As always, he was have a great time.

The builder, the shop owner, the professional, the celebrity, the man George Barris will be missed as the lights on another SEMA Show fade away.