George Barris, famed “kustom car king” and creator of TV’s original Batmobile, dies at 89

George Barris, famed “kustom car king” and creator of TV’s original Batmobile, dies at 89

George Barris, the Southern California “King of Kustomizers” best-known today for his creation of the original Batmobile for the 1960s TV show, died Thursday at his Encino home. He was 89.

A tireless promoter for custom cars, California car culture and his own outsized personality, Barris returned to the public eye in 2013 during the sale of the Batmobile at auction. The auction sale was hyped to the max, with a hand-waving Barris riding out on stage in the iconic Batmobile to the amped-up strains of the Batmantheme song, as the packed-house crowd stood and roared.

The Batmobile, which Barris and his crew famously created in 15 days, sold for an astounding $4.6 million.

The sale was typical showmanship for both Barris and Barrett-Jackson, and it provided a fitting last hurrah for the custom-car impresario who was responsible for some of the most-fanciful TV cars of the 1960s, including the hot-rod-hearse for The Munsters and the artfully beat-up truck for The Beverly Hillbillies.

Barris also became known as the “customizer to the stars” for creating lavishly modified cars for a bevy of Hollywood celebrities, such as Liberace, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Bob Hope, John Wayne, Sonny and Cher Bono, Michael Jackson and Mister T. The showroom of his North Hollywood headquarters and craft shop, Barris Kustom Industries, is lined with scores of black-and-white celebrity photos, most of them with Barris posed with the stars.

But the Batmobile proved to be Barris’ most-memorable achievement.

[Barris shortly before the Batmobile left his garage in December 2012 | Bob Golfen]
Barris shortly before the Batmobile left his garage | Bob Golfen

As Barris told it, the producers for the new Batman TV show were running behind schedule and needed a suitable Batmobile ASAP, presenting Barris’ crew with the challenge of presenting the completed car in just two weeks. Fortunately, Barris had in his possession the 1955 Lincoln Futura show car, a futuristic, bubble-top concept built by Italian coachbuilder Ghia, which the customizers used as their template. Barris had purchased the Futura years earlier for one dollar, he said, and the Batmobile cost about $15,000 to build.

The sleek black-and-orange Batmobile loaded with faux crime-fighting Bat gear became as big a star on the small screen as did the human actors in the campy TV show: Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin. Barris made a couple of copies of the Batmobile, he said, using fiberglass forms molded from the original to use in shows and promotions, but the authentic Batmobile was the one seen on TV. Dozens of toy versions of the Batmobile were made, many of which Barris had on display at his shop.

Barris kept the Batmobile after the Batman show went off the air, storing it in the garage at his headquarters for a half century, occasionally taking it out for display. The car was brought out of the garage – where it had been parked next to the Munsters Koach – for the last time in December 2012 to be loaded onto a transport truck bound for Barrett-Jackson in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“I’ve had this car in my family since 1966,” Barris said at the time. “I just feel like it’s time to let other people share it.”

[A young George Barris at his studio | Barris Kustom Industries]
A young George Barris at his studio | Barris Kustom Industries

Barris was born in Chicago in 1925 but was brought to California as a toddler to live with his uncle’s family in the Sacramento area after the death of his mother. He was the son of Greek immigrants, but the family name of Barakaris was Americanized by his uncle to Barris.

From an early age, Barris was consumed with an interest in car design and later became enmeshed with the custom-car culture of Southern California. After World War II, Barris launched Barris Kustom Industries with his brother and business partner, Sam Barris, in Compton and soon gained the notice of Hollywood.

Barris’ wife, Shirley, who worked with him on his car designs, died in 2001. Among his survivors are a son, Brett Barris; daughter, Joji Barris-Paster; and grandson Jared Barris, who has started his own career in car customization.

Brett Barris announced his father’s death in a Facebook posting.

“Sorry to have to post that my father, legendary kustom car king George Barris, has moved to the bigger garage in the sky,” Brett Barris said in the posting. “He passed on peacefully in his sleep at 2:45 am. He was surrounded by his family in the comfort of his home. He lived his life the way he wanted til the end. He would want everyone to celebrate the passion he had for life and for what he created for all to enjoy.”