Monday, March 12, 2007

Custom Car: George Barris, Part 1

George Barris is one of the best-known designers of custom cars in the world. With some justification, he styles himself King of the Kustomizers.

George and his brother Sam were born in Chicago in the 1920s. Due to the deaths of their parents, they moved to Roseville, California as children to live with relatives. Both were good students, interested in drama, music, and design. George was fascinated with model aircraft, and pursed the hobby seriously in his teenage years, winning competitions for his models.

The brothers worked at a restaurant owned by their family, and one day were given a 1925 Buick for their help. Although it was not in good shape, they swiftly restored it to running condition, and began to experiment with changing its appearance. This became the first Barris Brothers custom car. They sold it at a profit to buy another project vehicle, and their career was born. Before George had graduated from high school, demand for their work was growing, and they had created a club for owners of custom vehicles, called the Kustoms Car Club. This was the first use of the spelling "kustom," which would become associated with Barris.

Sam entered the Navy during World War II, while George moved to Los Angeles. Sam joined him there after being discharged. The two built their "kustom" designs for private buyers, and George also built and raced his own cars briefly. These activities brought them to the attention of the movie industry, and they were soon asked to create cars both for personal use by the studio executives and stars and as props for films, their first being used in 1958's 'High School Confidential'. They also made the acquaintance of Robert E. Petersen, founder of Hot Rod and Motor Trend magazines and, much later, of the Petersen Auto Museum. His publications and car shows further publicized the Barris style, George himself writing how-to articles for would be customizers.

In 1951, Sam had customized a new Mercury coupe for himself, and a customer who saw it ordered a similar car. This vehicle, known as the Hirohata Merc for its owner, was shown at the 1952 Motorama auto show and was so popular it overshadowed the best work of Detroit's top designers, on display at the major manufacturer's exhibits. It also established the early '50s Mercury as possibly the classic base for custom car design, a status it retains today.

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