The name George Barris might not be familiar to you. However his work — KITT from Knight Rider, the Batmobile, and the truck from The Beverly Hillbillies — probably is. Barris and his auto design shop, Barris Kustom, are legendary in the world of auto customization.
Barris started customizing cars in high school when he and his brother Sam received a 1925 Buick as a gift from their family. The Buick was in poor shape, so the Barris brothers immediately set to work on repairing it inside and out. After adding on some accessories and painting the car orange with blue stripes, it was quickly sold to purchase a 1929 Ford Model A. By the time George finished high school, he’d already completed his first full custom car and formed the Kustom Car Club.
Barris would go on to construct custom vehicles for several TV shows. He built the original 1960s Batmobile driven by Adam West’s Batman and the original truck that hauled the Clampett family to Beverly (Hills, that is). The Munsters featured 2 Barris creations, the Munster Koach and Drag-U-La, a casket modified into a drag racing car. Among his other TV works is the title character in My Mother the Car. My personal favorite is the updated version of KITT used in later episodes of Knight Rider.
Barris’s amazing work also made it to the silver screen. Some of the many films that feature his cars are High School Confidential, 1960’s The Time Machine, and The Car (which, by the way, is so bad that it’s good, and definitely worth watching). The car driven by Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest was also a Barris project. He fitted the 1959 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE Cabriolet with a soft aluminum bumper so that a collision would damage the bumper but not the rest of the car.
Barris also found work customizing vehicles of all kinds for celebrities. He worked on a gold Rolls Royce for Zsa Zsa Gabor. He modified a Cadillac limo for Elvis, Pontiac station wagons for John Wayne, and a set of his-and-hers Ford Mustangs for Sonny and Cher. But Barris’s magic wasn’t confined to cars. Several celebrities including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Elton John hired Barris to customize golf carts.
Although you may not have known George Barris before you read this article, his influence on America is unquestionable. He was the subject of the essay “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…” by one of the great chroniclers of American culture, Tom Wolfe. (A shortened version of the essay’s title became the title of Wolfe’s first book.) Barris’s influence is still very apparent today. In January of this year, he put the original Batmobile up for auction. It did pretty well, fetching $4,620,000 and making it one of the world’s most expensive vehicles.