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Roseville-raised Batmobile designer George Barris dead at 89

This 1966 photo shows designer George Barris with the original Batmobile in Los Angeles. Barris, who created television's original Batmobile, along with scores of other beautifully customized, instantly recognizable vehicles that helped define California car culture, has died at age 89.
This 1966 photo shows designer George Barris with the original Batmobile in Los Angeles. Barris, who created television's original Batmobile, along with scores of other beautifully customized, instantly recognizable vehicles that helped define California car culture, has died at age 89. Lozzi Media Services/Barris Kustom Industries

George Barris, the San Juan High School graduate who went on to become a founding father of California’s post-World War II car-customizing craze and built some of the most famous vehicles to appear on TV and in the movies, has died.

He was 89.

Surrounded by family at his Los Angeles home, Barris died Thursday following a period of declining health, according to longtime friend and business associate Edward Lozzi.

He was looked up to as a self-promoter and marketer and of course one of the great guys in the car hobby. It’s just sad to see him go.

John Buck, who runs the Sacramento Autorama

From his Hollywood base, Barris constructed the original Batmobile for the campy 1960s “Batman” television series. The car went on the auction block in early 2013, fetching a winning bid of more than $4 million.

Barris also created the Munster Koach for the 1964-66 TV comedy series, “The Munsters.” The Munster Koach was based on a 1923 Ford Model T chassis.

Also from that era was the Barris-created car used in “The Monkees” television program. He also did less-publicized customizations for celebrities, heads of state and business people. Famous clients included Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

Long before he achieved Hollywood fame and a national reputation as the “King of the Kustomizers,” the Chicago native and his older brother, Sam, were raised in Roseville. George Barris graduated from San Juan High School in 1943. It was while he was in high school that he did his first full customization on a used 1936 Ford convertible.

The brothers opened a custom car shop in Los Angeles after World War II. Sam specialized in metal craftsmanship while George mainly worked on designing, painting, managing and promoting.

The eye-catching creations of the Barris brothers, who formed Barris Kustom, quickly caught fire in the post-World War II era as service personnel returning to the states helped swell California’s population and love of personalized motor vehicles.

Movie studios also took notice, which led to George Barris designing cars for films, TV shows and movie stars. Often, his best work began from a humble base. The original Batmobile was actually a 1955 Lincoln-Mercury Futura concept that Barris transformed into a 5,500-pound black icon.

Sam Barris, who was prominent in multiple automotive and civic groups in the Sacramento area, died in 1967 after a battle with cancer.

George Barris would continue to customize cars for years and was not forgotten by the Sacramento-area car community.

In 2007, he was inducted into the local “Friends of the Autorama.” group. Barris came to Sacramento personally for the festivities, part of the annual Sacramento Autorama car-customizing event that draws thousands annually to Cal Expo.

One of the major awards handed out each year at Sacramento Autorama is the Sam Barris Memorial Award. Started in 1968, the award is handed out to the car with the best metal-and-paint finish.

Rancho Cucamonga businessman John Buck, who took over Sacramento Autorama in 2005 and runs it and other automotive gatherings under the business name Rod Shows, said Thursday that Barris “was definitely a legend in our industry. He was looked up to as a self-promoter and marketer and of course one of the great guys in the car hobby. It’s just sad to see him go.”

John Sweeney, longtime publisher of the Northern & Central California Cruisin’ News published out of Folsom, called Barris “an incredible promoter and a great car guy.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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