George Barris and his brother Sam pretty much invented the business of customizing cars, back in 1940s Los Angeles. Nowadays, it's an industry unto itself, as well as mass entertainment on all too many cable TV shows. But Barris still stands apart, not just as an innovator but as a car guy with a wild talent for spectacle, creating all manner of bizarre concept cars, hot rods, and vehicles for movies—most famously, the Batmobile from the 1960s TV show and KITT from Knight Rider. Barris Kustom Industries, the 84-year-old's shop in North Hollywood, is still in business, working on the next great car. Barris was recently in town to promote the acquisition of Michael Jackson's Mercedes-Benz sedan by the Hollywood Star Car Museum in Gatlinburg, where he displays many of his kustom creations.
So how did you come to work on Michael Jackson's car?
When Michael brought the car in, he talks real soft and easy to me, and he says, "George, my car has been hurt." If there's a little scratch or a little nick or something, that means his car's been "hurt." So he walks around the car and he comes back. I say, "Don't worry about it." He says, "Really, George, my car's been hurt." I say, "I'll take care of it, Michael. Don't worry about it." So he disappears. About an hour later he comes walking back. He went to the drugstore, got some white Band-Aids, and brought 'em in and sticks 'em on every little scratch and every little nick—and that means, now I can take care of his car that was hurt. So that gives you an idea of what we did with Michael Jackson.
Does his car have any custom pieces on it?
Well, we put a special black paint on it, we got rid of the Band-Aids, and we put his crest on the windows and his name, and then there's a $10,000 ARC Audio type sound system. He loved good music and he loved perfection—and that's why we went ahead and put in that sound system, so that when he wanted to blast it, it would go bluhbluhbluh, you know, and that's what he liked,.
When did you two first meet?
Oh golly, it was many, many years ago. Jackie was the first one of the family to bring his car in, and then Jermaine, and then Michael came in. It had to be in the '60s, yeah. It's been so long that it's hard to put time together of what you've got. I don't know if you want some more stories or some of the memories. The Rat Pack was really the best, they were the fun guys, Sinatra and Dean Martin, Sammie Davis, and Peter Lawford—I built a lot of cars for them. Frank comes in one morning and says, "George, I want you to black out all my windows because I don't want people looking at me on my way to the studio." And I said, "B-b-b-but Frank..." If Frank Sinatra says black out your windows, you black out the windows! So next morning he comes in, taps me on the shoulder, "Oh yeah, Frank, how ya doin'?" He said, "You know what, George?" I said "What?" He said, "You were right. I couldn't see a f--kin' thing last night."
Did you ever have a request that you couldn't fulfill, or didn't want to fulfill?
There's never a word called "never," and there's never a word that says "you can't."
Is your shop still in the business, or...
Oh yeah, yeah. The big thing is hybrids. I'm customizing hybrids like you can't believe.
Are newer cars any less fun to work on than the old cars when you were starting out?
They're a little harder because you got unibodies, your construction is a lot different. Especially with hybrids, you run on computers—I want to put bigger wheels, but that changes the computer, you gotta re-engineer what you're gonna do. But I love the challenges, that's why I am going into the Legend of the 21st Century, because I wanna drive it. Now, I just did a Dodge Challenger; last year we did all carbon fiber customizing, we didn't have to drill a hole, everything was done with three-inch stick-on tape. And now I'm doing a new Camaro called the Spirit, but I'm doing two things: making it affordable and not going into it as a $200,000 car, that's number one. Number two, everything we do is made in America. Every part is done here, nothing is overseas. We started out with one dealer, Community Chevrolet in Burbank where Jay Leno came out when we introduced the first car, and it was a great party and it just shows you that we're chasing the 21st century and making it a fun project, just like we did when I started in 1940.