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

George Barris in 2012 at his North Hollywood headquarters before the sale of the iconic Batmobile | Jana DeHart
George Barris in 2012 at his North Hollywood headquarters before the sale of the original Batmobile | Jana DeHart

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 the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Scottsdale. 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 Batman theme song, as the packed-house crowd stood and roared.

Barris surrounded by excitement at the 2013 Barrett-Jackson auction | Bob Golfen
Barris surrounded by excitement at the 2013 Barrett-Jackson auction | Bob Golfen

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 completing the 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.”

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

  1. So sorry to hear about the loss of mr. Baris he will be remembered greatly by all of us who knew of him throughout his era.

  2. A lot of us as kids built the Barris kit cars that major hobby dealers would sell trying to put together a model car as beautiful as the ones he created for real. We will miss his talented imagination and enthusiasm for cars. god Bless him and his family.

  3. A lot of us as kids built the models on the Barris cars in kit form, trying to put together a car as beautiful as the ones he created. We will miss his talented imagination and enthusiasm. God Bless him and his family.

  4. AN AMERICAN TREASURE AND TRULY THE ‘KING OF KUSTOMS’. FOR THOSE OF US LUCKY ENOUGH TO HAVE MET HIM, A VERY NICE, CLASSY GUY WHO WILL BE MISSED BY ALL.

  5. I was at Barrett-Jackson by the Batmobile exhibit admiring the car when suddenly&unexpectedly without any formal announcement George Barris&Linda Vaughan made an appearance by the car. It was like a rock star had entered the stage as the excitement&buzz that was created was amazing. I am sure this appearance helped create the atmosphere the next day when the car sold for over $4M+. I simply remember his infectious smile and oversized personality that day and was amazed a person of his age could still have the passion for the business that he did after all of these years. A true industry icon&one of a kind!

  6. To The Barris Family : I always admired his custom creations as featured in many Car Magazines in the early sixties and had hoped I could someday afford to have one of my cars customized by ” The Great George Barris ” God Bless George and The Barris Family Always .

  7. When ever I see a Merc, that is call a lead sled I can’t help but think of the Barris brothers. They were truly the originators of of the “Custom” cars of the 50’s. A time in which I was fortunate to be a part of…..The end of a era, with the passing of George.

  8. Your dad was a good friend of my father Vince Puccio I remember when I met george he told my dad when I was a kid to leave me hang out at his shop and he would teach me how to make a nest car when I got older. I learn a lot from him .great man big big-heart I am now 66 years old and I have a gift on customizing cars that he taught me .thank you george haven has a place for you ……….

  9. Ther are custom builders of cars and motorcycles all over and I’d bet the farm they all knew of George Barris, how could they not

  10. I worked with George over thirty-five years ago on some big photo projects involving a few of his incredible car designs for the LA Coliseum car show where we had Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) appearing. He then lent us his SuperVan (Vandora) for a poster photo shoot in the desert with a noted gold plated chopper motorcycle called the Magic Pan for a motorcycle show featuring Evel Knievel. Not only was he a great custom designer but over the years as I knew him he was a man of great integrity and willing to share his vast knowledge with young budding designers. I have a scale model of the original Batmobile which I will cherish in honor of George Barris.

  11. George built my father a custom Studebaker Hawk many years ago, channeled and chopped, solid black beauty!
    Was supercharged and high dollar !
    My dad totaled it shortly after he got it, a lost piece of history.
    I met George a few years ago at Volo custom car sales outside Chicago, where several of the cars he built were being sold. Very nice guy!

  12. SO SORRY TO HEAR THE KING OF CUSTOMS HAS PASSED AWAY HE WILL ALWAYS BE REMEMBERED AS 1 OF THE BEST WHO STARED IT ALL THANKX GEORGE GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY THANKX FOR EVERYTHING !!!
    WALLY.

  13. The first coolest over the top car I’ve ever seen was the Munster’s cars and the Bat mobile. He left a huge mark in the Auto design Industry. He will be missed. R.I.P. Mr. Barris.

  14. I recall the Custom Car magazines, where George displayed “his ART on WHEELS” … a true artist in every sense of the word; had a look at Marilyn’s pink ’56 Lincoln (at the Salt Palace before that show’s opening back in the late 80’s) that he extended the quarter panels .. sadly she never saw the finished product of George’s masterpiece ………

  15. Thanks George. Your creations gave me hours of enjoyment back in the 60’s as a kid when I would save my money and rush out to by model car kits of your custom designs.

  16. george, ed and the “flying eye ball” all helped us to know that kustomizing was the proper thing to

Share your comments