Man & Machine

Barris Kustom Industries has been a staple of the Valley for more than 50 years.

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    David Konow

Even if you don’t know the name George Barris, you’ve most likely seen some of his work: the Batmobile, the Munster Koach and the jalopy from The Beverly Hillbillies. You might have also noticed his hard-to-miss North Hollywood shop.

Housed in a bright maroon-painted brick, one-story building at Lankershim and Riverside with a replica of the Batmobile in the showroom, Barris Kustom Industries has been a staple of the Valley for more than 50 years. It is a virtual museum of custom auto history—the walls lined with posters and photographs from movies and TV shows going all the way back to the ‘50s.

In addition to his on screen work, George, who is now 87, also builds custom cars. His early clientele included celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Elvis. He also created a vehicle for Elton John with a giant pair of glasses, a gold Rolls for Zsa Zsa Gabor, and a golf cart for Bob Hope, complete with a big ski nose.

The Chicago native first customized a car when he was 14, putting cat-eye taillights on a ’32 Ford. “I made $10, and I said, ‘I’m gonna be rich!’” George recalls.

He figured if he was going to change cars, he would change the name as well, so he called his creations “kustoms” with a K instead of a C. These days, many people use the term “kustom,” and George says had he known he could have trademarked the term, he would have—making him an even wealthier man.

With the popularity of drag racing and hot rods in the ‘50s, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. The first film George worked on was the juvenile delinquent classic High School Confidential. And when he finally settled into his NoHo digs in 1960, things really took off.
“Every other location I’d been in, it just didn’t motivate us,” George explains. “Everything seemed to escalate in the Valley; it all stemmed from here. The weather, the locations, the people—everything seemed to feel comfortable.”

George says the car he had the most fun building was the Batmobile—which has earned a place in entertainment history. It was one of the first times a vehicle became a star of a show, and George says it proved “that cars were more than just a piece of metal that you drive.”

“I looked at the script for Batman, and I see Bang! Pow!” he continues. “So I said, ‘I want to have the car do the same. Pow! I want to have rockets growing out of it. Bang! I want to have oil squirters and chain slicers.”

George built the Batmobile in 15 days on a $15,000 budget. “I’m determined,” he says. “When I make my mind up that I want to do something real, I do it.”

The jalopy from the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies was based on a real heap—a 1922 Oldsmobile—that he found in an old feed store. In addition to the Munster Koach, which was based on a 1925 Model T and was later dubbed the “Dragula” by fans, George also made a dragster out of a real coffin for The Munsters character Grandpa.

On the day of our visit, a middle-aged guy peered through the window, giddy with excitement, taking an iPhone picture of the Batmobile. Indeed, it’s easy to feel young at Barris Kustom. Passion for cars oozes out of every corner of the shop.

George says he still gladly comes to work every day. “I keep getting younger. Cars are in people’s blood.”