From cars to stars

From cars to stars


From cars to stars

A movie crew had taken over the elliptical cobblestone courtyard of the Bloomberg Building in Manhattan, US and the star had just arrived on the set. Russell Brand, resplendent in a red smoking jacket, silky cream-coloured pants and Gucci loafers, was preparing to shoot a scene for the remake of the 1981 comedy Arthur, in which he replaces Dudley Moore as the troublemaking, besotted British playboy of the title.

As a crew readied a much-modified DeLorean — one instantly recognisable from the Back to the Future movies — a small man in baggy jeans and an untucked shirt printed with cars and the words “Hot Rod Rumble” approached to introduce himself.

Legend in the business

Brand, who has worked on a handful of films, was about to meet George Barris, who has been on scores of sets over a more than five-decade career designing, modifying and supplying cars (and boats and even the odd souped-up rolling coffin) to the makers of movies and television shows.

Though Barris, 84, is often described as a legend in the business and promotes himself tirelessly, Brand seemed to have no idea who he was as they shook hands and Barris handed him a flier for a car show he was promoting. But the actor surely knew some vehicles that have come out of the Barris shop.

There was KITT, the modified Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that protected and talked to David Hasselhoff in the 1980s television series Knight Rider. There was the rebuilt and countrified 1921 jalopy that Jed Clampett drove — with Granny in a rocking chair behind him — from the Ozarks to Hollywood in the 1960s series The Beverly Hillbillies.

And most notably there was the 1955 Lincoln Futura with the bubble top that Barris and his crew chopped and stretched into a sinister-looking shiny black-and-red crime fighting machine called the Batmobile. “In the hall of fame of car customizers, George Barris is No 1,” Buddy Pepp, executive director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview.

Barris was on the Arthur set because his East Coast partner had been hired by the filmmakers to supply a model of the Batmobile (the reworked version used in the 1995 movie Batman Forever), as well as the Back to the Future DeLorean that was being filmed on this day. “He is the ultimate, ultimate custom car designer and builder in the United States,” Michael Tadross, one of the Arthur producers, said of Barris. “When it comes to cars, the man’s a genius.”

The genius stood in the Bloomberg courtyard after having his picture taken with the film’s star. He’d seen a lot done with and to his cars, but he pondered how this scene would play out. “From what I heard about the script,” Barris said, “I think he’s going to tinkle on the car. I don’t know how they’re going to do that.”

Whatever happened with Russell Brand and the DeLorean, it all could become another in George Barris’s huge repertory of stories. Since he emerged from Southern California drag racing culture and first supplied two 1948 Chevy hot rods and his expertise at racing them for the 1958 movie High School Confidential!, Barris has built a collection of tales that has come to rival his collection of cars.

One story begins with an anonymous young man walking through his shop, politely inquiring about the health and families of all the workers. And it ends with, “And that young man’s name was Elvis Presley.” The customising king produced a big white Cadillac Fleetwood stuffed with electronic equipment and converted a Greyhound bus into a motor coach for the king of rock ’n’ roll. “Hitchcock was funny,” another tale begins, and then meanders through the process of crashing a Mercedes in North by Northwest.

The names pile up. Frank Sinatra, who insisted that Barris apply a dark tint to the windows of his personal car and then realised he couldn’t drive at night. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby — rival golf carts that were caricatures of themselves,  Hope’s with a five-foot swooping fiberglass nose, Crosby’s sporting a slouch hat and smoking a pipe. Michael Jackson, who brought in a Rolls-Royce covered with white bandages to show Barris the nicks and scratches that needed repair.

Then there’s the story about the writer Tom Wolfe. “He walked into my shop one day,” Barris said, “and pointed to a car that was parked outside, a Chevy convertible, and says, ‘That’s the candy-coloured tangerine-flake streamline baby.’ He says, ‘You’re a van Gogh, a Picasso of the automobile industry.’ He immediately recognised the artistic part of the industry rather than the technical.”

Of course Wolfe did not misspell words while speaking, but his 1965 book with that eccentrically spelled title not only prominently featured Barris and helped stoke his legend, it also borrowed his peculiar spelling habits. The shop that Wolfe had walked into, a former car dealership on Riverside Drive in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles, has always been called Barris Kustom City.

Customising king

Barris still goes to work there most mornings, commuting lately in a two-tone customised Toyota Prius. His showroom, which recently displayed the elaborately macabre coach he designed for The Munsters, is lined with photos of Barris posed with celebrities and their cars. The adjoining offices are stuffed floor to ceiling with toys and model cars based on his creations, the Batmobile most prominently. Though Barris refuses to retire, he knows his heyday is long behind him.

“My big decade was the 60s,” after his wife, Shirley, persuaded him to buy the Hollywood shop, Barris said. “I was working for the movie industry, the TV industry. I got into the automotive companies. There was marketing and licensing. My God, we had fun.”

In a 1972 article The New York Times estimated that Barris’s business was making a million dollars a year. “The good thing about that period of time in the movie industry was that they let us create,” he said. “Today it’s all product placement. Today, you want to get a car into a movie, Ford Motor Company will bring five cars to the set and give them $5 million. But they have to leave the car alone.”

As his movie and television work has dwindled, Barris has also lost a lot of his business customising the personal cars of the stars, celebrities having become more security conscious and wary of paparazzi, preferring the anonymity of generic luxury cars. As he has been preparing to hand over the business to his son, Brett, and daughter, Joji, it has been more devoted simply to selling the George Barris brand through videos and books.

While he may, by necessity, have become expert at marketing his past, the king of customizers is not quite ready to relinquish his throne. Speaking on the phone from his office in North Hollywood a day after returning from the filming in New York, Barris talked of his hopes to orchestrate the biggest car chase ever filmed for a planned remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. And he reported that he had just ordered solar panels that he planned to cut into the roof and trunk hood of a new electric car. “The car will recharge itself as you drive down the road. You’ll be able to skip the charging station.”

“That’s what I always liked to do,” he added. “Work on cars. What’s the next challenge? The busier you get, the longer you’re going to last. Every one of my friends that haven’t stayed busy, they become old.

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