Batmobile creator visits Red Deer car show

Long before George Barris became famous for creating the Batmobile, he dreamed of chrome and horsepower.

George Barris

George Barris

Long before George Barris became famous for creating the Batmobile, he dreamed of chrome and horsepower.

“My relatives were in the hotel and restaurant business and they had me washing dishes,” recalled Barris, who signed autographs Saturday at the Red Deer Speed and Custom Show and Collector Car Auction at the Westerner.

“I told them I wanted to paint cars.”

In 1938, the California relatives who took Barris and his brother Sam in after their parents died, provided him with a 1925 Buick “hand-me-down” to fix up. Until then, the 13-year-old Barris had only produced award-winning scratch-built airplane and automobile models.

But he went out and purchased foxtail brushes, some paint and hub caps — and went to it.

After giving the Buick a splashy new paint job, “me and my brother took the gold knobs off the kitchen cabinet doors and fixed them onto the grill,” Barris recalled with a chuckle. “It made me known as the ‘King of Kustomizers’ at school, but at home, my poor (adopted) mom, couldn’t get into her cabinets . . .

“That was the first car I ever customized,” he said. And it was to be the first of thousands.

By the early 1940s, Barris had moved from Roseville, CA to Los Angeles, and with his brother, built “kustom” cars for private buyers. Barris also built and raced his own cars. “We’d always be going so fast, and crashing, and being chased by police. It was all very exciting,” he recalled — and the buzz created by the hot-rod scene brought him to the attention of the movie industry.

Barris’s first film project was creating cars for the 1958 film High School Confidential.

By this time, he was also building and customizing vehicles for a slew of celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, Dick Clark, Dean Martin, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. (The latter two ordered customized golf carts, featuring a giant hat and pipe for Crosby and a ski-slope nose for Hope).

Sonny and Cher, Liberace, James Caan, and Farrah Fawcett were some of Barris’s other memorable clients — but he has particularly fond memories of Elvis Presley.

Whenever Presley entered his shop, he would stop and chat with every worker, addressing each by name and appearing genuinely interested in their stories. “I had a crew of 20, and he’d ask my painter, ‘Mr. Tubbs, how are you feeling today?’ and then he’d go up to my body guy and say, ‘Mr. Tony, your 14-year-old boy is sure getting big’ . . .

“It shows you the kind of guy Elvis was,” said Barris.

Michael Jackson was another client who walked in one day to tell Barris his car was “hurt.” By the time Barris went out to have a look, Jackson had applied Band-aids over every knick and scratch on his vehicle. “And that tells you what kind of guy he was,” Barris added, with a chuckle.

In the early 1960s, Barris designed the crazy jalopy for the Beverley Hillbillies TV show from a derelict vehicle he found in a feed store. He went on to create the unique six-door hearse used for the ghoulish The Munsters TV show — as well as a sportier “Drag-u-la” roadster for the vampire Grandpa Munster character, which really was made out of a converted coffin.

Barris laughs when recalling how much trouble he had getting the casket. “The guy at the first funeral home told me, ‘I won’t sell it to you if there’s no deceased.’” The second guy wouldn’t believe he planned to make a car out of the coffin.

Determined to be third-time-lucky, Barris distracted the next funeral home owner by waving three hundred-dollar bills at him, while his assistants ran out the door with the casket.

Barris’s company also designed cars for The Green Hornet TV series, as well as The Monkees, The Dukes of Hazzard, and a version of Kitt for Knight Rider.

But Barris will probably be best-known for creating the ultra-cool Batmobile for the 1966 TV show Batman.

While Batman’s producer asked for a 20th-Century crimefighting vehicle, Barris observed the show’s spoofy style and decided to make the Batmobile another character. He created rocket tubes and oil spurts that went off with every ‘bang’ and ‘boom’ sound effect.

The 20-foot-long Batmobile, based on a Ford Futura, was outlined with florescent red paint, so that its impressive bat-wing-like fins would be visible, and Barris believes the TV cameras loved it as much as the fans.

At 84, Barris is still immersed in cars. Each weekend he travels to auto shows across North America and around the world. He’s also still involved in creating cars for some TV shows.

“Why I’m still going strong is because I stay busy,” said Barris. “And I’m here for people like that,” he said — referring to Brad Vold, a Ponoka collector who brought in scale models of the Munster Koach and the Drag-u-la for Barris to autograph.

Vold was clearly thrilled to meet the famous car designer on Saturday. “I guess I’m a Munsters freak because I watched The Munsters so much as a child.”

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com