Car designer who created the Batmobile and customised Cadillacs for Elvis and Liberace
George Barris, who has died aged 89, was known as the “King of the Kustomizers”, responsible for cobbling together dozens of bizarre vehicles for films and television series, most memorably the Batmobile, a preposterous testosterone-fuelled black two-seater with red trim that whisked the dynamic duo from the bat cave to do battle with the Riddler, the Joker, the Penguin and other assorted baddies of Gotham City in the original 1960s television series .
Barris had begun making a name for himself in the custom-car field before the Second World War, and for many years it was almost impossible for cinemagoers or television-watchers to ignore his handiwork, his creations including the “Munster Koach”, the Beverly Hillbillies’ jalopy, K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, Herbie the Volkswagen in The Love Bug, “Black Beauty” (Bruce Lee’s car in The Green Hornet) and the customised Ford Explorers in Jurassic Park. In his essay on Californian custom-car culture “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” (1965), Tom Wolfe described Barris as an artist – “like Tiepolo emerging from the studios of Venice ... except that [he] emerged from the auto-body shops of Los Angeles.”
In 1965 20th Century Fox studios gave Barris only three weeks to come up with a supercar for the pilot episode of Batman, a half-hour show for ABC Television starring Adam West as the caped crusader and Burt Ward as Robin. With such a tight timetable, Barris was forced to modify an existing car rather than develop something from scratch.
Luckily he had recently purchased a Lincoln Futura, a Ford concept vehicle featuring menacing eyelid headlights, dual jet-aircraft-style Plexiglas canopies, a full-length grille and giant fins. Painted red, the car had featured in the 1959 Glenn Ford/Debbie Reynolds film, It Started With a Kiss. Barris spent the next 21 days reworking the car, painting it black, enlarging the wheel arches, extending the fins and fitting a panoply of gadgets including bat-phone, bat-rocket launcher, bat-scope, bat-beam, twin bat-chutes for emergency stopping, cable-cutter blade and a “jet-turbine exhaust” rigged up to belch smoke and flame.
When the show was first broadcast, the television critic of the New York Times observed that “Television’s great and lasting gift has been to demonstrate that there is no bottom to its barrel”. But children loved its combination of crime-fighting and high camp, and Barris’s creation was a key element in its success. No toy collection of any small boy of the 1960s was complete without its gadget-ridden Batmobile. Barris contributed to the craze by designing plastic models of many of his creations which could be assembled at home. He also whipped up three replicas, with fibreglass bodies, two of which developed such bad cracks that they had to be covered with a velvety “Bat Fur” to disguise the defects.
The original Batmobile, too, promised rather more than it delivered. Although it could be driven, the Futura suspension was constantly in need of repair; the electrical system was always draining the battery and the engine overheated on a regular basis. Meanwhile a distortion in the Plexiglas windshield made it difficult for the actors to see the road.
He was born George Salapatas in Chicago on November 20 1925, to Greek immigrant parents who later changed their family name to Barris. His mother died when he was three and George and his elder brother Sam were sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Roseville, California.
Car-mad from an early age, the two boys customised their first car as teenagers, applying orange and blue stripes to a 1925 Buick and fitting it with hubcaps and metal trim made from pots and pans.
After the Second World War George Barris moved to southern California and opened his own shop, in Bell, a suburb of Los Angeles, where he began customising cars for private clients. His often outlandish creations soon caught the eye of Hollywood stars.
Among other commissions Barris created a 1954 Cadillac Eldorado for Liberace with sterling-silver grand-piano hood ornaments that played I’ll Be Seeing You when opened; a refurbished 1960 Cadillac Fleetwood for Elvis Presley, complete with gold-plated record player, drinks cabinet and shoe buffer; a gold Rolls-Royce for Zsa Zsa Gabor; and a pair of Mustangs for Sonny and Cher – his lined in bobcat fur and suede, hers in pink patent leather.
Barris became the go-to man for Hollywood producers from 1958 when he supplied the makers of the Mamie Van Doren film High School Confidential with two identical customised 1948 Chevrolets, one of which was to be rolled over a cliff and had to be fitted with inner struts to prevent injury to the stunt man. Barris’s talent for the bizarre reached its height in the 1960s when, as well as the Batmobile, he designed the “Munster Koach”, a fusion of three Ford Model T cars featuring a custom hearse body and “blood red” interior.
The oil crisis of the 1970s, however, led to a downturn in orders from the studios as cars became smaller . But as the economy boomed in the 1980s business picked up, with the creation of the “intelligent, talking car” K.I.T.T. in Knight Rider and the big screen version of the Batmobile.
In 1958 George Barris married Shirley Nahas, who predeceased him in 2001. Their son and daughter survive him.
George Barris, born November 20 1925, died November 5 2015