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OEM Report: Automotive

Personal spin

By Russ Olexa

January 2010- What does the Munster Mobile, Drag-U-La, the original Batman and Knight Rider cars and even the first Oscar Mayer Wienermobile all have in common? They were all built by legendary car customizer George Barris.

Barris has been a metal fabricator, auto mechanic, welder, photographer, writer, movie producer and director, show promoter, marketer, toy designer and business owner, but he likes to be known as a pioneer for the unique processes he's brought to car customizing.

Long before the English wheel was used to form sheet metal for fenders, bumpers and quarter panels for U.S. cars, Barris was using a wooden forming hammer and sandbag to shape sheet metal to produce one-of-a-kind vehicles.

Barris grew up in Northern California, and his interest in customizing cars began early--in 1938, his parents gave him and his brother, Sam, a 1925 Buick.

"At that time, nobody was customizing cars," says Barris. "So I went to the hardware store and purchased house paint and painted scallops on the fenders. I went to Woolworth's and bought foxtails and put them on. Then I went to the kitchen store and bought pots and pans to make some hubcaps. I went to my mother's cabinets and took the gold knobs off of her cabinet doors, and I put them in the grill.

"Of course, it looked just great. When I went to school with the car, everybody called me the 'king of customs' because of my wild-looking car. Of course, when I got home, my mom went to the cabinets and couldn't get in them because I had all the knobs. I got grounded for a week."

When he was in school, Barris bought a 1932 Ford and put some unique taillights on it, prompting some of his friends to ask him to put some cat-eye taillights on their cars.

"I said, 'Fine, that will be $10'--I was going to be a rich young kid," says Barris. "Then I hung around a body shop that showed me how to weld, but they didn't do customizing. At least they showed me a little bit about metal, and that's how I started. From there, I went to another shop. He was more of a metal former, and I learned how to form metal there. I chopped tops and things like that. Finally, I customized my '32 Ford into a '36 Ford, but I had to go to the big city, which was Los Angeles, to do it."

Unfortunately, Barris damaged his car in Los Angeles. When he took it to a body shop for repair work, however, his fortunes improved.

"They liked what I was doing, [and] they allowed me to fix my car there," he says. "But people would come in and want me to customize their cars. I went ahead and got myself a little shop in L.A. My brother got out of the service, and he joined me, and we started Barris Brothers."

Next, Barris expanded from a two-car garage to a four-car one. At this time, he was chopping 1949 and 1950 Mercurys, sectioning bodies on Fords and customizing Plymouths, Dodges, Chryslers and others.

Tools of the trade
"When I started, all we had were an acetylene torch and maybe an arc welder," says Barris. "I took a little air grinder and made it into a shaper. We didn't have English rollers or any metalforming equipment. We used a sandbag and a wooden mallet that we could beat on the metal with. I knew I could shape, and I taught myself a lot because it was the only way that I could produce the formed metal. Finally, a fellow from England came into my shop with a pair of [roller] dies and said, 'This is what we shape metal with in England.' I made a rack with a foot control, and I had my first English roller to start shaping metal. He gave me many pointers on the machine, but you have to feel the metal as you roll it and see how the shape progresses.

"Then came MIG welders and different cutters, and new equipment offered us the ability to really make cars and bodies and bend metal. In the early years, there was no plastic filler to help us easily shape metal. We had to find the right kind of lead that would hold the heat and not crumble. We had to learn how to weld die-cast or pot metal because nobody was doing that. We had to learn the different aspects of metal, shaping it, whether it was 20 or 22 gauge or 0.064-in.-thick aluminum."

Barris' life took a bit of a turn in 1948, when he met Pete Peterson at a hot rod show. Peterson was the publisher of various car magazines, and Barris later joined him, working on car books. He also started photographing cars.

"When we were customizing, I'd take pictures as we went along," says Barris. "I did how-to stories for Peterson because everyone wanted to learn customizing. From there, I did specialized magazines and annuals for Peterson on different customizing subjects." FFJ

Sources

  • Barris Kustom Industries
    North Hollywood, Calif.
    phone: 818/984-1314
    fax: 818/763-2628
    www.barris.com

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