Having written about the Barris customized Dual Ghia owned by Dean Martin as well as the classic 1960′s Batmobile recently I thought it would be great to write an article covering a number of the classic cars created by the legendary “King of the Kustomizers.” I thought it would be easy to rattle off a list of famous cars created by George like the General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard or the Time Machine from Back to the Future or K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider and to list a few cars he modified for various celebrities. Then I settled in to do some research to verify the things that I thought I knew about George Barris.
I started by visiting George Barris’ web site where I was assaulted by some really loud surf music (with no off switch) and the assertion that George was responsible for the creation of “the Batmobile, General Lee, Munster Koach, Green Hornet, Beverly Hillbillies, Monkee Mobile, Kitt [sic] from Nightrider [sic], and many more!” This was an awesome start (aside from the loud music), all I needed to do was source some photos, find an odd story or two, list a bunch of Barris related collectibles and this post would pretty much write itself. But then I started turning up stories that contradict a number of the claims on the front page of his web site. A fairly detailed article over at Jalopnik states the Monkee Mobile was actually created by Dean Jefferies, which is supported by Dean’s (not George’s) name appearing in the closing credits of The Monkees TV show. Reading through the forums at the Dodge Charger, I found many posts stating that George didn’t have anything to do with the TV show version of the General Lee and had only created some reproductions for display purposes. The most damning article I found was an LA Times article stating Universal Studios had issued a cease and desist order to George Barris for misrepresenting his involvement with the Time Machine from Back to the Future.
I started doubting whether or not George had a hand in “kustomizing” any of the cars he claimed to work on. I was reading posts by people stating he was purchasing rights to reproduce a famous car and then claiming to have created it. Some posts went so far as to call him a hack or a thief but never with any substantiation. For every negative post I found, there was another proclaiming George to be the backbone of cinematic cars, responsible for just about every imaginable ride to grace my screen over the past fifty years. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
One thing I want to get straight up front. I hold the belief that it is acceptable for a shop owner to take credit for the work performed by his employees. This is known as “work for hire” where a creator does not retain the rights to their work. What I was hoping was that some Internet trolls were simply upset for George taking credit for work done by his employees. While I understand how this could upset someone, I’m okay with an employer taking credit for work performed by one of his employees as a part of their daily duties. This isn’t what I was finding though.
Let’s look at George’s involvement with K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider, one of the cars his web site states is one of his “legendary creations”. It’s well documented that Michael Scheffe was responsible for the creation of K.I.T.T. and that George was brought in to revamp the dashboard in the third season. When I think of someone being responsible for the creation of a car, I tend to think of their involvement being more than a third season revamp of the car interior.
Rather than dwelling on potentially false claims being made by George, I’m going to hold a number of his confirmed creations in my heart. I will always love the Batmobile he created from the Ford Futura. I could look at the Dual Ghia that he customized for Dean Martin all day long. DRAG-U-LA and the Munster Koach will always make me happy when I see them drive across the screen. I will even forgive him for indulging John Travolta when he let Travolta Fever roll out of his shop. Sadly, I will always question his involvement with any other car I see his name associated with.
To celebrate a few of his creations, I encourage people to head over to Dave’s Card Creations for some great little paper models of DRAG-U-LA and the Munster Coach. They are a little more than half way down the page and only use a single piece of paper. For people looking for diecast models, I recommend hunting down some of the releases from the Danbury Mint that showcase George’s talent for making custom street rods like the 51 Merc Hirohata, 29 Ford Pick-up Ala Kart or the Emperor Street Rod. There have also been some nice reproductions from Johnny Lightning and Hot Wheels including the 65 Cadillac modified for Elvis Presley. While George may be overstating the work he’s done, he has still done a lot of good work that deserves recognition and is worth collecting.