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The Legacy of George Barris

By Carr Winn

In 2013, George Barris was honored with a well-deserved admission into SEMA’s most famous club, the Hall of Fame. Despite a Rolodex of high-profile clients and a warehouse full of vehicles he designed for some of the most iconic television and film projects, he made one thing clear, “I’m a people guy.” To Barris, the relationships he forged over his 60-plus-year career were his favorite achievement. With such a huge following, it was tragic this past week when news of his passing began circulating among attendees at the SEMA Show.

Barris Kustoms Barris Welding Barris Classic Batmobile 

When visiting his shop in North Hollywood several years ago, the SEMA News staff was awestruck at the number of truly famous vehicles that had been created by Barris and his team. As he walked along a collection of photos in his shop, he smiled as he fondly retold the story of designing a unique limousine for a musician. He explained that the client loved boats, and how that was the inspiration for the interior treatment. He talked about how Priscilla also loved the car…and that was when the writers realized the King of Kustomizers had built this special ride for another King, a gentleman by the name of Elvis.

There are numerous stories along similar lines. In fact, almost all comic book fans know Barris from his work on the Batmobile. Built from a ’55 Lincoln Futura concept car, he even let us in on a little secret that day at his shop. Inside the front fender, where TV audiences knew to look for a special oil slick weapon, he had installed two sprinkler heads typically found in the ceiling of most office buildings. He laughed and talked about how much he enjoyed hiding details like this particular weapon for one of DC Comics’ most prolific heroes in his projects.

In every creation, his goal was for fans to picture themselves riding shotgun with their heroes. The vehicles had to be larger-than-life in some ways, but also real enough to keep our imaginations in overdrive. Time and time again he achieved this perfect balance, and fans flocked to local toy stores to buy their own miniature version of his work. At one point or another, every kitchen floor in the country probably hosted a car chase involving either the General Lee, K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider” or the “A-Team” van.

Barris and Spagnola SEMA Garage Barris Classic Barris Shop 

“I have admired George for years. We were inducted into the SEMA Hall of Fame together and bonded over our deep passion for cars and love for our industry,” said SEMA Chairman-elect Wade Kawasaki of Coker Tire. "He was a great advocate for the aftermarket, and for the past few years we've enjoyed attending nearly all industry events with our families. I am so grateful for George's friendship and will miss him. His incredible kustom [sic] creations are iconic and transcend generations; he will be missed but never forgotten."

Despite a long list of international accolades, Barris considered induction into the SEMA Hall of Fame a special honor.

“I’ve belonged to a lot of associations, and I’ve gotten a lot of awards from the movie industry, but SEMA is my world,” he said. “I’m a car guy.”

Connecting young people with the passion and excitement of custom car building will forever be the legacy of George Barris. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Barris family.

A visitation ceremony will be held at Forrest Lawn, Church of the Recessional in Glendale, California, 6:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m., Friday, November 27. Funeral services will be held at Forest Lawn, Hall of Liberty, Saturday, November 28 at 10:00 a.m.