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Custom Car Builders

April 20, 2018

George Barris at Work

 

GEORGE BARRIS at WORK

 

George Barris is known to the public more as the Barris Kustoms promoter, than as the Barris Custom Builder. He did however build many cars, and painted even more.


In this article we will concentrate on George at work from the early beginnings to around 1958. The work George Barris did in his hop shifted very much over the years. It all started in the early 1940’s, in his spare time after school, George started to hang out at local Sacramento, Ca. body shops, including Brown’s Body Shop and Harry Westergard’s back-yard shop. Here he swept floors and watched the masters at work absorbing every little detail these masters were doing. Harry Westergard noticed how eager George was and was happy to learn him all the fine details of the trade.

George had bought a 1936 Ford convertible and wanted to put in practice all the new techniques he had learned and visualize all the restyling ideas he had in his mind. George finished the car while working part time at the Harry Westergard shop. Westergard turned out to be the perfect teacher for George Barris. Harry had a real good feel for what was needed to make a car look better, longer, lower and more exclusive. George had this same feel for restyling cars, and with the guidance of Harry, George started very early on to create his own style, and own “rules” for what needed to be done to create great looking Custom Cars.

The ’36 Ford Convertible George had created from himself in the early 1940’s when he still lived in the Sacramento area. The work on the car was done by George with some guideline by Harry Westergard. Perhaps a little rough, but George would learn fast with experience after moving to Los Angeles.

 



In 1942 Sam had joined the navy and had left for Los Angeles. George joined the Merchant Marine and moved to Los Angles to wait for further action and a ship he would serve on. In the meantime George would cruise the streets of Los Angeles, finding all the Hot Rod and Custom Car hot-spots and proudly show his just finished 1936 Ford. His car was a big hit, and especially the fact that George could open his doors with a push on a button, made a huge impact on the guys and girls. The push-button doors was something not seen yet in the LA area. (It is often mentioned that it was Harry Westergard who was the first to install them, and this must have been around the time George was working with Harry.)

George adapted the technique using Buick solenoid’s to pop the doors open. The buttons were hidden on the body and on the dash. George would be using this technique later on when he started to do customers cars. While still waiting for a ship (which would never come) George started to work at local body shops, including the Jones’s Body, Fender & Paint Shop. This was a regular body shop looking for good craftsman, since sever of its employees had joined the army and navy. George started out doing the regular body shop stuff, but slowly George introduced them into the Custom Car scene. They were very impressed with what George could do, and saw potential in it. They allowed George to promote the Custom Body Work and soon his work attracted more and more customers for the shop.

Snapshot taken at the Jones’s Body, Fender & Paint Shop on Florence and Main in Los Angeles. This was the shop were George started to work after arriving in LA, and where he introduced customizing and doing Custom Body Work. 

 



In 1944 George was doing so much restyling at the Jones’s body shop, that he decided the time was right to start his own Custom Body Shop specialized in Custom Restyling. He found a suitable small shop space in Bell, California. George was working alone in the beginning, handling all the jobs needed, from suspension, to full body work, and paint. Over time some of his new friends started to help out at the body shop, when the work load became to big for George alone.When WWII ended his bother Sam returned from the navy, and visited George in Los Angeles.

George talked his brother into joining him in his body shop adventure. George trained Sam the trade of body man and Sam picked up very fast showing he was an natural in shaping metal, and more important having an eye for style as well. Together they could tackle any job, and with the two brothers now working together magic started to happen. George and Sam discussed every detail on the cars the worked on, George often made sketches of the ideas they came up with, and together they would transfer the designs into metal.

After spending shop hours working on customer cars the two bothers built restyled cars for themselves as well. To be used as daily transportation, and to promote the new Barris’s Custom Shop of course. After a bit of a hard start, things were slowly getting better and in 1946 a new larger shop was found in Compton, Ca. The new shop location and the good name the shop now had, made sure there was a work load at all time.

Barris Compton AveThe Barris Custom Shop Body & Fender Works on Compton Ave around 1947.

 



There are relatively few photos of George doing the actual work, mainly because most of the shop photos were taken by George and he would be behind the camera, not in front. And most of the early photos taken at the Barris Shop that have surfaced so far have been taken by Marcia Campbell and Marcia was very good friends with Sam Barris, so most of the time she hung out at the Barris Shop and captured the work on the cars, was from Sam doing the work.




George’s life changing 1941 Buick
Around 1946-47 George found a 1941 Buick convertible which he slowly turned into a full custom with chopped windshield, full fade-away molded in fenders, Cadillac grille and padded Carson top, restyled just the way George loved it. George showed the Buick in January of 1948 at the first Hot Rod Exposition in Los Angeles. The Buick was the only Custom Car at the show and was a huge crowd pleaser winning the top award. The show gained a lot of attention to the Barris’s Custom Shop and their Kustom creations. At the show, George was introduced to Robert Petersen, which would later turn out to be a turning point. Robert would start his publishing company soon after the show and later produce most of the major Hot Rod and custom Car related magazines and books on the west coast. Their friendship turned out to be very important.

At the time the shop was still named Customs Shop with a “C” but the cars they restyled were already called Kustoms with a “K”. In may 1948 the new all round car magazine Road & Track showed a photo of George’s Buick in the magazine. The photo of the Buick was absolutely perfect showing the beauty of the car with its wonderful fade-away fenders, the Cadillac grille, shaved door handles and low padded top. The Kustoms Los Angeles plaque, which George had created for his own club also showed prominent in the photo. In the same issue of Road & Track George ran a 1/4 page ad using the same photo promoting the Barris’s Custom Shop work. Listed was; Body Streamlining, Roadster Channeling, Custom Painting, Push-button doors & windows and Tops lowered (Chopped). The ad, magazine article and showing the car at this important 1948 show really helped promote the Barris Shop name, and more an more customers were able to find the small shop. From then on George realized that building great cars was one things, but knowing how to promote them and the shop was just as important.

George in work cloth at the Compton Ave. Barris Custom shop getting a ticket for his ’41 Buick. Photo taken around 1948.

 



After that George would start to spend more time, after shop hours, to start promoting the Barris name and Barris Shop. During the day George was the shop foreman, and Sam the lead body man. Friends were hired when needed, and as soon as the workload was increasing, employees were hired part and full time. But George would continue to perform work on the cars, from doing metal body work, to paint prep and those stunning organic full paint jobs. George loved to mix his own custom colors and paint the Barris creations in high quality mile deep paint jobs developing his own techniques to get the perfect result. Especially in the early years up to the mid 1950’s George was the lead painter at the shop.

Barris Bell ShopGeorge Barris and some of his friends and employees chopping the top of Larry Robbin’s 1948 Mercury.

 


George working on the rolled door ends on Larry Robbin’ 1948 Mercury at the Barris Bell Shop around 1949.

 


Double exposed photo of George doing some welding on Larry Robbin’s Mercury.

 


Barris Bell Shop

 


George working on the new sheet metal cover to make the ’49 Cadillac grille fit the ’48 Mercury.

 



The better known the Barris Shop became, the more client cars came into the shop, some for mild restyle work, but more and more for a complete Custom overhaul. Along the way it became evident the shop really benefited from a spokes person, somebody who promoted the Barris name, and the typical Barris style Custom Car. The new more constant flow of clients also demanded for somebody who would deal with the clients, new and old, in a more professional way. For George these new job function came as natural. George understood what it took to keep the focus on the Barris name, try to get as much exposure at the big and little Car Shows. And most important of all get the maximum name recognition from magazine exposure. From ads ran by the shop, but even more important magazine features and later how to articles on Barris Custom creations.

For once George Barris was on the other side of the camera for this How to Dechrome Your Car article in the 1954 Custom Cars Annual from Trend Books. This is a nice article showing George doing the work on an unidentified Mercury Custom.

 


With George still at the shop doing “regular” shop work, he started to add more and more functions to his tasks, from taking photos from the work getting done in the shop, which could be used for future How To magazine articles, to starting his own local and state wide car club, organizing special events, car shows and providing magazines with complete car features, including photos and written word.


A few more published magazine photos of George at work on some Barris Customs. On the left George is molding in the headlights on Jack Brumbach’s 1942 Ford. Center photo George is fitting the rear bumper on the extended rear of Convert Michael’s 1949 Ford , and working on the grille surround of Frank Airheart’s 1951 Oldsmobile.

 


George on the left, Sam on the right and two other guys, possibly one of them the client discussing ideas for this wild ’49 Mercury convertible Custom.

 


George Barris at work sketching Custom Designs him and his brother Sam came up with. Sam played a huge roll in these early stages with his keen eye for Design. Together they were the golden team.

 


George adding Cadillac rear fenders and taillights on an ’41 Buick.

 


George shaping a new hood for a Hot Rod project at the Barris Shop.

 



After the mid 1950’s the work load at the Barris shop became so big that it became harder and harder for George to find the time for actual shop work. But where possible he would love to come in and lock himself up in the paint booth to spend a weekend doing another stunning paint-job or experiment with new paint products. There were also cars that were special to George, and he tried to put in as much actual work as possible, one of those was the Kopper Kart, it would become an important Barris Promotional Custom that George traveled around all over the US.

 

Others on George Barris at Work.

  • Jack Stewart was close friends with George from the late 1940’s. When Jack’s 1941 Ford had been sitting at the Ayala Shop, with most of the major work being done, it was George who asked Jack if he could finish the car for him. And so it happened. George Barris handled all the fine tuning on Jack’s Ford, including rounding the corners, reshaping the character line on the rear fenders and the taillight housings. (The taillights were created by Bob Hirohata). First George finished Jack’s Ford in white primer, so that Jack could start using the car. Later George finishes his work on the car with beautiful custom mixed metallic bronze paint job, which won Jack several awards.
  • Marcia Campbell had mentioned that when George was working in her ’49 Chevy convertible, George could not get the hood to fit right, after which he got very upset and damaged the hood with the hammer in frustration, the next day he got it right with a new hood replacing the damaged one. George did most of the work on here Chevy.
  • Nick Matranga “I have to salute George Barris for his patience with me. We shot so many sample color panels and let them dry and looked at them in the sun. In them days it was pure lacquer. We’d shoot the car and color sand it. And let it dry for a month. And color sand it again for the final rub out. George was a great painter, and he was careful not to put it on too wet.””George’s Greek aesthetics of color and form were amazing and unfailing, especially early on.”
  • Junior Conway has mentioned several times about George doing most of the paint work at the shop. Sam could also paint, but for George it came natural. Junior mentioned that George painted a lot of the cars at the shop, including some of the best known, like the Tom Hocker 1940 Ford, the 1955 Chevy Aztec, the Kopper Kart, and many more.

 

 


George working in different stages on the Frank Monteleon’s 1941 Ford. Early staged working on the fade away fenders, middle shows George fine tuning the car and getting it ready for paint. And on the right is George Barris with Frank Monteleon during a TV news program about the show where Frank had just won an important award. George taking the opportunity to  advertise Barris on TV.

 


George Barris working on the Chet Herberd Streamliner.

 


 


George with the 55 Chevy pick up the Kopper Cart. George performed a lot of work on this car himself. Later he would tour the car all over the US, promoting the Barris Kustom Shop all over the US.

 


We know that this is a staged photo of George “working” on the R & C Dream Truck. And that even the pink primer was added to the body just for the photo. Possibly for a cover shot, although it was never use as such. But we also do know that George was very much involved at the building of this iconic truck. George knew the importance of this project, and just needed to be part of it, personally.

 




George Barris Custom Painter.

George Barris loved to mix his own color and paint cars. To see the creations he had made, or which were done by others at the Barris Shop was always special for him. The paint was always the cherry on top for him. And the Barris Shop became very well known for their special paint-jobs, especially in the early 1950’s. The first Custom Cars Annual from 1951 even wrote about this special Barris Paint method they had developed. Partly this method was really special, but it was also an early attempt to create some Barris Mystery by George… attracting more clients.

George wet sanding an late 30’s sedan.

 


George applying some primer to the Tom Hocker 1940 Ford. George later painted the car Fushia Orchid, and a few years later in light blue.

 


George painting the 4-door Mercury that had been completely restyled at the Barris hop for owner Jerry Reichman.

 


George test fitting the grille surround on Chuck DeWitt’s 52 Ford Wagon. Photo shoot for June 1956 Motor Life magazine cover.

 


George and his wife Shirley prepping Shirley’s ’58 Ford T-bird at night at the Barris Shop. The photo was staged, and part of a series made that night, but the work by George and Shirley continued after the needed shots were accomplished.

 


Two photos taken around 1958 show George doing what he liked doing best in the shop around that time. Painting cars and mixing paint.

 




George Barris promoting at the shows

Going to car shows often meant something different to George than it would for most of his friends. They would take their Custom Cars to the show to show of their beautiful cars, to try to win some awards, and meet with friends. For George it meant business as well. George realized after the first Hot Rod Show in 1948, where he had showed his 1941 Buick, that this was the place to attract new clients, or convince old clients into new projects. George always made sure the Barris Cars were well present and presented at the shows. Bringing all the past won trophies to enhance the beauty and quality of the Barris Customs. George started to wear his best suits to the show, to make an as good as possible impression on behalf of the Barris Shop. Handing out business cards, talking to people about the cars they had brought to the show it was all part of the job. Before and after show hours George would go back to the buildings to take photos of the cars for his own files, and for future magazine and book articles.

1950 Oakland Roadster showAt the Oakland Roadster Show held January 19-22, 1950 George made sure that he was photographed with the award winning Jesse Lopez Ford that was at the show as a Barris Custom. (even though the car was entirely built by Jesse and Sam Barris). It shows that in early 1950, George already knew the importance of promoting.

 


During the 1950 Motorama show held in Shrine Convention Hall, 700 West 32nd Street in Los Angeles on November 16 through 19, George was really starting to promote the Barris Kustom Shop. In this photo George and his promoting crew, ll nicely dressed up with Barris card tags on thier cloth is posing with Jim Skonzakes’s ’49 Buick which was mostly done at the Barris Shop. David Zivot did an in depth article on this photo here on the CCC.

 



The next years Motorama show was held at the Pan Pacific Auditorium. George Barris created a full shop wall display at a show, with beautiful sparkling cardboard cut out BARRIS letters on the curtain behind the displayed cars. George is all dressed up to and ready to talk to potential new clients. Sam usually stayed in the background, but apparently was asked to help promote the shop at this show. A very rear photo of Sam Barris in suit.

 


Next to promoting the Barris Shop at the car shows across the US, George also started to promote the Barris work in Hollywood. And with success, The Hirohata Mercury and the Fred Rowe Mercury, both starred in the Running Wild Movie created in the mid 1950’s. And it would be followed with many more movies Barris Cars would be used in. It ultimately lead Barris to move to North Hollywood to serve the movie industry better. But that is a completely different story.

 




George Barris the photographer

George Barris had always taken snapshots of his cars, but did not really get started to this on a more regular base after he was introduced to Marcia Campbell. Marcia had several Barris Cars in the late 40’s and early 50’s. And she loved to hang out at the Barris shop where she because good friends with Sam Barris. Besides Custom Cars Marcia had another passion, photography, so she started to take photos of work done at the Barris Shop, Sam doing his magical metal work, but also of finished cars around the Barris Shop. She would come in a few days after she had taken the photos with nice large photo prints, giving those to the guys in the photo. George loved it and started to use these photos to help promote the Barris Shop. Marcia taught George how to take better photo and from then on George would always carry his camera on him and shoot everything he thought would come in handy at one time.

There are relatively very few photos from George Barris doing the work on the shop floor, compared to others at the Barris Shop, simply because most of the time it was George that was behind the camera, and if he was not, he was most likely directing the photographer to get the best shots. We can all be very grateful that George had the foresight to first take all these photos, and second document and hand on to them for all these years. In the the 1990’s George knew that the time was right to star sharing his story and material, and he created a series of books about the history of the Barris Kustom Shop, and shared many of his stories and photo material in these books.

Ralph Pool took the photos of the Hirohata Mercury and model miss Marilyn Bordeau for Hop Up magazine and captured George in this one taking the opportunity to shoot some photos for his own files of the set up as well.

 


Another photo of George taking photos, or perhaps more likely a staged photo of George taking photos of the second version of the Larry Ernst Chevy. This shows how George took photos, but very rarely people were around actually taking picture of George taking picture. So the situation was staged to “capture” the moment.

 


George took mostly very good care of the photos he took. From the moment he started to use his photos in publications he kept a record of all the negatives, prints and print proofs he made. Cutting out the proof sheets, taping them onto large paper boards, and marking them for future reference. All that was done after shop hours.

 


Around 1960. George Barris photographing Bob Drake’s Studebaker Custom. Two of the photos George takes that day will be used Trend Books #181 Custom Car Show-Cars, a publication by George Barris.

 


Later in the 1950’s promoting the Barris Kustom Shop would take more and more time and would keep him away from the shop floor more and more. But being the promoter of his own product, he needed to keep an eye out for the quality of the work, as well as the creativity standing for the Barris Kustom name. George was only such a great promoter for the Shop, because he knew what was going on in the shop, because he knew what could be done, and how it could be done. This only worked because he had the personal experience of all the work handled by the shop.

Up till around 1957 the combination of George as the shop foreman/promoter, and Sam as the lead body man in the shop had made sure Custom Car magic had happened. The combination of skills and ambition of both brothers turned out to be gold and the Barris name and the cars they created were everywhere. Around that time Sam had decided to move back to the Sacramento area, and semi retire from building Custom Cars. The Barris Kustom Shop would continue for many decades, and great things would still come out of the shop. But times had changed demanding different cars to be created. The unique magic of the two brothers working together, enhancing each other was gone.

From the early years George Barris started his own Custom Body Shop he instinctively knew what it would take to make the Barris name and Barris Kustom Shop a success. Because of his hard work and insight of capturing it all, documenting it all, we now have the right Custom Car history we can all enjoy. Because George did the actual work in the shop for many years, he knew how to document and promote all this in the best way possible. And perhaps he knew, or at least dreamed about it back in the 1940’s and 1950’s that one day all his hard work and the Barris legacy would make a difference in the world.












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About the Author

Rik Hoving
Rik is the CCC editor in chief. As a custom car historian he is researching custom car history for many years. In 2004 he started the Custom Car Photo Archive that has become a place of joy for many custom car enthousiasts. Here at CCC Rik will bring you inspiring articles on the history of custom cars and builders. Like a true photo detective he will show us what's going on in all those amazing photos. He will write stories about everything you want to know in the realm of customizing. In daily life Rik is a Graphic Designer. He is married to the CCC webmaster and the father of a 10 year old son (they are both very happy with his excellent cooking skills)




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6 Comments


  1. Great article and one that needs to be written. Every successful business needs a promoter and George knew exactly how to be a showman. All of the guys who were there in the early days (Dick Jackson, Jack Stewart, etc.) have always said George was the painter and worked just as hard as the other guys. Obviously this switched through the years. It reminds me of the tint guys in TJ waving their roll of tint in the middle of the street as you drive by, prompting you to pull into their shop. George took kustoms to a much larger audience with his tech articles and photographic exposure. I always think of how cool it must have been to be on the cutting edge of new kustom trends in the ’50s. No matter what people say about him, the fact that he had the foresight to grab a camera, pen, and paper and document the kustom world as it grew speaks volumes. You can thank him for that when you look at the majority of pictures we have today of kustoms from the ’50s- Barris-built or otherwise.


  2. What a fabulous article about The Barris Brothers team. I loved the early George Barris pictures. They are true heirlooms at this point. Just a great, great job. Thank you Rik Hoving. Keep thoes articles coming.

    Raymond M


  3. Thank you Rik!
    Torchie


  4. Great article Rik! King Kustoms hit the nail on the head. George has gotten a lot of flack over the years for being a promotor and being out front, yet companies live and die on the Georges. I really believe without George’s vision and natural talent as a promotor for their own business, customs would have very likely never gotten very far past southern CA. It would have never spread and would now simply be distant history of a small, local SoCal fad. Thank you George, we all owe you a debt of gratitude for bringing customs everywhere.


  5. Thanks Rik, very interesting article.



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