SAM BARRIS CUSTOM STYLIST
We have all read about how Sam Barris was the metal craftsman at the Barris Shop. But what was his roll when it came to the designs of the Barris Customs. A closer look at Sam Barris Custom Stylist.
This is one of those articles that I have on my mind for a along time, and was just waiting for the right moment to get written. I guess the trigger to get started came a few weeks ago. I was reading on facebook how somebody mentioned how Sam Barris had an eye for all good things in customizing, and his brother George Barris not so much. He was quickly corrected by another guy who mentioned George Barris was the more visionary and stylist of the two brothers. And how George could not be judged for the later work the Barris shop did on the Hollywood cars. From the stories I have been told, the things I have seen, and read about the Barris Kustoms history I like to share my thoughts on this topic. And perhaps give some well deserved credit to Sam, the brother that never really wanted to be in the spotlight as much as George Barris liked to do.
First of all I like to state, that this article is based on my personal insight, and on stories told by the people who have met both Sam and George Barris in person. It is based on my observations and conclusion made after reading and hearing many stories and looking at a lot of pictures from the 1940’s and 1950’s.
I totally understand how George and Sam had a work relation. George was the boss, it was George who was always in the spotlight, it was George who made sure the Barris name could grow to what it has become. It was George who wrote the hundreds of articles about Custom Cars – and at the same time – about promoting Barris Kustoms, and the (George) Barris name. And I think that a lot of decisions made to point out who was responsible for the designs and the over-all look of cars created at the Barris Shop were based on promoting the shop the best way possible.
Plus back in the day a lot of times the car magazines did not try to make things as accurate as possible checking and re-checking all their data. If they had talked to George Barris about the custom shop, then it was George Barris who was responsible for the design and creation of the cars. At least that was how a lot of magazine article back then appear to have been done.
Sam Barris was never a person who was eager to be in the spotlight, be the boss, or have his name or face in the magazines. In fact Sam never really even cared for his picture to be taken all that much. Sam loved to work on his Custom Creations. He loved to shape the cars, to form them to match the images he had in his head, his custom car dream creations. Sam Barris passed away way too young on October 27, 1967, and as far as I know he was never properly interviewed about his days at the Barris Shop, like George Barris has been. It would have been wonderful to be able to read Sam’s take on the legacy of Barris Kustoms, and how he was personally responsible for new trends in customizing, trends which are still popular and recognized today, some sixty years later. Now with George Barris gone as well a lot of things and facts about Sam, and his influence on the looks of the Barris Customs will always remain somewhat of a mystery.
This article shows my vision on this, and hopefully some more people who worked with Sam, or were friends with him could tell their stories as well, to give an more accurate picture of Sam Barris the Custom Car Stylist, and his influence in the world of Customizing. I think Sam Barris was a lot more than the shop foreman, and metal fabricator. I think his influence in the typical Barris look was much more than just the execution of George Barris’s designs. Perhaps George did make the sketches, but in the discussions that went on before these sketches were created, Sam might have had a much larger role than the old and new publications have told us.
One of the people I have talked about Sam Barris and his influence at the designs of the Barris shop was Jim Roten from Chico California. Jim was very involved in Custom Car design, and worked close with numerous of Custom Car designs for Riley Collins. He also knew Sam Barris rather well, and the two spend some good time together discussing good Custom Car design. Jim mentioned how Sam Barris explained that the design work in the Barris Shop was always the result of healthy discussion between George and Sam. And how George always had ideas more towards leaving, or even adding more “bling” to the cars, and that Sam Barris was the one who made sure the cars looked as clean as they eventually did, with wonderful flowing lines.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Jim Roten spoke with Sam Barris frequently, and Jim even helped Sam sell some of the Barris cleaning products at an Woodland, California car show around 1961. Barris even created a business card from Jim for this.
When I discussed the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s Custom Car scene with Jack Stewart for the Jack Stewart Ford book, Jack also mentioned several times how Sam Barris was always discussing design elements with George. And how Jack noticed how good in styling Sam was. He also remembered the fascination for European cars with both Sam and George, but since Jack was not into that at the time he never really payed much attention, and could not tell anything about that. (Later Jack would own a George Cerny restyled MG). Jack he never became friends with Sam, he was just such a different guy than Jack was, being married and kids. Jack was good buddies with George, who were both single and always in for a party. Jack also mentioned that Sam never worked on his ’41 Ford, that was all George’s work who did all the fine tuning on the Ayala designed and built car.
European Car Design influence
Both Sam and George were very much inspired by the European cars, and especially the high-end and Coachbuilt cars that made it into the car magazines in the later part of the 1940’s and early to mid 1950’s. As well as the European cars that were imported to the US, or were shown at the exotic car shows held in LA during those days. In the early days the Hot Rod and Custom Car shows often had many exotic European cars on display as well. George and Sam had lengthy discussions about the European Cars, and the styles used on these cars, and how they could incorporate elements of those into the Barris Customs. Sam Barris had mentioned to Jim Roten that many special details typical for the Barris style came from these observations and discussions. The curved windows used on the Matranga Mercury and later on the Hirohata Mercury was of of those elements inspired by European car designs, loved so much by Sam Barris.
It is said that Sam Barris worked for month on the Nick Matranga Mercury. Chopping and re-chopping the top to get it just right. To make it work perfect with the European inspired curved side windows. It was Sam’s quest for the perfect chop, for the style he had in his mind. The Matranga roof and side window style is perhaps one of the most copied Custom designs ever created.
The Nick Matranga 1940 Mercury with curved side window and ultra smooth chop. Most likely the result of European Car discussions. The curved side windows was later repeated on the world-famous Hirohata Mercury.
I have met George Barris a few times and we talked Custom Cars, but I never discussed the European influence on the Barris style with him in person. In 2010, when Palle Johansen and me visited George to talk about the Jack Stewart Ford, George took a lot of time to talk to us, and it was this time he talked the most inspiring about the old days, and how he worked on Jack’s car. It was at this same Barris Shop visit that I stumbled upon the shoebox with all the snap shots George had taken at his European trip in 1951. But that was after we had talked to George about Jack Stewart, Jim Skonzakes and a lot of other things, and George had already left the building. So I was unable to ask him any questions about that. Later I tried to ask George about this trip with the help of his son Brett, but it appeared George had forgotten most details about his 1951 Europe trip.
It was George Barris who went on the design study trip to Europe, and not Sam, whose passion for European car designs was perhaps bigger than George’s. Some say that that was because George was the one responsible for the style and the designs of the Barris Shop, and it would be logic for him to make the trip. But I think that it was just more convenient for George to make this trip. Sam was married and already had a family, while George was single. The work load in 1951 most likely would not allow for both to make the trip.
In 2015 George Barris and a few others, including myself were invited to discuss Custom 49-51 Mercury’s at the prestigious Pebble Beach Concourse special Mercury gathering. Sadly I was unable to attend the even in person, but I was asked to make a list of points to discuss and questions to be asked at the panel discussion. One of the questions I added was one for George Barris where I asked about the influence of the European cars, and especially the Coachbuilt cars from the 1940’s and early 1950’s on the typical Barris Custom style. I was later told that the question was discussed and that George replied that there had never been any European influence in any of the Barris Custom creations, that they were all 100% American!
When I heard that after the show I was really sad I was not at the discussion so I could personally ask George why he had taken the study trip in 1951, and how it could be that his brother had mentioned how much he, as well as George had been so much inspired by the European car builders. I do understand that George wanted to keep Barris Kustoms all American, especially in 2015 at the end of his career, and at the prestigious typical American Pebble Beach Concourse event. But it was not the answer I had expected, especially knowing what Sam had told Jim Roten, and what was written in the Barris Story article in the May 1953 issue of Hop Up Magazine. It would have been so nice if we could have heard more about this, and especially how Sam Barris was part of all this.
In the Hope Up May 1953 Barris Story article by Spence Murray George clearly mentioned the influence of the European car design on the Barris Custom creations. I assume that this influence started long before George went on his European trip.
The May 1953 Hop Up magazine also showed this photo of Sam and George in the Barris Shop. Sam sitting behind the desk holding a part, or perhaps a model car George had put together. Most likely discussing designs, styles or colors.
The Ultimate Custom Car
From what I have read, heard and seen about the Custom Cars Sam Barris has created I think that he was always in search for the ultimate car. His ultimate Custom Car design. His mind fed by the teardrop shapes of the European Coachbuilders helped him shape the perfect customs in the 1940’s and early 1950’s. Later in the 1950’s his style preferences changed along with the general style shifts of the auto industry, and again what happened at car designers around the globe, specifically in Europe.
Sam Barris 1940 Mercury
One of Sam’s earliest personal customs is his 1940 Mercury convertible with padded top. Everything on this car was just perfect. The amount the windshield was cut, the amount of removed trip, the combination of chop and stance. Everything was just perfectly balanced, and even today it is seen as the perfect standard for any late 1940’s styled custom. Sadly we do not know anything about Sam’s ideas behind this ’40 Mercury, what has influenced him or anything like that.
Sam Barris 49 Mercury
Sam’s second personal custom creation is his 1949 Mercury, and from this car we do know a little bit more. Jim Roten told us that Sam was very much inspired by the 1950 Alfa Romeo Specials from Italy. He loved the overall shapes of these Italian cars. The one piece look and the simple side trim. It was these Alfa’s that inspired him with the built of his 1949 Mercury, and possibly also when he did the one for Jerry Quesnel. If we look at other Alfa’s from the later part of the 1940’s we see some good resembles with some other well known Barris Customs. One Barris Custom that comes to mind is the Joe Urritta 1941 Ford.
Sam chopped the Jerry Quesnel 1949 Mercury in 1951. One of the first of these models to get the chopped top treatment. Sam did a lot of extra work on the car to come up with the unique side window and B-Pillar treatment. Not something you could do and make it look this good if you did not have an eye for design. Sam chopped his own Mercury around the same time as he did this one.
The restored Sam Barris Mercury shows the simple yet breathtaking beautiful lines of this Custom that Sam designed, and built. Inspired by the Alfa Romeo from Italy, and perhaps influenced by some other European cars as well.
Just a few of the cars George photographed on his 1951 European trip including the Alfa Sam liked so much (top right). In the case of these snapshots cars that he found parked in the cities he wandered around in. Snapshots that more than likely were used to inspire future Barris Kustoms creations. George took these photos in August 1951, by then Sam had already finished his ’49 Mercury, so they could not have been used as inspiration for that.
Sam Barris 1950 Buick
Sam’s 1950 Buick Sedanette was as far as we know the first fleetline roof styled cars that was ever chopped. Sam had thought long and hard about the best way to do it. He knew how the car needed to look, and figured out a way to chop the top and make all the rear body panels line up perfectly to create an stunning teardrop shaped roof-line. This car, like no other, shows Sam’s skills as a metal craftsman, but even more so as a designer, a Custom Stylist.
Sam Barris 1952 Ford Convertible
No urge to go the full Custom route again Sam’s next personal custom was a 1952 Ford convertible he build for his wife, Joyce. This car was far more subtle, but still had a lot of very nice and refined custom styling going on. Sam reshaped the front using two 1954 Ford grille shells with a grille handmade from shaped vertical bars. 1955 Ford headlights in peaked fenders and 1955 Lincoln taillights in extended rear fenders that had a beautiful upwards character line coming from the rear quarter panel. Sam painted the car in two-tone metallic blue using 1955 Pontiac side trim to separate the colors on the sides. Very subtle, very elegant.
Sam’s 1952 Ford convertible photographed at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles. Notice how wonderful the design on the taillights was done. Not just add-on’s, they are incorporated into the overall design.
Sam Barris 1955 Chevy Convertible
The last custom car Sam would create for himself was a rather mild 1955 Chevy convertible. Like the 1952 Ford, this car was not chopped, but had a number of small, but still spectacular body modifications. The most obvious were the extended rear fenders to fit a continental kit, and the use of modified 1956 Ford Customline side trim which flowed perfectly with the top line of the doors. Sam also managed to give the body more character by hammering out certain parts and fine tuning them with lead, making them appear more 3-D. The car was lowered the perfect amount, and Sam painted it in a two-tone blue with a white and light blue interior.
Sam’s 55 Chevy had some very interesting touches, including the sculptured and extended rear fenders. Sam would used this exclusive technique more extensive and with great success on the 1957 Chevy the “El Capitola“, the last Custom he would built.
We have all heard the stories people tell about the Barris Shop, some say the Barris Shop was George Barris, and Sam was just an employee just like many others doing the body work based on George his designs. Others mention Sam as the real artist when it came to the metal work from the Barris Shop and how Sam got the eye to get all George’s designs done right. But I personally feel that the collaboration between Sam and George was a lot stronger than all that. And that Sam had a much larger roll in the whole Barris Kustoms design aspect than we thought he had.
From the things I have heard, read and seen, I think that Sam’s roll as a Custom Stylist in the Barris shop was huge. And that he never fully got the credit for that. This does not mean that I think George roll was less important, it was the combination of the two, the discussions the two brother had about design, that created the typical Barris Look. Without one of the two the whole Barris look most likely never excited. But in my eyes, it was Sam Barris’s influence that really shaped the Barris Kustom look in the golden years of Customizing. But without George we might have never called it the Barris Look. The two brothers complemented each other in the best way possible, and for many years inspired each other to create unique and wonderful styled Custom Cars.
George Barris of course created some very elegant typical Barris styled customs for himself as well, including the ’36 Ford convertible, ’41 Buick and ’42 Cadillac, both with padded tops. But those were all done in the early years. And we do not know if Sam might have been involved in the design of those as well.
After Sam Barris left the Barris Shop in Lynwood and moved back to Northern California, the style of the Barris creations changed, they became more busy, less refined. And I do understand that the time, the scene, the Car Show influences and the demand of the customers had a lot to do with this as well. But one can wonder what would have happened if Sam Barris would not have moved, and would have continued working for the Barris Shop until up into the 1960’s. Would the style of the Barris Customs have been different, perhaps more refined like in the early years up to 1956?
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