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George Barris: King of TV's custom cars

By Jim Roope, CNN
George Barris, designer of some of television's most famous cars, sits among his memorabilia.
George Barris, designer of some of television's most famous cars, sits among his memorabilia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • George Barris has designed some of TV's most famous autos
  • Among his cars are the Batmobile and "The Beverly Hillbillies' " jalopy
  • Barris got his start working on model cars as a youngster

Editor's note: The complete interview with George Barris can be heard by clicking on the audio player below.

(CNN) -- America is in love with the automobile.

And the best-loved cars are those from television shows and movies.

Cars such as the Batmobile, the General Lee from TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard" and KITT from "Knight Rider." For more than six decades, George Barris has been making custom cars for TV shows, movies and movie stars. He's responsible for all the famous cars just mentioned, plus "The Beverly Hillbillies' " jalopy, "The Green Hornet's" Black Beauty and many others.

Barris was born in Chicago in 1925. His family moved to Sacramento, California, three years later, and he and his older brother got into model cars -- both balsa wood and plastic. Their parents were in the hotel and restaurant business, and although they wanted both boys to follow in their footsteps, the two brothers were into cars.

When Barris was 13, his parents' 1925 Buick needed some body work so he asked if he could do it. His parents agreed, and he went to town -- literally.

"There were not customizing shops back then," Barris said.

The enterprising teen went to a hardware store and got some paint and brushes and painted some scallops on the car. He also ventured into a Woolworth's five-and-dime, where he purchased some cattails, and then a kitchen store, where he bought some pots and pans and put them on the wheels.

He then took all the golden knobs off his parents' cabinets and put them in the car's grille.

"At school I was king of the customizers, but at home my parents couldn't get into the cabinets so I was grounded, " Barris said.

He got his first paying job at 15 when someone paid him $10 to put cat-eye taillights on a car. He started earning a name for himself hanging around body shops and garages and souping up his cars and those of friends, but he wasn't getting hired anywhere.

Barris' family moved to Los Angeles, and he quickly caught up with a car crowd that would hand around the local drive-in.

"We would drag-race for pink slips," Barris recalled.

Then one day a man from a movie studio who had heard of the hot rods Barris had helped customize and asked if he'd help with a movie called "High School Confidential!" in 1958. His relationship with movies began.

In the early 1960s, CBS asked Barris to come up with a jalopy for a new series called "The Beverly Hillbillies."

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"I found a 1922 Ford at a feed store off Interstate 10 in Los Angeles that the owner had cut the back off and made a bed to haul hay," Barris said. "I bought it and fixed a place for Granny's rocking chair, and away it went."

His next show was "The Munsters."

"I took three Model T Fords, cut them together to make a six-door Model T; it had never been done before," Barris said. "I then added red velvet like the inside of a coffin, lanterns for headlights, spider webs on the wheels and coffin handles."

The car also had 10 carburetors that sounded like a race track starting line when fired up.

Probably Barris' most famous car is the Batmobile. He still has the original from the 1966 TV series, complete with the horse-shoe steering wheel, flame-throwing exhaust and Bat-Turn Lever in the two-seat TV icon.