George Barris, Batmobile creator and 'King of the Kustomizers,' dies at 89

Story highlights

  • George Barris was the go-to guy for customizing cars
  • He made several for TV shows, including Batmobile, Bugaloos' car, Munsters Koach

(CNN)George Barris, the Batmobile creator whose talent for turning Detroit iron into decked-out automotive fantasies earned him the nickname "King of the Kustomizers," has died. He was 89.

Barris died early Thursday morning, son Brett Barris said on Facebook.
    "Sorry to have to post that my father, legendary kustom car king George Barris, has moved to the bigger garage in the sky," Brett Barris wrote. "He lived his life the way he wanted til the end. He would want everyone (to) celebrate the passion he had for life and for what he created for all to enjoy."
    For many years, Barris' handiwork was all over the television screen. He created the Munsters Koach -- a combination of three Ford Model T's -- for "The Munsters"; the surfboard-topped, flower-decaled Barris Boogaloo for "The Bugaloos"; and the convertible version of KITT from "Knight Rider," among many.
    But he was most famous for the Batmobile, a retooled version of a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car that allegedly cost the Ford Motor Company $250,000.
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    When Ford was unable to make use of it, Barris picked it up for one dollar.
    In the '60s TV show "Batman," the Batmobile was powered by atomic batteries, equipped with a radar scope and "bat beam," and slowed by parachutes. The latter really worked -- Barris was once pulled over on the Hollywood Freeway for using them.
    George Barris rides in the Batmobile at a 2006 event in Beverly Hills.
    Batman and Robin weren't the first fictional owners of the car. Barris had used the Futura in a 1959 movie, "It Started With a Kiss." He converted the car in "15 days and (for) 15 grand" for "Batman" when the original model, designed by Barris' rival Dean Jeffries, couldn't be made in time. (Jeffries designed the Monkees' Monkeemobile, among others.)
    "It had a lot of  things I could use like the double windshields and double back windows and an arch down the center, and I could open up the wheel wells," he told Car and Driver in 2012.
    Other versions of the Batmobile were customized Ford Galaxies.
    Barris was born in Chicago and raised in California. He started fiddling with cars as a teenager, deciding right away he would become a customizer -- or, as he spelled it, "kustomizer."
    "My first challenge was a '32 Ford and I put cat-eye taillights in it. I was paid $10," he told Car and Driver. "I said, 'That's my challenge. I'm going to be a customizer and make money.' I took the name 'custom' and, being a Greek, I took the 'c' out of it and made it a 'k' -- I wish I would have trademarked that. "
    He later moved to Los Angeles and founded Barris Kustom with his brother, following a stretch when he hot-rodded them down L.A.'s Sepulveda Boulevard.
    In 1964, his work was profiled in one of Tom Wolfe's most famous early articles, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby."
    Barris was an in-demand customizer for celebrities and didn't restrict himself to quirky, or high-horsepowered, vehicles.
    Among other things, he added a spoiler and painted the car Tangerine Gold-Astra Green.
    "You could have no engine under there and it will still catch people's attention," he told the Times.
    That was something Barris never had any trouble doing.