George Barris had THE shop which produced THE cars for movies and TV in the 1960s through the 1980s.

Whatever the TV property was, it had a groovy Kustom as part of the show, and it was as much a star as the rest of the cast. The Munsters had the Munster Koach, consisting of three  Model T Fords welded together and shaped into something the entire family could enjoy. Ornate scrollwork combined with some slick 1960s car/racing tech, including an Isky bumpstick and some racing headers made this a head-turner. Barris was given 21 days to make one, and ended up making two of them. Not content with simply turning out one car, they tapped him again to produce "Dragula", a coffin-shaped racing rail used during "Hot Rod Herman".

And of course, the Batman property required a Batmobile, which was turned out of a $250,000 Ford concept car, the 1955 Ford Lincoln Futura. Later versions turned out by Barris had a lot of custom fiberglass bodywork to make a Ford Galaxie look like the sleek initial head-turner, but the original cost about $2.5 million in today's money, even before Barris got to work, burying tons of effects and gags underneath forty layers of black paint. (Batman couldn't simply have a Batmobile, he also needed a Bat Cycle, which was basically a bone stock 1965 Harley Davidson Electra-Glide with a groovy cutout windshield, but that wasn't a Barris job. Neither was its replacement, a Yamaha race bike with heavily customized fairings).

The Green Hornet also needed a groovy set of wheels, and Barris was happy to oblige, turning a 1966 Imperial into a rolling work of art, complete with hidden machine guns and an ice slick spreader, flap headlights and a green metalflake paint job. (George is formally given credit for the car, but Dean Jeffries claims to have created both it and other cars Barris became famous for).

But even though you knew the Munsters would need a groovy coach out of necessity, and how would Batman fight crime in a perfectly pedestrian Corvair, other properties ended up with a Barris Kustom as part of the show. The Beverly Hillbillies decided that Jethro would spend a ton of newfound cash on a hot rod, so they found a 1921 Olds Roadster to tear apart and put back together under layers of luscious lacquer. Of course, they also replaced the bench seats with bucket seats, and slammed in a 1969 Olds 442 engine to really make it cook.

Even Alvin of Alvin and the Chipmunks got a custom set of wheels, even though he was a cartoon character. That being said, the car was worked over to emphasize function and safety, in addition to looking groovy in a primary school kind of way.

Meanwhile Dean Jeffries was taking apart a Pontiac GTO, cutting it up, and producing the Monkeemobile for The Monkees. Featuring a 6-71 Supercharged engine and a solid mounted rear axle, it was designed to be able to pop wheelies with the cast inside. That being said, the car was so damnably powerful that it was later emasculated by replacing the genuine supercharger with a fake blower, as the original was actually difficult to pilot.

Produced in a short space of time, these works of art - show cars, if nothing else - brought the culture of customizing vehicles from the various subcultures (hot rodders, rockabillies and low riders) into the American living room, and just as how George Barris got his start making models and transferring his skills to actual metal and engines and transmissions - so too did hundreds of thousands of American children, who brought money into the franchise by buying model kits and toy replicas of these cars, dreaming of the day they'd have their own rolling sculptures with mile-deep paint.

The marriage of hot cars and television started there, but didn't end there. Barris was tapped again in the 1980s to make K.I.T.T, the secret agent car with the effeminate almost British accent and the artificial intelligence for the show Knight Rider. In the intervening years Starsky and Hutch had their Ford Grand Torino, and the Dodge Charger is legendary in part for a certain famous orange model that flew through the air with the Rebel flag on its roof in The Dukes of Hazzard. Burt Reynolds was offered a free Trans-Am a year for life (which the company eventually reneged on) for the sheer number of Trans-Ams that Smokey and the Bandit sold.

But whereas the General Lee was a relatively stock 1969 Charger with a neat paint job, the cars of the 1960s really were "theme" cars, custom built from the ground up and over-built for purpose.

The donor cars for these projects are now unattainable museum pieces, and the gorgeous mile-deep lacquers they used are now also museum pieces because the EPA doesn't like those kinds of solvents anymore. The EPA have also made it pretty much impossible to start with a car and have some fun with the room that used to be under the hood. Underneath layers of computers, catalytic converters, radiators and all that other mess, what used to be a customizable, paintable Chevy Short block engine is nothing but a compact mass of ABS plastic and wires, with nary any room to stick a pin in between components. Car culture died on the vine. Kids these days are more interested in the power ratings on the stereo than any horsepower they could get out of racing valves or a hot cam. That's if they even want a car. Why bother, when there's Uber?

Perhaps the advent of real, affordable, relatively straightforward electric cars will allow creativity to reign again as the EPA stops getting so antsy about optimising everything, and people are free to tinker, experiment, grind, weld, adjust, and mold these cars into means of personal expression. They certainly have a glorious backstory of memorable show cars to pick from.

 

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