George Barris is a truly legendary figure, and one of our personal Gods. He virtually invented the art of auto kustomizing. He also literally invented the spelling of the word customizing with a "K". Our name is spelled that way in recognition of Mr.Barris' importance to our culture- bicycle, as well as American.
As much an engineer as an artist, he showed the possibilities inherent in the highly-developed discipline of auto-body craftsmanship. He and his brother Sam would take a car, any car, tear it down to its component bits, radically rework its shape, proportion, and function, then put it back together to a level of finish matching that of a Ferrari or a Rolls-Royce. And then, he would don his commercial-photographer hat, and take his own gorgeous color photos of the vehicles. In that respect, he is also largely responsible for an entire genre of auto-magazine publishing. As in his other areas of influence, he showed others what could be done, and established a level of excellence to which they could aspire.
Many people are familiar with Mr. Barris' fame as a Kustom Car stylist. At least that many are familiar with his work as the leading constructor of special vehicles for film and television. When one hears the name of such disparate media entities as: Batman, The Dukes Of Hazzard, The Munsters, Knight Rider, Back To The Future, etc., a vehicle usually comes to mind. In all of those instances, and many more, that vehicle was created by George Barris.
Not so many people are familiar with Mr.Barris' activities in the bicycle field.
There was a true golden age of bicycle customizing- the '60s. As the later Lowrider Bike movement was a sort of youth auxiliary of the Lowrider Car movement, so also was there a Kustom Bike offshoot of the Hot Rod and Kustom Car cultures. This offshoot was so noticeable that Schwinn, followed by every other bike manufacturer, picked up on the style and brought out their own pre-packaged takes on it. The most brilliantly innovative of those takes, as usual were by George Barris, who again showed what the potential was. Mr. Barris, in an arrangement with Stelber Industries, a fairly-obscure New York-based bike manufacturer, produced a myriad of innovative designs for bicycles and radically-styled bike componentry. We find it astounding that contemporary bicycle collectors/aficionados are so clueless as to the historic importance and superiority of style of the Iverson bikes for which Mr. Barris was responsible. With this feature,
literally a year in the making, we aim to clue-in the clueless.
Interview Conducted By BR&K Editor-In-Chief Jim Wilson
Mr. Barris, in your "Philosophy Of Bicycle Customizing" you mention that you started customizing when you were young, by working on your own bike; and that later you helped your children with customizing theirs. We've seen photos of Brett's and Joji's bikes; would you describe your childhood KustomBike for us?
My first bike had to be a kustom. I went to the hardware store for paint, and used drawer knobs to bolt on the fenders. I used artist tape for pin striping and sponge rubber for the handle bars. I then used these techniques when my brother Sam and I customized our first car which was a 1925 Buick that our parents gave us.
You also mentioned that the kustom parts for your Iverson designs were being marketed by the Saf-Tee Products division of Stelber Industries. Stelber seems to have gone out of business, presumably along with Saf-Tee. I would think that those parts and accessories would be at least as popular now, if not more so, what with the current popularity of the Lowrider and KustomBike movements. And Schwinn has been selling reproductions of the original Krates like hot-cakes for several years now. As a canny guy who's been around the block a few times, I presume that you retained ownership of all your designs. If a smart bike company was to be interested, is it possible that your bike designs and parts could be made available again? For example, I'd kill for some of those alloy mag wheels, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that desire.
The many parts I designed and created in the early biking days for Stelber, Iverson
and AMF had patents, the most significant being the Mag Wheel. I also designed
many BMX accessories. Eventually, the patents expired because I did not maintain them, because I was too busy customizing cars.
You're obviously extremely busy with the Kustom Car circuit and the film and TV vehicle business, but do you ever have any urge to dip back into the bike design field? The "Designed by George Barris" imprimatur is probably at least as major as it was in the '60s and '70s.
At the time I had come up with specialized paints, unusual shaped frames and handle bars, special seats, wheels and tires that no one had ever done before. These days the technology is much different and there are more people designing and building bikes than in my day.
The bike you're astride in the photo on our cover is fantastic. Was that a factory model? I'd also kill for a set of those drilled handlebars.
Yes, the bike was eventually a factory-built model by Iverson/Stelber. I wish I still had some of that equipment to give you.
Lowrider Magazine's Lowrider History Book pretty much credits you with inspiring the start of the Lowrider Bike movement in 1964, with your Eddie Munster bike, made with welded chain and typical Barris Kustom detailing. How gratifying is it to have been so influential in so many cultural areas?
It was exciting and an honor for me to influence many cultures, especially the Latinos, they have a great sense of style and craftsmanship. I feel the Latinos appreciated what I was doing and added their own style.
Back in the day, you were not only the most hyper-skilled kustomizer, you were also the field's most hyper-proficient photographer. How important do you think this extra media skill was in your favor? Would you recommend the development of photographic and media skills in addition, or in preference to, the traditional welding, leading, and painting skills?
Being able to photograph and document my work was very important. It was one of the things that helped me get noticed by publishing the photos in magazines. I was able to show the car buffs all the different stages of creating a custom car, which was an art in itself. I would say media skill is a good thing to have, though designing the right properties of a car is the most important. Next would be forming the metal and leading the seams, then upholstery and finally, color coordination and paint. Though if your goals are to have a show winner or have toys/ models made of your car then it's equally important to have good photo and public-relation skills.
I found it hard to find a photographer who could capture the different stages of customizing a car. There are certain things to look for and photographers did not see these details. When photographing a finished car, some photographers would cut off bumpers or a fender or top. So I began taking the pictures and I was able to communicate the workmanship and style of the cars in a more effective way that would show off the details better, and the feeling of the car.
Mr. Barris, thank you so much for sparing some of your time for us, and thanks also to your son, Brett for going through so much trouble in digging through your vast archives for the visual material for this feature on your bicycle work.