Part 3: Barris’ garage fire dom­i­nates the news in 1957.


KUSTOMS. What a year this was for Ge­orge Barris, start­ing with un­prece­dented me­dia ex­po­sure and con­clud­ing with the dis­as­trous shop fire that nearly put the planet’s best-known cus­tomizer out of busi­ness. Ge­orge cal­cu­lated dam­ages to be a quar­ter-mil­lion dol­lars (equiv­a­lent to $2.2M now). Sure, the shop was in­sured for any­thing short of acts of God—one of which the courts de­ter­mined to be ex­plod­ing trans­form­ers, thereby re­liev­ing both the elec­tric util­ity and in­sur­ance com­pany of re­spon­si­bil­ity. Claim de­nied, the King of the Kus­tomiz­ers had lost most of his shop and a dozen un­paid-for projects. No won­der he wanted to walk away with­out com­plet­ing the Ala Kart that helped save the com­pany with back-to-back wins as Amer­ica’s Most Beau­ti­ful Road­ster.

Full-cus­tom pick­ups were all the rage out West, where the ma­jor mag­a­zines were pro­duced. Prior to the fire, two rad­i­cal trucks and re­oc­cur­ring cov­er­age in Petersen publi­ca­tions helped pro­pel Barris Kustoms to new heights this year. Af­ter­wards, those plus a third pickup helped keep the re­build­ing com­pany alive by tour­ing car shows and me­dia out­lets. All three trucks were lucky to sur­vive the night of De­cem­ber 7, for en­tirely dif­fer­ent rea­sons. The Ala Kart was un­der con­struc­tion in the only un­singed sec­tion of the build­ing, saved by brave fire­fight­ers. The com­pany truck, Kop­per Kart, was on the way home from a Port­land show. Rod & Cus­tom mag­a­zine’s Dream Truck sur­vived only be­cause a fried trans­mis­sion bear­ing de­layed Ed­i­tor Spence Mur­ray’s de­liv­ery to Barris by one fate­ful day. In­stead of un­load­ing his pickup for ad­di­tional cus­tom work the next morn­ing, Spence loaded his cam­era and recorded the dev­as­ta­tion. All eight of his sur­viv­ing frames ap­pear for the first time in this se­ries in­stall­ment.

There’s a whole lot of Ge­orge him­self on these pages be­cause (A) his cre­ations had such an in­flu­ence on the hobby and (B) Pete’s ed­i­to­rial staffs de­voted such a dis­pro­por­tion­ate per­cent­age of film and pages to the flam­boy­ant self-pro­moter. Be­sides the black-and­white car fea­tures and how-to ar­ti­cles we re­mem­ber from HOT ROD, Rod & Cus­tom, Car Craft, and count­less “one-shots,” Barris cus­toms were of­ten fea­tured in full color by Mo­tor Trend and par­tic­u­larly Mo­tor Life. Col­lec­tively, in any given month of 1957, up to a mil­lion sub­scribers and news­stand buy­ers were bom­barded by Barris projects. Much of that film was ex­posed by Ge­orge him­self, a skilled pho­to­jour­nal­ist who wrote out the ac­com­pa­ny­ing sto­ries in long­hand, on le­gal pads. He was both a cover sub­ject and a cover pho­tog­ra­pher.

Cus­toms were red-hot in 1957, and young Dean Jef­fries was an­other big ben­e­fi­ciary of Petersen ex­po­sure. Pin­strip­ing cars built by Barris guar­an­teed mag­a­zine cred­its and in­tro­duc­tions to Petersen staffers. Fol­low­ing his men­tor’s path, the pho­to­genic young­ster fur­thered his own fame by par­tic­i­pat­ing in how-to ar­ti­cles on cus­tomiz­ing and paint­ing. Dean even brought a pretty model to the party: High-school-sweet­heart Carol Lewis al­ter­nately ap­peared in print as a blonde and brunette. It was Carol’s fa­mously flamed-all-over ’56 Chevy that Jef­fries res­cued af­ter rush­ing from a nearby restau­rant to un­lock Ge­orge’s burn­ing build­ing. Carol’s car and his own cus­tom­ized Porsche, which had been parked at the curb, were the only ve­hi­cles saved from the all-too-real flames.

Be­sides the ge­o­graphic ad­van­tage of prox­im­ity to Petersen Pub­lish­ing Co. head­quar­ters, Jef­fries, like Barris, shows up in so many be­hind-the-scenes out­takes be­cause he was at the cen­ter of a scene that sold mag­a­zines. It didn’t hurt that young Dean was liked and be­friended by those car­ry­ing note­books and cam­eras, as easy­go­ing a guy as Ge­orge was po­lar­iz­ing.

As for the pre­pon­der­ance of young women in this se­ries in­stall­ment, we can of­fer no such ex­pla­na­tions—only pre­vi­ously un­pub­lished snapshots from the road, a teeny-tiny per­cent­age of the spon­ta­neous snapshots in­tended to bring smiles to the “lab rats” pro­cess­ing film back home in Hol­ly­wood. It’s about time the rest of us en­joyed them.


> A dozen cus­tomer cars and most of Ge­orge Barris’s build­ing were in­cin­er­ated be­fore fire­men ex­tin­guished a night­time blaze ig­nited by a trans­former ex­plo­sion in the back al­ley. As Ed­i­tor Spence Mur­ray re­ported in the next Rod & Cus­tom, “When sparks reached the paint area—blooie! Up it went.” The heat melted the con­sid­er­able lead in a fin­ished ’54 Merc cus­tom that was here for up­hol­stery only. That job was done; Bobby “Chimbo” Ya­mazaki was ex­pected to pick up his car this very day. The new Im­pe­rial be­longed to a for­got­ten oil­com­pany ex­ec­u­tive. Spence ev­i­dently filled all 12 frames of a 120 roll on the premises, though the par­tial film strip con­tain­ing Negs One through Four was dis­cov­ered miss­ing when their turn came for dig­i­tiz­ing. The other seven sur­viv­ing images were scanned and ap­pear fur­ther into the lay­out. (Sixty-one years af­ter the disaster, Barris fan Brad Master­son op­er­ates Master­son Kus­tom Au­to­mo­biles on the same Lyn­wood, Cal­i­for­nia, prop­erty.)

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