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.)