Even if you've never heard of George Barris, you know his work. Especially if you've watched television in the past 40 years or so.
To listen to the "King of the Kustomizers" reel off his car creations and the shows that spawned them is to hear TV Land's greatest hits: Batman, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies. The words tumble from his mouth quickly. Barris, who only admits to being in his '80s, has so much to say that he uses verbal ellipses — "dut, dut, dut" — to complete his thoughts. That's understandable, given his accomplishments span the birth of California's custom scene to today's tuner cars.
Without Barris, you could argue, there'd be no rides to pimp.
Now the man who made so many four-wheeled stars in Hollywood has a starring role of his own. Barris is the head judge on Car Warriors, a new reality competition on Speed that pits an all-star team of California builders and customizers against challengers from around the country. Both teams get the same type car and 72 hours to do whatever they want with it. The prize: The winner gets both creations.
"I looked around for an awful long time (until) I finally found a good show," Barris says from his family-run shop, Barris Kustom Industries, in North Hollywood. "Every other one of these car-build shows, they're all the same. It was, a guy would take a car and he would customize it. Another guy would take and change the engine and whatever. But it was always so boring because it was just talking about what they were doing.
"So this came along and it was really interesting because it's the first time you had customizing work done in a contest — and not even a contest; this is a war with these two groups."
Speed is counting on that car clash to lure more viewers to its new primetime lineup. When the customizers are done with the 72-hour makeovers, Barris and fellow judges Jimmy Shine (So-Cal Speed Shop) and "Mad Mike" Martin (Pimp My Ride) road-test the creations. Barris gets behind the wheel, too.
"I never knew there was so much talent out there," said Barris, who emphasizes that the creations on Car Warriors are unique — even when compared to his own work. "Some of these ideas," he said, "you will crack up when you see them."
But that doesn't mean competitors can get away with trying to fool the judges or with substandard work — what Barris calls "hanky-panky."
"All three of us are tough," Barris said of the judges. He cited problems such as bubbles in paint or doors that don't fit. "We find something wrong, we tell them."
What Barris tells them comes from his own deadline experiences.
"I only had 15 days to do a Batmobile," he said. "When ... we went through the Bat Cave, it had to run, and we didn't play games with them."
Yes, he played the Batmobile card.
So what else is left for a man who's still busy in his eighth decade?
"I'm going to pioneer cars of the 2000s," he said.
Barris said he's been interested in electric vehicles ever since he put solar cells in the star of the 1970s TV movie Supervan. But the cosmetics of a car — even a hybrid — are never far from his imagination. Barris even customized a Prius for Toyota and the New York Times.
"Knocked them on their head," he said of the reaction.
And that's no hanky-panky.