George Barris, the legendary custom car builder who created television's original Batmobile and helped define California's car culture with colorfully designed vehicles ranging from the stunningly beautiful to the simply outrageous, died Thursday. He was 89. Barris, who had been in declining health, died at his Los Angeles home with his family by his side, says Edward Lozzi, his longtime publicist and friend. Barris customized cars and buses for TV shows, movies, celebrities, and heads of state and was a pioneer in designing small, plastic models of those customized cars. The models popularized his wildly imaginative vehicles all the more when they were assembled by millions of American youngsters in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. "He was the man who started the American pastime for baby boomers," Lozzi says.
Born in Chicago in 1925, Barris and his brother customized their first car—a 1925 Buick—as teenagers. They sold it and used the money to work on another. After fully customizing a 1936 Ford in high school, Barris formed the Kustoms Car Club. The unusual spelling of "custom," never fully explained, came to be his signature. The brothers, meanwhile, moved to Southern California after World War II and began designing cars for private buyers. Their clients came to include Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds, and Sylvester Stallone. After Sam Barris left the business in the 1950s, George and his wife, Shirley, continued on their own. His most famous creations, such as the Ala Kart and the Hirohata Merc, remain instantly recognizable on the car collector circuit to this day. The most famous of all, the Batmobile, built from a refurbished 1955 Lincoln Futura, sold at auction two years ago for $4.2 million. (Read more Batmobile stories.)