x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Old Batmobile still turns heads in Hollywood

George Barris created TVs most famous car, and, as we find out, he is not shy in telling you.

Arthur St Antoine takes the Batmobile for a spin, with the George Barris's assistant Tony Wood. Barris made the car from an old concept car.
Arthur St Antoine takes the Batmobile for a spin, with the George Barris's assistant Tony Wood. Barris made the car from an old concept car.

In a city become blasé by the relentless parade of Ferraris, Bentleys, and - yawn - yet another lime-green Lambo, the original TV Batmobile, a design now 45 years old, is shredding the afternoon ennui like a Halloween-coloured cyclone, unhinging everyone and everything it passes along Los Angeles' busy Sunset Strip. Nearby cars nearly swap paint as their drivers' eyes missile-lock on the Batmobile's razor wings.

At stoplights, passengers spring from surrounding vehicles to bow before the altar of TV kitsch. Pedestrians shout as they fumble for their iPhones, one even dropping his to the sidewalk in his haste to bag a trophy snap for his Facebook page.

"It's the most famous and recogniseable automobile in the entire world." So asserts the man behind this two-seat, bubble-canopy jukebox, George Barris (age: "80-something"). No sense bringing up JFK's Lincoln or James Bond's Aston DB5, either, because everything George Barris says is true. Of course, this being showbiz, speaking the truth doesn't mean you can't sprinkle in a few stretchers. "Mattel recently released a bunch of scale models of my Batmobile," Barris continues. "It's the number-one grossing toy in the company's history."

Don't bother looking it up.

PT Barnum may have ruled the Big Top, but the world of flamboyant wheels belongs to George Barris. Via hard work, skill, ingenuity, luck, brazen self-promotion, and, say his detractors, a whole lotta stretchers, the Chicago-born, California-raised showman has ruled the custom-car arena for decades. "Being a Greek, the letter 'C' is not in our vocabulary," Barris says in the showroom of his North Hollywood shop. "So early on in my career I said to myself, 'If I'm gonna do custom work, it's gonna be King of the Kustomizers.'"

Along with his soft-spoken older brother Sam, a renowned "metal man" and one of the pioneers of the chopped-roof hot rod, the artistically inclined, car-tinkering Barris strode into the SoCal (Southern California) custom scene of the 1950s and quickly hammered out a king's throne for himself. "We didn't smoke, didn't drink, didn't do drugs," Barris says of his band of metal-sculpting brothers. "We allowed ourselves just two bad habits: cars and girls."(Clean living could not prevent tragedy, however: Sam Barris passed away of cancer in 1967.)

George Barris and the cars he created were too colourful to escape the notice of Hollywood. Before long, Barris' Kustom City was turning out a shimmering flood of camera-ready wheels - among them, the Model T-based Munster Koach and the half-dragster/half-coffin Drag-U-La from TV's The Munsters, a 1921 Oldsmobile touring car-turned bumpkin truck for the 1962-1971 hit The Beverly Hillbillies, a pair of modified Mustang convertibles for Sonny and Cher, the "striped tomato" Gran Torino for TV's Starsky and Hutch, plus countless one-offs for commercials and screen productions big and small.

The original Batmobile for TV's 1966 show Batman, however, is Barris's undisputed masterpiece. Originally, show producer William Dozier commissioned Dean Jeffries, another car customiser, to design and build the car. But just weeks into the project - Jeffries was modifying a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado for the part - Dozier bumped up the production schedule drastically. He needed the finished car in just two weeks. "The whole thing just went bazookle," Jeffries recalls. "I told Dozier there's no way I could finish the car that soon, even working day and night. I did call a buddy at Ford and ask,'Whaddyagot that's futuristic?'And he replied,'Well, we've got this old concept car called the Futura. But it's over at Barris's shop.'" Jeffries sighs at the memory.

After its debut at the 1955 Chicago auto show, the spacey, twin- cockpit Lincoln Futura concept - designed by the Lincoln-Mercury chief stylist Bill Schmidt and handbuilt by Italy's Ghia at a cost of $250,000 (Dh918,300) - appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and, repainted red, in the 1959 Glenn Ford/Debbie Reynolds comedy It Started With a Kiss. The film's producers then retired the car to Barris's boneyard for storage. When Ford failed to pay the storage fees, Barris claimed ownership for a dollar.

Realising the Futura's shark-inspired bones provided a perfect foundation for a Caped Crusader chariot, Barris dusted off the rotting corpse and set to work. "I had all the great customisers working for me back then," Barris says. "People like Joe Bailon [inventor of candy-apple paint] and Bill Cushenberry [builder of the illustrious El Matador show rod and the man responsible for most of the Batmobile's metalwork]. I took one look at Dozier's script, saw all those POW! BANG! WOWs!, and thought to myself: 'I'll make this car the star.'"

Its paint still drying, Barris delivered the Batmobile on time. "We took the car right up to Griffith Park to film those scenes with the Batmobile shooting out of the Batcave," Barris says. The Futura-based Batmobile was a driving nightmare. Remembers Batman star Adam West: "I got in and discovered quite quickly that the brakes weren't very good and the suspension was terrible." In fact, the show's producers had to speed up the film to make the car's Batcave exit live up to its atomic-turbine promise.

When Batman made its broadcast debut on the evening of January 12, 1966, the studio ABC had an instant nhit. The show climbed to number 10 in the TV ratings on Wednesdays and number five on Thursdays (when the previous night's cliffhangers were resolved). But it wasn't just the droll, square-jawed West and his coterie of goofy villains accounting for the huge audiences - Barris's Batmobile, gloss-black with fluorescent-orange trim, had also sparked a sensation.

And now I'm sitting in the original Batmobile, the Futura-based car, number one, the turbine-powered object of my childhood reveries, in Barris's North Hollywood shop. "It's insured for five million [dollars]," Barris says as he points out some of the interior features. Consequently, these days Barris almost never lets the original out of his shop. "Almost nobody drives this one any more," Barris adds. Now that I'm viewing the car up close, it's also clear that Batman's hero machine is in need of a restoration.

But the Batmobile I'll be driving sits outside, gleaming in the morning sun. Realising early on that the original Batmobile was too popular to serve both as a filming car and a touring auto-show star, in late 1966 Barris pulled fibreglass moulds off the original and, using Ford Galaxie chassis, built three replicas. All three copies still exist; the number three version is on display in the Hart Collection museum in Redmond, Washington, while number four is in private hands.

"This is the number two car," Barris says as we approach the Batmobile I'm going to drive. The car is immaculate, remarkable for a 44-year-old fibreglass touring piece. "It's worth at least half a mill," Barris adds casually. I slide into the driver's seat next to long-time Barris car-handler Tony Wood, fire up the V8, and slip the tall shift lever into Drive. Then I ease the Batmobile away and into Los Angeles traffic.

The drive is nerve-wracking, yes, but also fantastic. Children on the pavement hop up and down the minute they lay eyes on the car - and this isn't even one of the "new" Batmobile from the Batman movie franchise. Somehow, even the current generation recognises the Barris version instantly. The 1966 masterwork has still got it.

Several hours later, I return the Batmobile to Barris's garage - completely unscathed, parachutes still packed, rockets unfired. My personal auto logbook, though, is now etched with seat time in "the world's most famous car." Test-drives don't get any better.

It's only much later, while doing story research, that I notice something amiss. Batmobile number two is, in fact, in Virginia, in the hands of a private owner. Confused, I do some digging. Just what car did I drive, anyway? Finally, after many calls, I find a local Batmobile fan who knows the lore. "The car you drove was used in the 2003 TV movie Return to the Batcave," says the aficionado, who wishes to remain unidentified. "Barris had it built around early 2000 for about $65,000 [Dh239,000]. It's a decent Batmobile, but not a top-notch car. And it's definitely not one of the four true Barris Batmobiles from 1966."

Holy switcheroo! The master showman has done it again. I've fallen for the stretchers. I've been Barris-ed!

As I think about it, though, I can only smile. I've sat in the real Batmobile, driven a copy, incited an impromptu Los Angeles carnivale, and spent a full day with the world-renowned PT Barnum of the movie-car scene. So what if I got punked? When you're hanging out with the King of the Kustomizers, anything less just wouldn't be original.