Custom car builder George Barris returns to the Culver City Car Show with his Munster Koach and DRAG-U-LA
By Michael Aushenker
You may not know his name, but you’ve seen his rides.
A pioneer of Southern California’s custom car industry, George Barris took the mid-century hot rod ethos to Hollywood as creator of TV’s original Batmobile, Jed Clampett’s jalopy in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and, among others, the two cars featured in “The Munsters.”
Made from three chopped Ford Model T bodies and a Ford Cobra engine, the 18-foot-long Munster Koach shuttled Herman, Lily, Eddie and Marilyn throughout the satirical mid-1960s TV sitcom. In helmet, goggles and scarf, Grandpa (that old bat) commanded Barris’ DRAG-U-LA, a coffin-body V-8 dragstrip racer.
On Saturday, Barris brings the Munster Koach and DRAG-U-LA back into public view for the 12th annual Culver City Car Show.
The free-to-attend cruising culture nostalgia event shuts down Culver and Washington boulevards from the Kirk Douglas Theatre to the Culver Hotel, showcasing nearly 500 vintage or custom automobiles and 80 vendors for an anticipated crowd of more than 15,000 people — gearheads and Sunday drivers alike.
This year’s car show and competition celebrates roughly 50 years since the birth of “The Munsters” with celebrity grand marshal Butch Patrick, who played wolf-boy Eddie Munster in the 1964-to-1966 television series.
“The Munsters were America’s macabre version of ‘Leave It to Beaver,’” said car show co-organizer John Cohn, a member of the Exchange Club of Culver City.
A fundraiser that benefits local youth programs and the club’s scholarship fund, the event also features live surf and rockabilly music and singer Lynda Kay — “Patsy Kline for the New Millennium,” Cohn says — and a reboot of its annual throwback fashion show in keeping with the Munsters theme.
Does that mean sexy Lily Munsters?
“One could hope!” Cohn said with a laugh. “I’m not a car guy, but I love these car shows because you really see a cross-section of humanity.”
Barris, now 89, left small-town Northern California as soon as he turned 18 to join the nascent post-war hot rod culture in Los Angeles. Culver City, particularly Washington and Venice boulevards, was a hotspot for cruising and pink-slip racing in the late 1940s and the 1950s.
“Culver City is like my home. That’s where we really created street racing,” said Barris, who participates in the Culver City Car Show year after year even though his Barris Kustoms shop is in North Hollywood.
Culver City is also where Adam West learned to drive Barris’ Batmobile for the beloved 1966-to-1968 television series.
“Our first test drive was on Sepulveda [heading north],” Barris recalled. “Adam West was the best. He was kind to everybody.”
For the Batmobile, Barris had only about two weeks to trick out a 1955 Lincoln Futura convertible concept car shipped over from Italy. He recalls blowing through a lot of conceptual drawings as Team Barris worked to chop and elongate the car while adding its iconic finishing touches.
Those included the world’s first and most famous car phone — the Batphone — as well as the Batchutes, functional race-bar parachutes that shot out the back to help stop the car.
Barris recounted how he and his men were busted by the California Highway Patrol while freeway-testing the Batchutes.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute! This is the Batmobile! We’re trying to stop the Riddler!’ to which the officers responded, ‘Oh, yeah! We heard it all!’”
Also legit were the rear exhaust flames, an effect achieved by cans that sprayed flammable liquid that was ignited as it came through the pipes.
“We were always scared we would burn the car,” Barris said, chuckling.
For obvious reasons, Team Barris remained on set — “RTG: ready to go,” he says — throughout the show’s two seasons, allowing Barris to bond with cast members, including recurring Batman villains Frank Gorshin (The Riddler) and Burgess Meredith (The Penguin).
His Munster Koach was an earlier challenge that Barris also reveled in.
“There was never a six-door Model T,” said Barris who had to cut the front floor down to the chassis in order to accommodate Fred Gwynne — 6’5” and wearing platform boots — as the oversized Herman Munster. Then the question was “Where are we gonna put Eddie? … Let’s put a chair on top! Let’s give him a baby to play with,’” remembered Barris, holding a replica of Eddie’s werewolf doll, Wolfie.
During the same period as “The Munsters” and “Batman,” Barris created the clan-packed crackpot car seen in those famous opening titles for “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
He continued doing specialty custom jobs throughout, and later Hollywood work included the eponymous star of “The Car,” a 1977 horror film featuring James Brolin about a possessed 1971 black Lincoln Continental Mark III. In just six weeks, Team Barris created four versions to stand in as the film’s evil automobile: one for close-ups; three destroyed in the course of the stunt work.
Barris married his wife, Shirley, in 1958. After her death in 2001, daughter Joji Barris-Paster and son Brett Barris stepped up to help run the family business.
“She was really the force behind him,” Barris-Paster said of her late mother. “They were a team. They rocked it!”
About to turn 90 in November, Barris still enjoys attending car conventions all over North America and beyond. A few years ago, his original Batmobile was on display at San Diego Comic-Con alongside every Batmobile ever built for TV and cinema, including the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan models. He’s off to a big car show in Australia in a few weeks.
“These cars have taken me all over the world. Still do!” he said.
The 12th annual Culver City Car Show runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday along Washington and Culver boulevards in downtown Culver City. Barris sets up near the intersection of Culver and Main Street. No admission fee for spectators. For more information, visit culvercitycarshow.com