George Barris (real surname Salapatas) b. Nov. 20, 1925 - d. Nov. 5, 2015
was born in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois on November 20, 1925 to
James and Fanicia (Barakaris) Salapatas, two first generation Greek
immigrants. After their
mother died in 1928, he and his brother George moved to Roseville,
California where they were adopted by John and Edith Barkaris (aka
Barria, Barris) an aunt and uncle on their mother's side of the family.
They also adopted their surname, Barkaris, which was later shortened to
Barris. They both were excellent students especially in drama,
music and drawing. George pursued a passion for building scratch-built
aircraft models which led to model cars. He won competitions for
construction and design.
brothers interest in cars intensified during their teenage years as
they discovered "the black art" of body work by hanging out after
school at local bodyshops, including Brown's and Bertolucci's in
Sacramento. George created his first full custom from a used 1936 Ford
convertible before he graduated from High School. This automobile lead
to their first commercial customer. Shortly after George formed a club
called Kustoms Car Club where the first use of "K" for kustoms
Sam Barris (real surname Salapatas)
Sam J. Barris (Salapatas) was born on October 6, 1924 in Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, to James and Fanicia (Barakaris) Salapatas, two first generation Greek immigrants. After their mother died in 1928, he and his brother George moved to Roseville, California where they were adopted by John and Edith Barkaris (aka Barria, Barris) an aunt and uncle on their mother's side of the family. They also adopted their surname, Barkaris, which was later shortened to Barris.
Sam grew up in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento. He joined his brother
in Los Angeles immediately after his service in World War II and they
began what we now know as the birth of the custom car industry.
THE BARRIS STORY
By Spencer Murray, HOP UP, May, 1953 issue
REMEMBER the old riddle, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Well, they've given it a new twist lately and now it goes something like this:
"Which Like "chicken" and "egg" so have "Barris and "Custom" come to be synonymous. There was once a time, though, when this was not necessarily true. Come along with us to the Barris Kustom Shop in Lynwood, Calif., and let's find out from the Barris brothers themselves when, where, and how it all started.
Upon we sneaked by the "No Visitors" sign and inquired as to the whereabouts of George. In answer to our question, an underling pointed a grimy finger in tile general direction of a thoroughly gutted 1952 Oldsmobile. At first glance we could see no one near the car, but sounds of hammering from deep within told us that somebody was, indeed, inside. Peering into the depths we saw George pounding away at the floor and body braces of the car, evidently in the middle of a channeling job. Excusing ourselves for the interruption, we told him what we were after.
George crawled out of the car, brushed himself off, and called his brother Sam over to help out with the details.
We all made ourselves as comfortable as possible, sprawled out on the fenders and hood of the Olds, and the conversation gradually drifted back through the years.
Samuel Barns first saw the light of day 'way back in 1924 in Chicago, Ill. His beaming father was a very proud man when he first saw his new son and he must have hoped that the boy would follow in his footsteps and the footsteps of generations before him, that of being a restaurant owner, a highly respected profession.
He no doubt had the same hopes when, in 1926, a second son came along and, borrowing the name from an uncle, called this one George. The brothers spent the first several years of their lives in the windy city but, in 1929, the family pulled up stakes and moved westward settling, eventually, in Roseville, Calif., the heart of the Sacramento Valley.
The eastern family enjoyed the California way of living and the two little boys played happily in the year 'round sunshine. When they had lived in their new home for nearly a year Sam started to school in Roseville and within another year his younger brother followed him.
To add a little variety to the usual daily chores, of going to school and playing, Father used to take Sam and George for drives through the scenic country. The boys enjoyed this immensely, especially when, one day, they found that a car could be a plaything rather than strictly a mode of conveyance. 'By pulling or pushing various levers and switches that projected from the dashboard of the old Stutz sedan, they found that the car could be made to go faster, to slow down, to stop altogether, or just backfire and shudder uncontrollably. All of this was, of course, to the great harassment of their father who could not both steer the car and reset all of the levers into their proper positions
Even though many years have passed 'since these events took plate, Sam recalls quite vividly one particular incident. Their mother was driving the car at the time while George sat in the middle of the seat and Sam was on the opposite side next to the door. Little George contented himself by watching what country side he could see from his position in the big car but Sam resorted to playing with the knobs on the door. The inevitable happened and the first thing Sam knew he had pulled the latch. The door flew open (hinged in the back as they were in those days) and he went with it. Fortunately, he saved himself by hanging onto the door but Mother did not take the situation quite so calmly. She got quite flustered, as mothers will do, and before she could halt the big car it had halted itself, against a brick wall.
Time has blotted from Sam's mind the moments immediately following, but George remembers that the shock of hitting the wall would have demolished a present-day car, but the reliable old Stutz suffered only a few minor scratches.
After this episode, their parents put the boys, much to their disdain, in the back seat safely out of reach of the controls. It wasn't until after this arrangement was made that the Sunday drives, could be continued.
During the next few years the brothers showed nothing more than a normal interest in cars. When George was eight, however, he began building model airplanes and when he had become quite good at this, considering his age, he switched over to model cars. He became so adept at his hobby that he eventually won several model building contests, taking home prizes for both construction and design.
In school, George and Sam began to show a great interest in the fine arts so they were encouraged by their family along these lines. The lower grades in school did not offer too much in the way of music or drama so they began taking special classes after regular hours and on Saturdays. This interest undoubtedly stemmed from their being of Greek descent for this nationality was world famous for its sculpturing, painting, music, and drama. George, in particular, took music lessons by the dozens and to this very day whenever he sits down at a piano or takes up a saxophone, his audience can expect a fine bit of music to issue forth.
Sam also showed great promise in the way of music, even going so far as taking voice lessons. Instead of taking on model building, as did his brother, he went out for athletics. He could run, jump, and swim nearly as well as boys twice his age.
When the boys went on to high school they decided that it-was better to ride than walk so they pooled their resources and bought a dilapidated 1925 Buick. George tried his hand at straightening up the mangled fenders while Sam took up a brush and proceeded to paint the car . . . orange and blue with diagonal stripes of various colors, no less. And so had the Barris brothers "worked over" the first of the thousands of cars that they were destined to.
While George was spending a great deal of his spare time in, and under, the car, Sam was busy setting athletic records. A few of the records have stood through the years. He still holds the San Juan High School track record for the 1/4 mile sprint and for the 100 yard dash.
About this time the boys' training in the arts reached even greater proportions. Their singing, in particular, won them acclaim at many of the local theatres. That the brothers should have so little regard for the restaurant profession grieved their parents. The theatre, they said, was no place for respectable children but when the singing voices of their boys came to them over their radio one evening they decided that it might not be such a bad idea after all.
What with going to and from school, to and from their music lessons after school, and going back and forth to the various theatres, the boys had soon run the last bit of use out of the old Buick so they invested in a more recent Ford, vintage 1929, that is.
It too went through the straightening up process and, like its predecessor, received a paint job. This time the boys decided on a more sedate color. They sprayed it black, using a portable paint outfit. The "A" was then outfitted with six aerials (the car had no radio), dozens of lights of all descriptions, fake supercharger pipes, winged ornaments, and foxtails ... a far cry from the Barris cars of today.
George's interest in cars, as objects of art, began to mount. He believed that even the latest styles could be improved upon so he began spending all of whatever spare time he could find at a small local body and fender shop. He watched quietly, at first, the way the men did metal work then, as .his wonderment climbed, he . began asking questions. Fortunately, the owner put up with George and his endless questions and even went so far as to let. him do a little welding. The owner of the shop even i let George "set in" the license plate of a '36 Ford and was quite surprised at the fine job he did, even if George did run into a lot of trouble.
George knew, after the first custom job, that restyling automobiles was the thing for him.
The next step up the ladder placed him in the backyard shop of Harry Westergard, a true pioneer re-stylist. George began helping Harry whenever time would permit. He carefully followed the instructions of his new friend who eventually taught him such necessary formalities as "layout" and "paneling". These self-explanatory terms may sound foreign to a straight body and fender man, but a working knowledge of them is it must in the eyes of a re-stylist.
Doing these odd jobs at Westergard's shop brought in a little extra money so George bought a '36 Ford coupe . . . the first car in which he had sole interest.
Interest in his various studies was still foremost, however, and George began studying harder than ever. In addition to the courses already mentioned he took up shop work, mechanical drawing, designing, and an additional course including singing and orchestration.
Between the staggering amount of school work and working with Westergard, George managed, somehow, find time to work on his '36 Ford. Over a period of time he set in rear license plate, altered the tail lights, lowered the car and add skirts and ripple discs, changed grill, removed all exterior handles, push buttoned the doors and deck, and finished off the job with a super lacquer paint job. Certainly not much by today's standards, but true pioneering back in 1941.
George had started at Sacramento College by this time but he knew for sure what his true calling was. He had tried to take a course in design but the college curriculum did not offer this. He finally settled, halfheartedly, on a commercial course.
By the time he had completed his first year at college, World War was well under way. Sam had joined the Navy earlier in 1942, 50 George felt that it was his duty to follow.
After many lengthy sessions with Army and Navy doctors, George was finally turned down by the services, he turned to the Merchant Marine. He was subsequently told to go to Los Angeles and await assignment, to a ship. Bidding his parents farewell, George packed his belongings, including what body tools he had managed to accumulate, and headed southward in a newly purchased '36 Ford convertible. This second car in a long list of '36 Fords had been traded for the coupe a few months earlier. As George put it, ‘Coupes are 0.K. but convertibles are much better.’
While awaiting assignment to ship, George started hacking away his convertible. Before he knew it, the little Ford had received a thorough ‘Barris treatment’ and what friends as he had been able to accumulate in this strange city lauded him on the fine job. Such things as push button doors and deck lids were practically unknown, so George's friends urged him to stay and do body work if he could arrange it.
Time went along and still no ship so George got a job in a body and fender shop. This didn't last long however. The foreman demanded he straighten fenders but George wanted to chop or channel something. . . anything would do.
One thing led to another and eventually George wound up as a foreman in a small custom shop on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He had settled down to custom work for good (or so he hoped). All of the hundreds, of hard hours spent studying the fine arts had come a cropper!
Late in 1945 Sam was discharge from the Navy and he returned to civilian life. His first project, after visiting the folks who still lived in the Sacramento valley, was hunt up his brother and find out what he was up to.
Sam found George, alright, hammering away for all he was worth. George took one look at his long lost brother and called a halt for the remainder of the day.
At dinner that night they talked over old times and the fun they used to have. The conversation wandered back to the old '25 Buick and they laughed when they remembered the work they had done to it. Suddenly George said, "Hey, man, I've got an idea. Let's go into the custom business together!" Sam reminded him that he had had no experience as either a body man or as a painter excepting, of course, such work as he had done on the old Buick.
Undaunted, George set to work teaching Sam the trade and within a few weeks he decided that his older brother would pass, ina pinch, for a body man. They pooled their resources (as they had once before) and rented a small shop on Imperial Avenue in Los Angeles. The year was 1946 and for the first few months the new enterprise struggled in the bonds of infancy. Soon, though, Sam became as proficient at body work as his younger brother and business began to pick up. Additional recognition came when a car that Barris Kustoms had entered in the first custom show in the L. A. area walked off with top honors.
The first shop soon became too small for the increase in business, so headquarters were moved to a new, larger location on Compton Ave., also in L.A. Cars continued to roll out of the Barns mill in an endless stream and, like the proverbial snowball, recognition grew larger. The wide distribution of the automotive magazines, which featured at one time or another Barris-built cars, caused the name to become known throughout the country. Customers began bringing cars in from the middle west and the east. The Compton Ave. shop that had seemed so large in the beginning, now proved to be too small to house all of the cars that customers brought there so, once again, a move to more expansive quarters was undertaken. A larger shop was eventually located at 11054 S. Atlantic Blvd., in Lynwood, and the move was made.
Not only did the physical size of the shop have to be increased, the staff had to be expanded also. As is the case nearly everywhere, body men were plentiful in the area. There is, though, a difference between a run-of-the-mill body man and a top-notch re-stylist. The main trouble the Barris’ have with their metal men is that once they learn the Barris style they go off and start a business of their own. A few of these have actual risen to become competitors.
Meanwhile, cars continued to arrive at the shop. They came from Ohio, Texas, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois. Jobs ranged from a simple hood filling to the ‘completes’.
Methods and styles have changed through the years but nearly every job that the shop has turned out has been distinctively Barris. A few of the outstanding cars from different ‘eras’ are shown in the photographs accompanying this article.
George is the more aggressive of the two and is the motivating force behind the movement. Sam is the quiet type and lives in his own home with his wife and two children. Sam's chief ambition, outside of his insatiable desire to build the perfect car, is to become a member of the Los Angeles police force. About a year and a half ago Sam joined the force and for fifteen months he pounded a beat in and around the Lynwood area. This business of pounding metal all day and walking for half the night proved to be too much of a chore for even so rugged an individual as Sam so he had to drop the latter. He hopes, though, to be able to return to the force some day and he has set his sights on the investigation division.
When the influx of European styling began entering the American scene, George decided to go abroad and see just what was behind it all. In the latter part of August 1951, George set sail for Italy and subsequently toured that country and also took in parts of Germany and France. His chief objective was to study the styling trends but he also visited several of the European auto shows to see what effect, if any, American cars had on the European public.
In October George returned to this country, his mind crammed full of new designs and ideas. A few of these dreams have found their way into metal but the majority of them remain backed up in his mind, to be carried out when the situation permits.
Barris' customers number into the many hundreds and among them are quite a few notables. Lionel Hampton, Jon Wilson, Liberace, and George Raft are among the better known.
Some of Barns' creations have found their way into movies and television. George is quite at home, by the way, on TV because, no doubt, because of his early experience in the radio game
When we asked George if he was going to alter his 1953 Lincoln Capri he emphatically replied, ‘No’. However, we saw the car a few weeks later and it didn't look stock to us. A good deal of the exterior trim was missing and the car sported a color certainly, not concocted in any factory.
Sam, on the other hand, is the same way. His car, a 1950 Buick Sedanette, is being given a ‘full treatment’. So far as we know, this particular body style has not been chopped successfully . . . until now. Watch for this beauty. HOP UP will feature it when it is completed.
Outside of his interest in cars; George's main hobby is . . . cars! Little ones this time. Ever since the early days when he began building model cars, George has collected little autos of all sizes and shapes. The shop is full of them, his apartment is full of them, in fact everywhere you look you will see them. Some are only an inch or two long while others measure over a foot. Some are exact duplicates of modern cars, some are merely a plastic mold maker's dream, and a few are replicas of antiques. Quite a few are replicas of foreign cars. A few of the toys are electric, a few are of the wind-up type, but the majority are of the ‘push variety’.
What does he do with these toys? He chops them, sections and channels them, lowers and paints them. In fact so skillful has George become in trimming down the plastic cars that many of his ideas are carried over to the full size cars of his customers. The models are painted various colors so that ideas for full scale paint jobs may be worked out.
Such space in the office end of the shop as is not taken up by miniature cars is crammed with trophies of all descriptions. The majority of them are inscribed ‘Barris Kustoms - 1st Place’. They have been presented to the Barrises for outstanding achievement in such fields as design, originality, workmanship, and color rendering. There are nearly a hundred trophies at the shop and many more are at the homes of George and Sam.
What do Barns' folks think about all of this? At many of the auto shows they may be seen describing to interested onlookers how push button doors work, how a particular car was channeled, or why a car was painted some specific color. The original wish of their parents has been forgotten.
As for what the future may hold store, George is looking forward the day when he might become a design consultant or styling engineer. Sam's wish is for the police force and he hopes that the shop might, someday, be listed along with such greats as Derham, Fleetwood, Touring of Italy, Duryea, Bohman and Schwartz and Darrin of Paris.