I suspect that I'm not alone in saying that one of my favourite films is American Graffiti – it has everything. The nostalgia of youth through the rose tinted way we tend to look at the 1950's and early 60's bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Add to that the romance of the American craze of street racing and customised cars and you have a winner.
But what of customising? Why do we do it? I've just been reading about George Barris, the guy that created the customised car that was used in the series Batman in the 1960's, you know the one, Adam West, Burt Ward – Boy Wonder: My Life In Tights..
George Barris is happy to be known as the “king of the kustomizers” and has been obsessed with tricking out cars since the 1940's. I can imagine that he looks on the current crop of vintage customised Chevrolets appearing at shows both in the UK and USA with some surprise and amusement – not to mention nostalgia.
George got started when he and his brother Sam were given a 1925 Buick which they set to work on and then managed to sell for a profit. After moving to Los Angeles, he became involved in the shady world of illegal street racing which has fuelled so much of our romantic perceptions of American wild youth through movies. Just the mention of those words inspire adrenaline-rushed thoughts of films like “Grease”, “The Fast and the Furious” and “Rebel Without A Cause”.
Customising falls into many brackets, those that want to improve the safety of their vehicle, those that want to make the car a head turner, and those that want to go faster. Sometimes all of them.
George's customised Batmobile was in reality a Lincoln Futura Show Car, which was owned by Barris and uniquely customised by his team. The Lincoln's original lines were said to have been based on the rather beautiful manta ray and the Mako Shark, and thanks to George and Bill Cushenberry, who was brought in to do the metal work, the Lincoln became the Batmobile in just three weeks. Shrewdly, Barris remained the owner of this classic and leased it back to 20th Century Fox for the series. It is now estimated to be worth around $2 million.
Like many TV cars, much of what you see is illusion. Just as Starsky & Hutch's tomato red Ford Gran Torino was apparently a bit of a nightmare to handle, the Batmobile suffered from overheating, a constantly draining battery and tyres that kept blowing, resulting in the engine and transmission eventually being replaced by a donor Ford Galaxie.
Barris also built three replicas based on the Galaxie, two fibreglass models for show and another for exhibition drag racing. Last October, DC Comics authorised a company called Fibreglass Freaks to build official 1966 Batmobile replicas. A recent auction pulled in an amazing $216,000 for one of these replica automobiles. If you fancy owning one of these replica auto's, I'm sure Performance Direct will be able to sort out your modified car insurance.
Pleasingly, the original Lincoln Batmobile is still owned by Barris and can be seen on show at Barris Customs in Hollywood, California. For a series that only ran from 1966-68, the impact the car has had on several generations of kids growing up is quite something. I take my mask off to George.
To quote American Graffiti: "I ain't goin' off to some god-damned fancy college. I'm staying right here. Havin' fun as usual.."