Cars for Stars

George Harris of Barris Kustom Industries next to one of John Wayne’s Station Wagons.

George Harris of Barris Kustom Industries next to one of John Wayne’s Station Wagons.

Hollywood’s leading car customizer — George Barris — devised a smooth drive for The Duke.

Written by Constance Dunn

In November of 2015, George Barris passed away, a few weeks short of his 90th birthday. The affable auto expert was a legend not only in custom car and hot rod circles, but in Tinseltown, too. The Chicago-born Barris set up shop in Los Angeles with brother Sam in 1944, and the two set about creating some of the most legendary dream machines in American entertainment, including the sleek Batmobile — a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car purchased by George for one dollar — and the hulking, gold-on-black Munster Koach seen in 1960’s-era television show The Munsters, which was a conglomeration of three Model Ts.

In 1975, John Wayne visited the “King of the Kustomizers” at his colorful shop on Riverside Drive in North Hollywood with his 1975 Pontiac Grand Safari. “The 1971 to 1976 models were the largest Pontiacs ever built,” Barry Paster points out. (Paster is married to George Barris’s daughter Joji Barris-Paster, and in 2014 — many years after Wayne’s passing — he and fellow auto specialist Lalo Luna were responsible for faithfully restoring the original vehicle.) Despite the station wagon’s impressive size, back in 1975, the 6′4″ tall Wayne still found it lacking. “Mr. Wayne did not want to take his hat off to get into the car,” Paster explains, “so George Barris raised the roof.”


“Mr. Wayne did not want to take his hat off to get into the car, so George Barris raised the roof.”

— Barry Paster

The Grand Safari was one of three cars “kustomized” by Barris at his North Hollywood shop for Wayne, who was looking for practical adjustments to his family-oriented autos. Another of Wayne’s vehicles, a motor home, received a “kustom kolor” job at the spray booth in the Barris shop. Not for Wayne were the fanciful creations created by the Barris brothers; though he probably got a good chuckle when presented with the funky hot rod meets Conestoga wagon Barris created for him in 1971 at the behest of Bob Hope. Named the 1900 Overland Manure Spreader, or B*llsh*t Scraper, the funky vehicle was a birthday present to Wayne from his friend Hope, and is currently housed at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.

John Wayne commissioned Barris Kustom to raise the roof of this 1976 Pontiac Grand Safari Station Wagon, currently on display at the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit. The Station Wagon is on loan courtesy of Alice Johnson-McKinney. Photo courtesy of Amy Lipson.

John Wayne commissioned Barris Kustom to raise the roof of this 1976 Pontiac Grand Safari Station Wagon, currently on display at the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit. The Station Wagon is on loan courtesy of Alice Johnson-McKinney. Photo courtesy of Amy Lipson.

“This was Mr. Wayne’s daily driver and one of the last cars he touched,” notes Paster of the Grand Safari. Nearly 40 years later, Paster would welcome the vehicle back to the Barris shop for a comprehensive, frame-on restoration. Refreshing the station wagon meant, among other tasks, rebuilding the original engine and transmission, and restoring the Grand Safari’s original paint, glass and top. The original interior was removed and subsequently reinstalled, and the carpet was replaced new.

Six years after the passing of George Barris, the Barris legacy continues on. After 60-plus years in North Hollywood the legendary Barris shop is for sale, and will relocate to Ventura for its next chapter. Daughter Joji Barris-Paster and the Barris family keep the memory of George and Sam alive by showcasing the story of Barris Kustom Industries, starting with a 1925 Buick their parents asked them to repair. (The Buick ended up with a revamped body, vibrantly painted orange with blue stripes.) The family also continues to exhibit the Barris’ many show-stopping “kreations” — the result of the deft mechanical skills the brothers honed over a lifetime, along with their wild creativity and charge-ahead individualism. Theirs is a colorful American story, with their works a delight to those who drove them, or watched them on the big and small screens.

Photographs courtesy of Barris Kustom Industries (except where noted)