How George Barris turned $1 in to $4.2 million

How George Barris turned $1 in to $4.2 million

Famed custom car builder hit the jackpot with the 1966 Batmobile

By Ellsworth Dickson

Anyone interested in hot rods and custom cars will be familiar with George Barris and his wild automotive creations.

Besides customizing cars for anyone that could afford it – from budget conscious average people to the seriously elite such as Elvis Presley and Elton John, Barris is best known for his many one-off creations that pushed the envelope of automotive design with a good dollop of the hot rod sub-culture thrown in.

Many will be familiar with his special cars for television shows that included The Monkees (Monkeemobile), Beverly Hillbillies (jalopy) and Knight Rider (Kit), to name a few.

I was fortunate enough to meet Barris in the fall of 2014 when he was a celebrity guest at the hot rod and custom car show at the Tradex Centre in Abbotsford, British Columbia. He was standing by his Fireball 500 race car he had built from a 1965 Plymouth Barracuda that was used for an old Frankie Avalon film. We had an interesting conversation and he told me a few tales. George Barris passed away last November; he was 89.

Bat Mobile. Special Presentation of Cars Used in Movie's and Television. Friday, May 30th, 2003 in New York. Photo by Jennifer Graylock
Bat Mobile. Special Presentation of Cars Used in Movie’s and Television. Friday, May 30th, 2003 in New York.
Photo by Jennifer Graylock

Perhaps the most famous Barris car is the 1966 Batmobile – a marvelous story with a gold-plated ending. One day in 1965 Barris got a call in his North Hollywood, California shop from ABC Television. They were about to produce the new Batman TV series and needed a Batmobile in three weeks. The network was willing to pay $15,000 but there was a catch. The car had to have a working jet engine and two parachutes that also worked. Since these bizarre features would be filmed, the car would be rejected if they didn’t work.

Barris said he was interested and promised that he would come up with some sketches. Looking around his shop he spied an old concept car gathering dust in the back lot. This was the Lincoln Futura that was built for $250,000 – today about $2.2 million. After making the rounds at car shows displaying new ideas, concept cars were often scrapped. However, in this case Barris saved the car by buying it from Ford for $1.

Even though it was over 10 years old, the Futura, hand built in Turin, Italy, was already futuristic looking. Barris realized it just needed to be customized to suit Batman and Robin, the Wonder Boy. He made some sketches and got the go-ahead. And so, with the help of some colleagues, the Batmobile was born – complete with the Batscope on the dash, reverse thrust rockets below the headlights and small rockets in tubes that could be fired at criminals. Then, of course there was the Bat-Ray Projector mechanism that shone the Batman logo on clouds.

George Barris at the 64th Grand National Roadster Show in Los Angeles, Jan 25, 2013 Photo by: Scalhotrod
George Barris at the 64th Grand National Roadster Show in Los Angeles, Jan 25, 2013
Photo by: Scalhotrod

But what to do about a jet engine? Barris didn’t know anything about jet engines and then there was the three-week deadline, so he installed kerosene spray nozzles in a metal tube facing backward with a fan that he hoped would shoot flames out the rear. He then mounted two 10-foot diameter parachutes on the back of the car near the lawn sprinklers that spewed oil on the road to fend off bad guys.

Barris figured he needed a road test to make sure everything was operational. With the shop in North Hollywood, obviously, the Hollywood Freeway would be the ideal place for a road test so he fired up the Batmobile and drove down to the Freeway entrance. With its huge 468 cubic inch Lincoln engine, the car raced down the highway. Then Barris fired up the jet engine and five-foot flames shot out the rear. He then shut it off and pulled the parachute lever. Two huge white chutes ballooned out over the road.

Unfortunately, all this was carried out in front of a police car at the side of the freeway and the officer tore after Barris. The law was not happy. Since the car was never titled, it could not be insured. Fortunately, Barris got through these problems and successfully delivered the car to ABC TV who then asked for four more.

There being only one Lincoln Futura, Barris cleverly made four fiberglass replicas. The key point here is that Barris leased the Batmobile to ABC TV and retained ownership. The Batmobile became one of the most famous cars in the world and, after the series finished its run, it became a hit at car shows around North America.

Barris kept the Batmobile for some 47 years and finally auctioned it off in 2103 at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction in Arizona for $4.2 million. Now that’s a serious capital gain. The Fireball 500 car sold for a measly $137,500 in 2015.

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