The Sinatra Mustang by George Barris
How Barris Built a Kustom for “Old Blue Eyes”
Customized cars from various eras provoke an odd range of reactions, everything from wistful nostalgia to biting sarcasm. Then there’s something in between, an amused reflection about times gone by, and how a car characterizes the attitude of an era. For instance, consider the Barris Zebra Mustang, which appeared in the farcical Frank Sinatra romantic comedy, Marriage on the Rocks.

The odd plot, along with Sinatra’s period lingo (indicated in quotes), are right in tune with the quizzical styling of the car. While Sinatra the singer was the “living end,” the movie was “Endsville,” revolving around a love triangle and a married couple, Dan and Valerie Edwards (Frank Sinatra and Deborah Kerr, better known for playing opposite Yul Brynner in The King and I). Seeking to put the “wow-ee wow wow” back in their relationship, they take a second honeymoon in Mexico, where a shyster lawyer (Cesar Romero, who played The Joker in the Batman TV series) gets them divorced without their full knowledge.

While attempting to renew their vows, Dan’s roguish friend Ernie Brewer (Dean Martin), accidentally marries her instead, since he doesn’t speak Spanish and can’t figure out the meaning of the ceremony. Martin’s devil-may-care character is about the only bright spot in the film, besides the Barris Mustang. Some might feel that’s not saying much, but we found this wacky car (now stored in the vault of the Petersen Automotive Museum, after being acquired from a private collection in Anaheim, California), to be curiously compelling, largely for its extensive bodywork and quirky aesthetics. (Wish we could say the same thing about the movie, but we won’t spoil the ending.)

According to the book, Barris Kustoms of the 1960ies (by George Barris and David Fetherston, now out of print), Barris and his project engineer Richard Korkes built the car by extending the nose of a ’65 Mustang a full 10 inches. The scalloped and rolled metalwork was hand-formed and gas-welded in 20-gauge sheet steel into a gaping oval, then fitted with an all-aluminum, seven-rib, V-shaped grille and a double set of deeply recessed Cibie headlights. (This dual treatment was actually ahead of its time, as it would be used on later production designs.) The horizontal split between the upper and lower headlights continues around the sides of the front fenders, forming a flared body contour, just below the beltline, that extends past the front wheelwell and angles sharply downward to the rocker panel.

The rear end was completely restyled as well, with a Targa-style roof and removable Landau top (also used on a ’66 Thunderbird that appeared in the movie). The fastback roofline slopes down into a pair of mini-fins protruding from the sides of the tail panel. Body creases starting in front of the lower section of the rear wheels flow into the rear quarters, dividing the upper and lower halves of the pointed fenders. Barris and Korkes fabricated a full-width tail panel, plus a new rolled rear pan, and frenched license plate holder.

Although requiring a fair degree of technical skill, the styling was not to everybody’s taste (even back then), especially the car’s signature finish: fake Zebra fur. Groovy baby! This cloth treatment covered not only the cockpit, but also the roof, rear deck and coved side panels, all trimmed with chrome molding. (Clearly this was only a fair-weather ride.)

The body had a two-tone color scheme, pearl white with a satin-black rear decklid underneath the Zebra skin. It featured also some Pearl red fadeaways around the body moldings.

To use Sinatra’s terms, a “player” who likes to “swing” would fit right in with the gamey cockpit, with its liquor-bottle sized cupholders (unusual for the time) and calliope plastic-tube speaker covers. Just the thing when you’re headed to a “clam bake” (party) to enjoy a few shots of “gasoline” (Jack Daniels, Frank’s favorite drink). A small-screen black-and-white TV graces the dash, also unusual for its day, long before LCD monitors came into vogue. This must have been a groovy ride for going out on the town with a ring-a-ding “barn burner” (a very stylish, classy woman).

For going “scramsville” a 289 Ford V8 purrs under that elongated hood (though the radiator was prone to overheating during our photo shoot). In the movie, Nancy Sinatra twirled the Rally-style, smallish steering wheel in several scenes. We can just imagine the Sinatra-style reaction to her arrival: “You’re platinum, pussycat!”

Of course this customized Mustang was a really strange cat, but it hails from the time of hepcats, when movie cars (and stars) were outlandish, even outrageous. After all, it’s from the hands of George Barris, known for such wild and wacky creations as The Batmobile, Munster Koach, and the Flintstone-mobile.

Not all of them were remarkable or memorable, however. That’s understandable given the sheer volume of cars done by Barris. “It would take me a couple days to count how many cars I’ve done for TV and movies,” he says. “I quit counting after 1,000.” That’s probably not much of an exaggeration, judging from his numerous Autorama and museum displays, and the stacks of Barris-inspired model cars overflowing his office shelves (where we sat down with him for a fascinating interview).

Though widely known for his movie and TV cars, Barris actually got his start by customizing cars in Sacramento, California, back in the ’40s. His first mildly modified car was a 1925 Buick. “We had no tools, we were like cavemen back then,” he recalls. “I put air hammers (for repairing dents) on a stand so I could shape metal with them, and made custom dies so I didn’t have to depend on hand labor.”

Barris went on to craft some of the most legendary and beautiful cars with innovative craftsmanship, chopping tops and sectioning frames to produce flowing, uninterrupted lines. Some of his more noteworthy, high-fashion Kustoms (as he spells the word) have been displayed at the renowned Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, along with a full-scale diorama of customizing workshop outfitted with special tools donated by Barris.

“I put the ‘K’ in Kustom,” he says with a note of pride. “As long as I changed cars, I used a ‘K’. They’re not the same as other customs.”

One of the most famous and beautiful on display is the Hirohata Merc, a hybrid design incorporating parts from several other cars. After it appeared in the 1955 movie, Running Wild, the Hirohata Merc became the calling card Barris needed to take the quantum leap into becoming the premier “kustom” house in America. One of his most famous kustoms, the “Ala Kart” (based on a ’29 Ford) was the only car ever to win the prestigious Oakland Roadster Show two years in a row.

How did Barris move from kustoms to character cars for TV and movies? “It all started when Hollywood was wild about hot rods,” he recalls. “The film industry liked them because they were wild and adventurous, and helped sell tickets. So we began making hot rods for movies in the ’50s.” The cars were actually of a higher caliber than the quality of the films, and appeared in such campy classics as High School Confidential and Hot Rod Rumble. (And Marriage on the Rocks, too, of course.) More recent movie cars include the ’67 GTO driven by Vin Diesel in Triple X, and the ’70 Dodge Charger from The Fast and the Furious.

He even revisited the Batmobile, the vehicle he’s probably best known for, in a TV movie Return to the Batcave. The plot revolved around the theft of the car from the Petersen Automotive Museum. In addition to original Batman castmembers such as Adam West, Burt Ward, and Frank Gorshin, Barris played a role as well. After he turns out to be the thief, Robin exclaims, “Holy star cars, Batman­—it’s George Barris, the King of Kustoms!”

And all we can add to that is one other tagline from Sinatra: “Go Baby Go!”