Back in the late 1940s a body-and-fender man named George Bands began making himself into a folk hero for the Southern California teen car culture by chopping and channeling Detroit iron into sleek kandy-kolored bombs. About the same time in Houston, a motorcycle dealer named Horace Watson adapted a three-wheeled Cushman utility cart into a vehicle for golfers. It was something of a monstrosity, in which three men sat abreast in front and a fourth sat in back and steered. Still, it was better than the jeeps that were de rigueur on some Texas golf courses of the period.
In time the two became leaders in their fields—Barris as a car customizer extraordinaire (the Munsters' TV jalopy and a hot-rod brass bed) and hero of a Tom Wolfe book, Cushman as the leading maker of golf carts, now the biggest money-maker on U.S. golf courses. It was almost inevitable the twain should meet, and the man who brought about the marriage was Frank Sinatra. In 1967 the singer asked Barris to embellish one of the Cushman carts to include a rug, TV set, AM-FM radio, bar, special upholstery and deep lollipop-orange paint job.
Since then, golf-cart customizing has been a spirited sideline at Barris' North Hollywood plant. His most ambitious and celebrated effort so far is the ski-nosed job he put together in 1970 for Bob Hope. The $14,000 Hope cart, which featured several luxury appointments in addition to the schnoz, made Barris a hot property around Hollywood. Dean Martin asked for a Barris cart. So did Bing Crosby, who liked his so well he took two. Glen Campbell ordered something called a Good-Time Buggy. Dale Robertson got one shaped like a stagecoach.
Since the Sinatra effort Barris has converted 30 carts for customers willing to pay out the $2,500 to $12,500 his touches add to the original cost of a Cushman chassis (roughly $1,400 to $1,800). The good news is that Barris will now do similar transformations for ordinary folks. You don't have to be a Roger Penske (who got one that resembles an Indy racer) or a Chinn Ho (the Hawaiian millionaire got a built-in bar with his personal crystal service) or a President Nixon ("one of my simpler jobs. Just a fringe on top and a few other things"). All you have to be is fairly affluent.
The carts take Barris from two weeks to two months to build. And, although he will try to accommodate any whim, he says, "I study each person, his tastes, style, personality, special interests—the things he's known for," and builds accordingly. His wife Shirley collaborates on the decor.
Do you have anything in subtle pinstripes and argyle socks, George?