Barris was born in Chicago in 1925 but he moved to Northern California as a child, graduating from San Juan High School in Citrus Heights (near Sacramento).
Barris began building model cars and customizing at an early age. The first car he and his brother Sam (who was later his business partner) made was from a 1925 Buick and in high school he created his first full custom using a 1936 Ford convertible as the base. Barris made a name for himself when he moved to Los Angeles after World War II, launching Barris Kustom Industries with Sam. His first shop was on Compton Avenue but for a long time his shop has been located in North Hollywood.
The popularity of his cars caught the eye of Hollywood, and his first film assignments included work on cars for Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1958’s High School Confidential and 1960’s The Time Machine.
His biggest impact occurred when ABC asked him to create a signature vehicle for Batman. Barris rolled out a Lincoln concept car called the Lincoln Futura that he had kept in storage for about decade and used that as his base, constructing the car in just 15 days.
It was built for $15,000, though Barris purchased the Futura for $1. Barris kept the car in his personal collection and in 2013 sold the car at auction for $4.6 million.
The success of Batman and the Batmobile led to more work, including Mannix, The Beverly Hillbillies, Knight Rider and designing the Munster Koach for The Munsters, among others. He also designed novelty cars or performed customizations for celebrities ranging from Bob Hope to John Wayne to Elton John.
Barris was also a savvy marketer. From early on he traveled the country showing off his custom (or Kustom as he liked to spell it) cars, always being sure to display the Barris name prominently. In the late 1950s, he teamed with toy model company Revell to produce kits of some of his custom cars, which were a huge hit (and a lucrative revenue stream for Barris).
Barris married Shirley Nahas in 1958. They had two children, a daughter Joji and a son Brett. Shirley passed away in 2001. Sam died in 1967. His two children survive him. Complete information on other survivors is not known.