Kar Kulture

By the 1950’s the wild world of teens had something new to live for: “You are what you drive.”  This idea served as the soil that would soon grow to be the mantra of the 1950’s youth.

Teens soon dreamt of souping up their cars, and adding décor for appeal.  Being cool was always the goal.   Just as neighbor’s strive to “keep up with the Jones’s” teens longed to be in the loop.  Teens embodied coolness through expressing themselves with the new styles of clothing, music, and cars.  The adults watched teens pour their imaginations into reconstructing their cars into a unique customs, and they were quite impressed.

All Pictures courtesy of Kustorama:  (http://www.kustomrama.com/index.php?title=Barris_Kustoms) a website dedicated to showcasing traditional Hot Rods and Kustoms

The respect from the elderly filled the teenage airwith pride, which was demonstrated with the cruise.  The youth joyously cruised through out town streets making sure the world could see their fresh, fashionable, and fast automobiles.

Suddenly custom cars seem to be a necessary addition to the teen subculture, and this is largely due to George Barris.  Barris began altering cars in the 1940’s where he spent a majority of his time rebuilding and reinventing cars to embody culture.  This interest was sparked when he received a 1925 Buick in need of repair. By 1929 this car was decked out with accessories, and lit up with a sparkling new paint job.

Barris sold the car, and his talents were immediately recognized by many people.  The film industry was frothing at the mouth requesting that Barris make customs for their next hit movie, while the founder of Hot Rod magazine was planning to feature Barris style cars, an interview, and a “How to create your own custom” in the next issue.

Barris moved to L.A where he opened Barris Brother’s Kustom Shop. Barris used the K’s to replace the C’s to be flashy and catch the youngsters attention, and indeed he did.  The results were just what he was hoping for, everyone at the time referred to their cars as “Kustoms”.  The Los Angeles teen automobile scene was at full swing, and Barris landed himself in the heart of it all.  

Barris began as a “hot rodder” and then transitioned into his specialty of “kustom culture”.  Hot Rods are mainly built from pre-1936 cars, stripped down, and souped up for speed.  On the other hand Customs differ in production; they are made from post 1936 cars, modified, individualized.  The creation of customs involved imagination and integrated the idea of art to produce a unique and expressive car.

Tom Wolfe, a well renowned American novelist: wrote The Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, which explores the world of custom cars.  In this piece Wolfe focuses on the inventor himself: Barris.  


Wolfe speaks of going to a car show named Teen Fair.  At this show the teens were all dressed in similar style wearing the same hairdos while dancing happily to music.  In the midst of the party scene teens were seen showing off their custom cars and admiring others.

The car show is car show extremely interesting; a large group of adolescence had congregated at a location in order to exchange interests in cars.  Teens were obsessed with the world of cars, as they were able to express themselves by reinventing and customizing their cars.  Wolfe see’s this as a true is example of the creation of a sub-culture within the teens.

It is believed that the teen car subculture was greatly defined by the “cruise”.  Teens would show off their latest addition or modification to their cars by cruising around town on the weekends.  Some kids took a great interest in drag racing, and when the light flipped green cars were wildly speeding leaving behind the smell of burnt rubber.

Reinventing cars opened many gates to numerous activities, such as cruising, racing, drive in’s, rumbles, and dating.  It allowed teens to gather and share similar interests whether it be the new chrome they added to the side door, or accessory that aided in winning drag races.

There was a sense of freedom within the youth car culture at the time couldn’t quite be pin pointed.  But Barris believed that the sense of freedom was present because of everything that custom culture stood for, “Kustom Kulture is free art”.

The emergence of Kustom Kulture created free art; it allowed people to chop off the hardtop of your car, lower your car, strip the chrome, paint it wild colors, it gave people the ability to express themselves.

–       Halli Bair

Revised (4/20/15)



Barris, George. Barris Kustom. January 1, 2013. http://www.barris.com/carsgallery/kustomshotrods/cars-kustomshotrods.php.

Bernard, Jessie. Teenage Culture: An Overview 338 (1961): 12. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1034661.

 Dewitt, Jack. Cars and Culture: The Hirohata Merc – So Cool 38, no. 5 (2009): 3. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20684326.

Dewitt, Jack. Cars and Culture: The Cars of “American Graffiti” 39, no. 5 (2010): 5. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20800191.

Wolfe, Tom. The Kandy-kolored Tangerine-flake Streamline Baby. New York, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1960.




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