What does a black-sheep Mustang share with the Monkeemobile?
Often when I’m photographing a car at a major auto show, I’ll overhear someone say something completely inaccurate about that particular model. When the show in question is in the Detroit area, such off-the-cuff claims are rather risky. One might find oneself spouting nonsense next to someone who had a hand in building that car—who worked on the assembly line that produced it or who ran the company that sold it. (Bob Lutz, who lives in nearby Ann Arbor, sometimes shows his cars at Detroit-area events.)
If, when admiring George Conrad’s highly customized 1978 Mustang II at the 2023 Detroit Autorama, you offered a snarky comment about that infamous pony car, the guy who designed it probably heard you.
Conrad’s “King Coyote” was my sentimental favorite to win Autorama’s top prize this year. Officially, this most coveted award in custom-car building is the Don Ridler Memorial Award, but most refer to it simply as “the Ridler.” It is, as fellow Hagerty writer Aaron Robinson put it, the Nobel Prize of hot-rodding.
I’m not an astrology enthusiast, but while I was running around the floor of Huntington Place (the former Cobo Hall) trying to locate all of the “Great Eight” Ridler finalists, some planetary bodies must have aligned. Who should I find admiring the custom Mustang II? None other than Buck Mook, who was responsible for the exterior styling the three-door fastback Mustang II—the factory version.
The car’s owner, George Conrad, invited Buck into the display, where they went over the fine points of King Coyote for quite some time. You could tell that Conrad was really jazzed to talk with one of his car’s original creators and very pleased that Mook appreciated and admired his work.
While all that seems rather normal for a Detroit car show, I’m not sure introductions like that ever happen at car shows in other cities.
Conrad’s Mustang II wasn’t the only car on the Autorama floor with which Mook had a connection, either. Among the special displays at this year’s Autorama were a collection of George Barris cars, including the Munsters Koach (signed by all the cast members), Drag-u-la, and the Batmobile from the ’60s television show. All of the Barris cars were also signed by George himself, who undoubtedly liked to put his name on things.
Also on display was a collection of cars built by the Motor City’s legendary Alexander brothers, Larry and Mike, including one of the most famous customs ever, the Dodge Deora, whose fame was increased when it became one of the first 16 Hot Wheels cars made. The Deora’s original designer, Harry Bentley Bradley, who sketched the Deora on the sly, soon left GM for a job at Mattel, designing those same 16 Hot Wheels.
I was fortunate to have a lengthy phone conversation with Mike Alexander before he passed in 2014. He told me that Detroit customizers originally had a hard time breaking into the hot-rod magazines, most of which were based in southern California. Detroit customs were truly radical, in part out of necessity. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, cars had little to no rust protection and Michigan salts its roads in the winter. With so much sheetmetal already missing, the “A Brothers” had a free hand to make radical changes to the bodywork of relatively modern, late-model cars.
Out in southern California, though, there was no shortage of rust-free cars from twenty or even thirty years ago. Thus, T-buckets (Model Ts), highboys (Model As), and Deuce Coupes (’32 Fords) became the standard West Coast format. To California car culture, the Alexanders’ creations were just too wild.
Enter California car customizer George Barris. One year, Barris brought his XPAK-400 hovercraft to the Detroit Autorama. Founded in 1952, the show enjoyed national prominence by the ’60s. However, when it arrived in Detroit, the hovercraft wouldn’t work.
(Barris is, as you may recall, the same guy who used paint-roller trays for the hood scoops on the “his and hers” Mustangs he made for Sonny and Cher.)
Barris asked the show organizers to point him to the best mechanics in town. They sent him to the Alexander brothers, and Mike and Larry got Barris’ hovercraft working in time for Autorama.
When George got back to Los Angeles, he showed the car magazines’ editors and publishers photos of the Alexander brothers’ hot rods. Once he described their shop as the “East Coast Division of Barris Industries,” the publications started to pay attention.
(Like I said, George Barris liked to put his name on things.)
If you look up the history of the Barris Batmobile, you may see George Barris described as the car’s creator, designer, or builder, and sometimes as all three. While all the ticky-tacky geegaws added to the car were probably George’s idea, Barris’ shop didn’t build the Batmobile. It’s not even clear how much, if any, input he had in the car’s design.
The TV show’s producers originally approached customizer Dean Jeffries to make the Batmobile, but the shooting schedule for the show was moved up and Jeffries didn’t have enough time to complete the car. The studio turned to Barris, who a year earlier had managed to purchase Ford’s Lincoln Futura show car for just one dollar.
After finishing its duties on the car show circuit, the Futura ended up in Hollywood, where it appeared in some movies and subsequently ended up in storage in Barris’ parking lot. Much of the Batmobile’s styling in terms of basic shapes and proportions comes directly from the Futura, including that distinctive double-bubble top, all of which was designed by Ford styling chief Bill Schmidt and designer John Najjar and hand-built by Ghia, so Barris can’t take credit.
Pressed for time, Barris handed the Futura to Bob Cushenberry, who turned the languishing Futura into the Batmobile. Barris did submit some drawings to the studio, however, which its artists revised.
Between the Futura, the studio’s artists, and Cushenberry, it’s hard to say how large a role George Barris had in creating the Batmobile.
It was a similar story with Barris and another automotive icon of ’60s pop culture. Columbia Screen Gems, the studio responsible for The Monkees, did contract with Barris to pen the Pontiac GTO–based Monkeemobile, but it’s widely known that Jeffries actually did the build.
As it happens, the original Monkeemobile is owned by a Detroit-area collector and was also on display at this year’s Autorama, though separately from the Barris cars. With both Barris and Alexander brothers cars on display in Detroit, it was only natural for me to tell Buck Mook the story about Barris Industries’ East Coast Division.
He laughed. “You know, I designed the Monkeemobile.”
Wasn’t that Dean Jeffries?
“Jeffries made it, but I drew it,” Mook insisted.
Since Harry Bradley had to hide his work with the Alexander brothers from his corporate superiors at GM, I asked Mook if he had to do the same at Ford. “No, I was still a student at Art Center [College of Design].” Mook told me that he also drew the “Black Beauty” Green Hornet TV show car.
The Mustang II often ends up on clichéd “worst cars of all time” lists. I wonder how the people who make those lists would react when if they knew that car’s designer also designed two of the most famous rides in ’60s pop culture.