Player 5: Blackie Gejeian. A true icon who has done it all, from being an early AMBR winner to a successful race car driver and longtime car-show promoter.
R&C: As an early AMBR winner (1950). you set the seed for the Ala Kart, correct?
BG: My car was the first car with a chrome chassis, so when the Ala Kart came along, I made sure it was just as detailed underneath with a completely chromed chassis.
R&C: How were you involved with the Ala Kart ?
BG: My friend, Richard Peters, bought a '29 roadster pickup, so we went down in 1957 and visited George Barris. We got together at a restaurant, and as George drew on the napkins, little by little the Ala Kart was born. About that time, I finally said "Let's eat!" George opened the menu and said, "That's it! We'll call it the Ala Kart !" After that, the name just stuck.
R&C: You own a number of AMBR winners from the past-why not the Ala Kart?
BG: I worked for 10 years with the guy in Arizona who owned the car. He had the car for sale in Hemmings for $90K, and 25 years ago that was way more than the going rate for an old hot rod. I tried to get Richard to buy it, but he just wasn't interested. The guy in Arizona was going to put a new street rod chassis under it, and luckily Junior came in and bought it for a customer. I'm really glad Roy eventually bought it and did a triple-A job restoring it.
R&C: Were you surprised at the reaction when the Ala Kart redebuted at the '08 GNRS?
BG: If you look at the history, back to the early days, there was never anything like the Ala Kart; it has always been special. It was always a 100 percent car, but after the restoration it was a 110 percent perfect car. It deserved the reaction it got at that show.
R&C: You have always stayed very current; should the Ala Kart have won the title of America's Most Beautiful Roadster in 2008, or is that just old romanticism?
BG: In everybody's hearts, we all wanted the Ala Kart to win. The car was always so far out there, and it's still one of the nicest. The judging sheets couldn't find anything wrong with the car. It brought back a big part to all of our lives and probably should have won.
Player 6: Tommy Lee. The long-time owner and caretaker of the Sam Barris Mercury.
R&C: Back in the beginning, did you purchase "The Sam Barris Merc" or just a cool custom cruiser?
TL: I knew what the car was-it was widely known-but the cars weren't worth anything in those days (1957). Before I got it, the car had been stolen and partially stripped, but it was one of the only chopped Mercs in New Jersey. The guy who owned it was away in the service, and after it was stolen and recovered, he told his dad to sell it. That's when I stepped in.
R&C: Did the car always stand out as a "California Custom"?
TL: It stood out because most guys could only afford a used Ford shoebox. I didn't have any money, either, but the president of my club, the Drivin' Deuces, talked me into buying it. The car was chopped and painted, and that put me in tall clover. It was the kind of car you could take your mother out for a ride in and be proud about it.
R&C: Were people bugging you for years to buy the Merc?
TL: Yes, off and on, I always had people interested. Kirk White was one who was always interested, but I wanted to be different because everyone sells their cars. One time, at dinner with the family, I mentioned that someone wanted to buy the Merc, and all at once everyone stopped eating and someone said, "You can't do that-it's part of the family." Ultimately, I sold it to the right guy, John Mumford. He is a gentleman and a man of his word.
R&C: Was it an accident or on purpose that you owned the car for so long?
TL: It was definitely a conscious effort to keep the car all those years. I took good care of it because the Jersey winters would eat it up. The Merc was like family, and I always had two cars so I could park it during the winter. An example of how special the car was to me goes back to 1960 when I got married. We were expecting our first of five children, and Christmas was coming up. My wife wanted a new vacuum and totally despised the chopped Merc. I had a really nice '50 Merc four-door daily driver I sold to buy the vacuum. That meant for that winter we had to drive the chopped Merc that had no door panels (they were stripped when it was stolen), no side windows, and no heater (it was originally a Southern California car with no heater from the factory). That winter, I would just wrap up my wife and new baby in Army blankets when we had to go somewhere. Luckily, the louvers I punched in the hood and the heat from the Buick Nailhead I installed would keep the windshield clear enough to drive in the brutal Jersey winter.
Player 7: Richard Peters. The original owner of the Ala Kart and lifelong friend of Blackie Gejejian.
R&C: How did you get into hot rods?
RP: Prior to the Ala Kart, a buddy in high school had a hot rod I would take to car shows while he was away in the Army. After that, I got into boating and had a pleasure boat and a race boat. After I flipped one of my boats, my wife told me I needed to give up the boats or the marriage-and I'm still married, 52 years later. I kept the fuel-injected Red Ram out of the race boat; soon after that, a friend had a stock '29 roadster pickup for sale and those elements became the beginning pieces of the Ala Kart .
R&C: Was it strange when the Ala Kart went from a hot rod to its own phenomenon?
RP: I never dreamed of the car doing what it did. When I originally went to George, I wanted a driveable car. George, Blackie, and I got together at a Bob's Big Boy and George drew it up in a series of sketches on napkins and came up with the concept of using airbags on the front like they were doing on the new Cadillacs. Once we had a game plan, Blackie and I built the chassis in Fresno while George did all the bodywork down at his shop. We where in a big hurry to get it ready for the Oakland show.
R&C: Did you have any idea how many kids got hooked on hot rods because of the Ala Kart and the model kit?
RP: I had no idea. I was talking to someone recently while waiting to get on an airplane and another person overheard us and said, "Are you talking about the Ala Kart ? I know that car inside and out! I've built the model kit many times." That blew us away. When I sold the car to AMT, I was busy making a living and the car eventually just disappeared. I was lucky that when I did sell it I got twice as much as I spent on it.
R&C: Most guys changed their cars from show to show for extra points. Why did the Ala Kart not get changed?
RP: There was nothing really to change. The first show, it wasn't running, but there was nothing there that could even compete with it. After that first show, we tore it completely back down and perfected it. I was convinced I would win the AMBR title the second time around. I was just as confident I could have taken it a third time, but I pulled it from competition so my brother-in-law, Chuck Krikorian, could win with the Emperor, also built by Barris.
R&C: What was your feeling walking up to the Ala Kart at the '08 GNRS?
RP: I'll tell you, I didn't know whether to jump for joy or just start crying, but it did bring tears to my eyes. I looked it over and was surprised that they even duplicated the tinfoil-covered jackstands the way we displayed it in 1958. John Mumford said the most special thing to me; he said, "Richard, this will always be your car; we are just the current custodians."
Player 8: George Barris. Simply, the King of the Kustomizers.
R&C: Did you ever have any idea the Ala Kart or your brother's Mercury would have such longevity?
GB: I didn't know any of this would last more than a year or two when we first got started. I started in 1940 in Sacramento and then moved to Los Angeles. Sam joined me in 1944 after his time in the service. Later, I started the Kustoms of Los Angeles club and displayed the cars we built at local shows. It was just day-by-day fun in those early days.
R&C: Is the Ala Kart one of your personal favorites, and if so, why?
GB: It's one of my favorites because of what happened to make it a reality. In 1957, my shop burned down and I lost 15 cars. The fire stopped at a wall and only one car survived-what would eventually be the Ala Kart. I wanted to give up the shop, but the Fresno Armenians (Blackie Gejeian and Richard Peters) made me stay to finish their car. I got totally re-inspired by them when they would drive for hours every day from Fresno to Los Angeles to work on the car and bring me parts. The plan for the Ala Kart started in a restaurant drawing it on napkins. I knew I wanted something different than a stock grille and special airbag suspension because everything had to be different. The underside had to be as nice as the top because all the cars at that time were daily drivers and not detailed underneath. The passion we all shared for this project was the encouragement I needed to carry on.
R&C: The Ala Kart touched an entire generation of hot rodders because of the model kit, and it's still one of the best-selling kits in scale-model history. What makes it so beloved?
GB: When we hooked up with AMT in 1960, it was a great kit; everyone loved it and it just grew on people. The car just had a special charisma. It's the only scale car that the Danbury Mint has had to release four times because of demand, and they are working on a fifth release to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ala Kart. Every time I go out, I still sign the special Hot Wheels version that was released a few years ago.
R&C: Is Sam Barris best represented in style and talent by his own '49 Mercury or a different car?
GB: By his Mercury, definitely for his craftsmanship. When he joined me, he was a true craftsman. When we go out today we still say "Barris Brothers" because Sam was such a big part of what we did together.
R&C: Is George Barris best represented in style and talent by the Ala Kart?
GB: I'd say so, yes. What I created with that car will always be number one! We were all totally amazed when it did not win the AMBR award after the restoration. Roy Brizio did such an amazing restoration, and it was incredible when he and John Mumford drove the car into the hall just like the old days!
R&C: How are you best described: a kustomizer, a promoter, or a master showman?
GB: I think it's a little bit of everything. I was one of the originators, and I wanted to be a great promoter of the sport. I go to a show every weekend of the year to all different cities, states, and countries, and I want to positively promote the car lifestyle.