Ala Kart – George Barris’s Stunning AMBR ’29 Ford Pickup
At his memorial service, George Barris’s casket was festooned with large black fins, a paean to his most famous creation, the Batmobile. It also would have made sense if the hearse that hauled Barris to his final resting spot would have been painted pearl white and gold, rolled on chrome steelies, and sported double-stacked headlights.
That would have paid homage to another of Barris’s – and hot rodding’s – iconic rides, the Ala Kart.
The Ala Kart started life as a ’29 Ford roadster pickup, a project for Barris’s close friend Richard Peters. And while Barris was responsible for the custom body, the car was actually built in two different shops simultaneously, with Gazette Hot Rod Legend alumnus Blackie Gejeian of Fresno crafting the chassis. The car was started in 1956 and completed a year later.
The Model A chassis created by Gejeian was a dazzling chrome-plated menagerie. All but the frame rails were chromed: both center and rear crossmembers, the front suspension – 4-inch dropped axle, spindles, wishbones, coil springs, shocks, and Panhard bar – plus ’40 Ford brake backing plates and drums. Out back, even more chrome – ’32 Ford diff, coil springs, Panhard bar, and the Ford “juice” brakes.
Barris added a signature contribution to the underpinnings: Each corner floated on air bags slipped inside the coils, an innovation he pirated off a Caddy. The wheels were custom chromed revered steelies with candy gold bullets in the center – the same gold used for the scallops that accented the pearl white frame rails and body.
The engine bay was another sumptuous wonder of 1950s brawn and beauty. Under the smoothie hood thundered a 1954 266c.i. Dodge Red Ram Hemi rescued from one of Peter’s speed boats. The engine employed an Isky cam, Hilborn injectors, a Scintilla Vertex magneto, chrome valve covers, and custom headers. Power was delivered via a ’39 Ford transmission spinning Zephyr gears. The exhaust? Cleverly routed through four pipes that exited through the rolled rear pan.
As for the body itself, it was Barris-esque all the way. A ’27 Ford roadster back end was grafted onto the ’29’s body. He peaked and bobbed the fenders and fabricated a custom grille with a tasteful rake. An aluminum three-piece hood was hand fabbed with louvered steel splash aprons. George scratch built the pickup bed and sourced the gold inserts at a hardware store. Throw in vertical-stacked lights from a ’57 Chrysler and ’56 DeSoto taillights in ’58 Impala bezels, and you have a unique, compelling shape.
The color scheme added to the allure: Swedish White Pearl with candy gold scallops, accented by stripes pulled by none other than Dean Jeffries. The interior continued the theme: Roy Gilbert stitched the upholstery in white pearl Naugahyde dotted with chrome beads and black velvet trim. The tonneau was black ’n’white vinyl edged in gold. A gauge cluster, yanked out of a ’57 Corvette, was fitted with Stewart Warner instruments. The driver gripped a ’57 Lincoln Continental steering wheel – a gold bullet in the center, naturally.
The results were nothing less than a sensation, winning the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award at the Grand National Roadster Show twice, in 1958 and 1959. Hot Rod magazine put it on the cover in October 1958. Amazingly, the Kart’s debut almost never happened. Barris suffered a shop fire in 1957 just weeks before the Oakland show. Fourteen cars were that destroyed. Luckily, the Ala Kart was in an adjacent building.
The popularity of the Ala Kart was such that in 1961 the model car giant AMT purchased it and created one of the most popular kits of all time. Our guess is that a majority of Goodguys Gazette readers over the age of 50 have put one together. It was also reproduced by the Danbury Mint, as well as issued as a Hot Wheels car.
AMT kept the car for several years before selling it to a tire dealer in Phoenix. From that point, the car bounced around, falling into disrepair and eventually falling into the hands of an owner who thought it would be a good idea to drop in a small-block Chevy and upgrade to a more modern chassis – the automotive equivalent of urban renewal. Ugh.
In 2001, however, hot rod collector John Mumford acquired the car. Roy Brizio rode to the rescue by then convincing Mumford that the hot rod deserved to be brought back to its original glory; the finished product debuted in 2008 at Pebble Beach.
In an interview with Brizio in The Robb Report, he said that the car’s outlandish shape had always fascinated true hard-core hot rodders. “It meant so much in its day that it deserved to be lovingly restored,” he explained to the publication. “I’m so proud of my work on this car.” The vehicle is currently on display at the NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona.
Wondering how Mr. Barris came up with the moniker “Ala Kart?” Legend has it that George was dining at a restaurant, sketching ideas for the car on a napkin. While doodling, he flipped open the menu and spotted the words “ala cart.” He switched the C to a K. The rest is history.
Hot rodders have been feasting on the brilliance of the car ever since.