Is George Barris or Sergio Scaglietti the better known? Before answering, it is worth asking why we asked this question: Sergio Scaglietti is the author of some of the world’s most coveted cars. He worked out of his workshop in Modena during the 1950s before Enzo Ferrari bought him and the small, precious atelier that still bears his name to this day.
During the same period in America, George Barris transformed cars salvaged at West Coast scrapyards in his workshop at 11811 Riverside Drive, North Hollywood, making radical changes to their lines, colours and mechanics, starting that very interesting phenomenon known the world across as the Hot Rod. Ferraris had hot camshafts or ‘rods’ by nature. Hot Rods, on the other hand came about by modifying large American V8 engines for faster speed, again, sourced at the scrapyard.
“So what?” you might ask. Well, the notoriety of both Sergio and George is linked to their specific and very different environments, to the society they found themselves in and the clients they satisfied. Scaglietti, in Italy, built small sports cars in the post-war years to respond to the overwhelming passion of those who wanted to compete in the Mille Miglia or in hill climb events. The Ferraris subsequently arrived and made him famous, but the beginning of his work was a photograph of the working conditions of Italy – and Europe for that matter – desperately in need of resurgence after the terrible destruction of the war.
Barris was in an entirely different context: victorious America had become opulent and Detroit’s great manufacturers had to make cars that satisfied everyone. Beautiful, without question, but not exactly original and capable of making you dream. The younger generations out on the West Coast wanted more, they wanted to be recognizable, they wanted to be different. And George Barris was the architect of a phenomenon – not by himself it should be said, we are talking about a widespread phenomenon bursting with talent and vision – that gripped the nation well before the famous American Pop Art scene arrived.
When Sergio Scaglietti died in 2011, at the age of 91, his funeral in Modena was a sad gathering in which praise and nostalgia dominated the conversations. When 90-year-old George Barris died in 2015, his funeral was a festive motorcade of extraordinarily extravagant cars bearing his name.
In answer to the original question, it’s not important to decide which of these two is the better known.
What is important is understanding that although they were entirely different, they used considerable originality and understanding to interpret the same moment in the history of the automobile, clearly defining its outer limits: on the one hand, the purity of beauty transformed into a message that spelled revenge at a time when everything was full of hope; on the other, the euphoria of a well-being that the younger generations – and shortly after Hollywood actors seduced by the outlandishness of Hot Rods – wanted to express through that instrument that symbolised progress: the automobile.
In the history of literature, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives is one of the greatest references. Plutarch, today, would put Sergio and George together in one of his thoughtful biographies dedicated to the greats.