The Villa Riviera began as George Barris’ personal car, a gift from Buick Division’s press fleet to “see what he can do with it.” Barris did a lot with it and as he did, he wrote a series of articles and photo documented each step of the customization in Hot Rod magazine’s 1964 Custom Car Yearbook.
Soon after it was customized and painted, movie producer Leslie Martinson selected it for use in an upcoming surf movie starring James Darren, Pamela Tiffin, Nancy Sinatra, and Bob Denver called For Those Who think Young. The Villa Riviera played a significant role in the movie as James Darren’s and his sidekick Bob Denver’s car.
For its movie role, the Villa Riviera was painted white. After the filming, Barris experimented with fogging red paint over the white but eventually painted the car all red again. James Darren loved the Villa Riviera and after filming struck a deal with Barris to use it as his personal transportation. When Mr. Darren wasn’t using the car, Barris was busy touring it across the country. It also played roles in Perry Mason and The Outsiders television shows in addition to being a prop in multiple magazine ads. Rod & Custom and several other national car magazines featured the Villa Riviera in separate articles.
Barris was a master promoter and never missed a chance to publicize the Villa Riviera. It became a well-known Barris feature car at shows. In 1965, AMT released a special version of its annual kit with custom parts and instructions to build a Villa Riviera model. A neat post card was included with the model kit, showing the fogged paint job.
Like many custom cars, Villa Riviera was constantly evolving and changing. The biggest changes occurred when Barris sold it to its second owner, Russ Johnson, in 1983. Russ ran a body shop near Chicago and decided to try his hand at re-customizing Barris’ car. His version included moving the headlights to the grille area, using a 1970s AMC Hornet grill, installing side pipes, raised white letter tires, and chrome reverse wheels with moon hubcaps. Russ also added Pontiac Firebird taillights and painted the car maroon.
In 1986, Bill Ryan saw the car at a show near Chicago and negotiated a deal to acquire the car. Bill enjoyed the Villa Riviera for a few years, but the paint wasn’t holding up and he decided to repaint the car. Bill’s color choice was a dark blue and he re-trimmed the interior in gray velour. Bill showed the car at several car shows and it was during one of these shows that George Barris attended and he explained to Bill how he had originally painted the car and shared the original candy apple red paint formula with Bill. Bill decided to paint the car red again and return the interior to white, closely matching Barris’ original version of the car.
In the fall of 2015, while walking the giant parking lots at the AACA Meet in Hershey, Pennsylvania, looking for nothing in particular, I stumbled upon the unmistakable Villa Riviera under a tent and learned the car was to be auctioned the following month in Connecticut. I wasn’t the only person impressed with the car, but won the auction and became the next caretaker. What I didn’t expect was that Dawn Ryan, wife of the deceased third owner, would provide a notebook filled with photos and memorabilia about the car. This information formed the basis that helped uncover the full history of this incredible car.
Upon getting the Villa Riviera home, I discovered absolutely nothing electrical worked in the car. The power windows, seat, radio, dash lights, clock – all dead. Armed with the experience of a prior Riviera restoration, manuals, wiring diagrams, and a lot of good friends, we embarked on a mission to get everything working again. This proved to be a much bigger mission then we thought as the entire interior and dash had to be removed and all the wiring replaced. Years of adding stereos, cutting dash panels, adding gauges, switches and patched wiring required that the harnesses and console be replaced. A parts car was acquired along the way because I wanted all the right screws, brackets, fittings, and other little parts to put the car together correctly.
From photos obtained with the car and others provided by the Barris family, it was obvious that the wheels and tires were important features of Barris’ original design. The wheels were 10” wide chrome slotted wheels with chrome lug nut caps and special three bar spinners. The tires were cheater slicks with triple white stripes at all four corners. Locating the wheels was a challenge, but a friend found a NOS set in California. I was able to buy two of the rare spinners and had a new set cast from these originals. The tires were another challenge. Coker provided the blackwall cheater slicks and Diamond Back added the triple stripes.
The interior was basically a stock ’63 except that Barris added three important items: a pair of telephone handsets, a Muntz 4-track tape player (this was before 8-track) and a Sony Micro TV, all with custom brackets and mounting. Similar phones were found and we made brackets like the ones Barris had. The Muntz tape player was a difficult piece to find and rebuild, but the amazing power of eBay helped with that. The TV also came from eBay, a practically NOS unit.
The ultimate goal was to return the Villa Riviera, as much as possible, to the way it was when George Barris first customized it. I searched for the little details in the early photos, then compared them with the car and returned any missing items. Accuracy was important. There was also a lot of routine maintenance and restoration work required on the car, but nothing that would come as a surprise to an early Riviera owner as it needed all the normal stuff.
What has been most enjoyable was discovering and documenting the history of the Villa Riviera, then sharing it with the people who remember the Villa Riviera and those that never knew about George Barris but love old custom cars. This car never fails to turn heads.
The car is not restored to show standards as the car was driven and enjoyed. The paint is worn and chipped in spots, but largely remains in good shape. These minor “character flaws” help authenticate that this was once a movie car.
The work completed during my ownership of the Villa Riviera would not have been possible without the help and encouragement of the Riviera Owners Association. Brett Barris, George’s son, also provided period photos and advice, supplementing the huge number of photos and historical documents that were acquired by Bill Ryan came with the car. Thanks also for the support and help offered by many friends, including Walt Bolek, Brent Budgor, Fred Carullo, Pat Curran, Ed Horsefield, Bill Horton, Peter Mahoney, Bob Miller, Jim Petrarca, Mark Macreading, Billy Rounds and many others. Finally, none of this would have been possible without the loving support of my beautiful wife and daughter who encouraged me and endured my endless stories about the car and late nights in the garage.
Words: Jeff Goldstein; Photos: Mark Macreading