There are seven towns or cities in the United States named Detroit. One is on the East Coast and one in the West, with the remaining sprinkled throughout the Midwest. But only one of them has hosted the Autorama for the past 61 years and that is Detroit, Michigan (aka the Motor City).
Built by the owner, Fran and Don Stange, this 1940 Ford convertible was part of the Cavalc
Since 1953, the show was held in various locations around the city but, once organizers moved in 1961 into Cobo Center, the massive convention building downtown on the edge of the Detroit River, they've never left. The show has grown from humble beginnings as a way for the Michigan Hot Rod Association to help finance a local dragstrip for its members, and the efforts were hastened when they hired Don Ridler to promote the annual event. Ridler, who died in 1963, was able to lay out the format for the show that is still followed today; give the people what they want, and give them a lot of it! Nowadays the event bills itself as "America's Greatest Hot Rod Show", and it's hard to argue the point.
This year the show drew just over 800 cars from 34 states plus Canada, and folks came in record numbers through the doors to check them out. A few years ago the basement of the facility was reinstated as a "car show" area (in fact it's where the event was first held back in its early years) and renamed Autorama Extreme 1953. Now it's an area where you'll find a more traditional approach to hot rodding, and it's a complete show-within-a-show.
Sponsored by Meguiar's, the Extreme has its own awards presentation, entertainment, dealer and lifestyle display booths, and attitude. In one corner of the room folks could watch as legendary customizer Gene Winfield was busy chopping the top on a 1939 Chevy coupe. The octogenarian started the work on Friday afternoon and had lowered the lid, cut down the door tops, and had it all stitched back together by Sunday afternoon.
Gil Losi from Murrieta, CA, has owned several exceptional cars over the years, and his ’61
Upstairs, Don Ridler would be justifiably proud of the diversity found on the main floor of Cobo. Besides the dozens of manufacturers that ringed the room, special areas were set aside for a tribute to the Batmobile (with three examples of the car from its lengthy career) as well as the 19th annual Toy-A-Rama, where you could pick up all sorts of automobilia. A Cavalcade of Customs highlighted a group of rides looking like they rolled right out of the 1950s, and a Feathers Tribute (sponsored by Ford) showcased a handful of restored and customized Thunderbirds from 1955 to 1957.
In another corner you'd find the Motorcity Mavens Auto Art panel jam and charity auction, where pinstripers from all over the country gather to stripe whatever is put in front of them. Other painted items are auctioned off, with the proceeds benefitting Leader Dogs for the Blind. It was a charity close to the heart of Bob Larivee Jr. (aka JR), the CEO of Championship Shows (the manager of all the Autorama and World of Wheels car shows). After dying at age 61 late last year, a tribute was created in the form of a Gibson guitar, which was pinstriped and lettered to commemorate both JR and the Ridler award, and it sold at auction for $1,950. Another display featuring one of JR's hot rods was located just inside the main door of the hall, along with several photo collages depicting his life and loves.
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This year being the 50th anniversary of the Don Ridler Memorial Award, a special display sponsored by the Henry Ford museum, featuring dozens of past winners, was located just inside the main doors of the hall. Among the cars it was especially nice to see the "Deora" (the 1967 winner built by Mike Alexander) parked alongside the "Top Banana" (the 1969 winner built by Mike's brother, Larry).
The 2013 Autorama was also one of the locations where STREET RODDER picked 10 of the Painless Performance Top 100 cars for the year, and finalists were drawn from both the downstairs show as well as the upstairs.
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But among the nearly 600 vehicles located upstairs, a handful came to compete for the show's top honor: the Don Ridler Memorial Award. And being the 50th anniversary of the award, competition was especially high this year. But though dozens of hopeful car owners apply, only eight are culled into the prestigious Pirelli Great 8 as finalists for the Ridler. The eight are notified and a special plaque signifying their standing is displayed alongside their car throughout the three-day show. Sometime during the awards presentation early Sunday evening the winner is announced and a crowd immediately surrounds the car, owner, and builder for lengthy interviews by different news organizations and well-wishers alike. Ron Cizek, from Omaha, Nebraska, was named this year's Ridler winner for his '40 Ford coupe built by the CAL Automotive Creations team, headed up by Andy Leach. (Look for an extended feature on this car in an upcoming issue).
It was a thrilling end to a spectacular three-day weekend—something the show's organizers and the Michigan Hot Rod Association should certainly be proud of. And though it's true this Detroit is different from any other city with the same name, so can the Autorama truly distance itself from any other car show out there.