The Detroit Autorama has been a Michigan fixture since 1953 when it was developed by the Michigan Hot Rod Association as a way to finance the building of a racetrack. The dragstrip came and went, but the show continued on. In the mid '50s, Don Ridler was brought into the show as a producer (promoter) to help broaden the base appeal to the show. Don, a star football captain in college and a coach in the '40s who had experience with bringing in big bands (such as Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller) for dances after a big basketball game, was just the guy to bring some spark (and some professionalism) to the Autorama.

Don Ridler booked national acts, such as Duane Eddy, Little Anthony and the Imperials, and the Big Bopper, to perform at the Autoramas, which in turn brought more people through the turnstiles. The Autorama grew rapidly under Don's guidance, and it was 1961 (the same year Don stepped down as promoter) when the show moved from the state fairgrounds to Cobo Hall (albeit to the basement, but it had 100,000 square feet!) in downtown Detroit, where it has been held since. It was a great shock when, in 1963, Don Ridler died at the age of 54. His influence on the Autorama was immeasurable, and it was decided that a memorial award would be given in his name from that point on.

The Don Ridler Memorial Award (or "The Ridler," to most folks) is intended to reflect Don's own creativity and high level of professionalism, and why the award is so well thought of--it's only given to the best. The official qualification for the award reads: "The Detroit Autorama must be the first public showing of an entry. This goes for the any part of the entry: chassis, engine or body. All decisions are final and made by the Autorama Special Judging Committee.

Publicity photos and magazine coverage of an entry are not grounds for disqualification. We should remember creativity, quality, engineering, and overall appearance were, and still should be, the main criteria considered when the Ridler award was established in 1964." This has caused a few problems in the past (with owners showing their cars at local shows before the Autorama or in bare metal) but the MHRA's Special Judging Committee (who determines the winner) has always worked it out.

Over the years the Ridler has been given to both competition cars (such as Funny Cars or dragsters) as well as all types of hot rods and customs. Of the past 38 winners, 21 of them have been from Michigan (most of them in the early days--it's much more diversified now). There has only been one repeat winner, Jerry Pennington in 1972 and 1973, but it was done with two different cars. Ohio-based builder Don Pilkenton has built three winners for his customers (1993, 1996, and 1999) but never won himself.

Two cars, the 1996 winner owned by George Poteet and the 1997 winner owned by Dave Emery, went on to win the America's Most Beautiful Roadster award at the Grand National Roadster Show the year following their Ridler win (though Poteet's car had a new owner by the GNRS win). The first '34 Ford to win the Ridler was in 1981 (before that they were either Ts, race cars, or handbuilt one-offs) and the first '32 Ford to win was in 1988, 24 years after the award was debuted. And, since the early '90s, the show has covered every inch of the 600,000 square feet inside Cobo Hall.

With 2002 being the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Autorama, you can bet the competition for the Don Ridler Memorial Award will be intense, and the award is one of the things that helps the Detroit Autorama live up to its claim as "America's Greatest Hot Rod Show." For more on the 50th Detroit Autorama to be held February 22-24, 2002, call (248) 293-1700, or check the Web site at www.Autorama.com or www.mhraonline.org.