Every year the promoters of the Detroit Autorama sponsor a special award. Named in memoriam of one of the event's early promoters, the Don Ridler Memorial Award recognizes what contemporary judges deem the finest example of a custom car or truck for that year. It is by anyone's admission, who is familiar with the show car world, one of the most prestigious contests going.

This year Steve's Auto Restorations (SAR) surprised just about everyone in that world when it submitted a car for Ridler competition. At face value that was no real shocker. Over the years the shop has built a number of Ridler-worthy cars: Dave Hall's '55 Nomad "Newmad"; Bill Bauce's coach-built '37 Ford "Baron Von Kuhl"; and Gary Coe's '57 F-100 "F-157". What made this entry surprising was that none of those cars were submitted. Their absence was almost conspicuous.

What made SAR's entry especially curious was its timeliness. By their nature, up-and-comers come out of left field but big-name shops almost never do; they usually broadcast their intentions well in advance if only to drum up some hype. But not this time. In typical, understated, Northwest fashion, SAR seemed to speak with actions, not words. And by its choice of car, apparently the shop had something different to say.

Dodge. Different. Dodge advertised its cars with that slogan about a decade ago, only it was about 60 years too late. What really made Dodge different was what it did in 1933. Until then-and even for other makers that year and for years thereafter-trucks were collections of vertical and horizontal lines joined by mostly right angles. Only Dodge's designers introduced something rare among even luxury cars of the era: curves and acute angles.

The project started as a '33 Dodge pickup body, some fiberglass fenders, an over-built, blown Hemi, and a mandate from its owner: Make a show truck from it. Chris Ito rendered the project in a fashion common to several of the shop's high-profile cars: as if their original designers ventured into the future and created a concept car based on what they remembered.

To underscore the extent by which the shop modified the truck, consider the following: By the time the last cloud of polishing compound settled, only 3 percent of the original truck remained. In real terms that includes the windshield header, the cowl top, the beltline around the back of the cab, and part of the grille shell. SAR's crew made, not modified, the other 97 percent.

After removing whatever metal didn't resemble Ito's drawing, Colton Hardison formed a wire skeleton in the drawings' likeness and hung the various components on it. Using that matrix as a sort of buck, he hammer-formed steel panels to span the gaps between what remained of the body. As every piece of the cab was to reflect the original in design but not shape, the SAR crew formed tooling to replicate the various character lines and beads that define a body as a production unit from the early part of the last century.

Like truck designs of the era, it consists of a skin within another skin. Only rather than hiding those internal walls, SAR capitalized upon them by painting, rather than upholstering, them. Tubing between the firewall's inner and outer skins mounts key components like the doors and latches yet hides fasteners from the engine bay and cockpit.

With their square ends and knobby stake pockets, Dodge's beds were all truck. The pickup's new bed, on the other hand, emphasizes the truck's car-like theme without sacrificing its utilitarian aesthetic. Leaning the bed's header back to match the cab's rear panel, for one, better integrated the two body components. Like the header, the back of the bed leans forward to enhance the truck's streamlined profile. Rather than end abruptly at the tailgate, the bed rails wrap entirely around the bed sides and back.

What isn't so obvious is the bed's general shape. They look flat but the new bedsides actually bulge as if they were sides of a car. Beads hammered into the bedsides by tooling formed in the likeness of the cab's character lines emphasize the car-like character. The SAR crew shaped even the 18 panels that make up the underside bed floor to follow the frame's profile, a trick that conceals the fuel tank and sundry undercarriage components when viewed from below.

A tailgate isn't right without a script but the stylistic device of grafting a skin from a mass-produced pickup would only undermine the work invested in the rest of the truck. Instead, SAR made one. In-house designer David Brost gathered elements of a few of Dodge's more recent logos, merged them, stylized the result, and printed it.

A local industrial sheetmetal manufacturer then transferred the paper template to 1/4-inch plate steel and cut out a negative version of it. The shop then sandwiched a sheet of 18-gauge steel between that plate form and a steel-backed sheet of hard rubber, loaded the tooling in an oversized press brake, and applied pressure. The rubber pushed the sheetmetal upward into the voids in the form, creating a relief of the steel tooling.

Pressing a keychain-remote button causes linear actuators to lift a tonneau cover unlike any other. The SAR crew made it by bonding aluminum sheets to a composite honeycomb panel. The hinge on which the panel rides started as a Sachse Rod Shop part that the SAR crew modified with bronze bushings in its pivot points.

Pressing another remote button releases the bed floor from a pin latch. Pushing a finger into a relief in the center rail raises a simple handle and pulling on that handle lifts the floor to expose the fuel-filler neck and five smaller doors. Opening those exposes the batteries, the brake master cylinders, and a few solenoids and actuators that animate the truck's various functions.

Rather than leaning the grille top back, which would've shortened the engine compartment, Ito specified moving the shell's base forward, narrowing it via a '34 Ford passenger car. It's a tweak that would've required extensive fender reshaping provided SAR used the original pieces, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Dodge's hood design was swoopy but it hardly compares with what SAR crafted, if only structurally. Again, bare sheet steel was formed to accommodate the relocated grille shell. The hood top hinges from the rear in contemporary-car fashion.

But as with the rest of the body the hood boasts a second, inner wall. It's a construction that increases its rigidity and permitted a structurally sound hinge and a locating device, both elements necessary in light of the very tight gaps among the engine components and the hood.

Ito's design preserved many of the Mopar-specific elements, in this case the crank hole cover. Only it's not what you think it is. David Brost scanned an original piece, digitally split the number down the middle, and mirrored its left side to create the eight. A 3-D printer rendered a plastic version of the emblem, which a local foundry used to establish casting molds.

As noted earlier, pushing the base of the grille forward required an entirely new fender shape. Just as he did with the rest of the body, Colton Hardison shaped a pair of fenders that resembled Dodge's in every detail except dimension: when measured from the most extreme ends, these come in 6 inches longer than stock.

The rear fenders closest resemble the original pieces but that isn't saying much in light of the rest of the work in the truck. As the most dramatic change, the perimeter character line ascends as a spear from the rearmost lip of the fender. More than a stylistic device, the spear's profile reflects the taillights' peaked profile.

The taillights-at least their lenses and reflectors-actually started life as production motorcycle units. To make their bezels, Duc Pham carved wooden bucks in the fenders' profile and submitted them to the foundry that cast the crank-hole plug. To understand the challenge those bezels presented, consider that Pham finish-shaped the metal pieces to fit fenders after the fenders were painted.

The running boards' skins between the front and rear fenders sandwich aircraft-type honeycomb. Pins, rather than bolts, make the unions among fenders and boards possible.

Dodge's original open-channel frame hardly stood a chance in light of the truck's proposed Hemi power. The longer wheelbase made it less practical yet. Instead, SAR cut and assembled one from plate stock.

The framerails meet by way of several crossmembers, the leading one from Heidts. It mounts the company's Superide suspension components. The middle and rear crossmembers are entirely original. The center one drops out from the chassis to permit transmission access as well as accommodate the transmission cooler lines; the rear one attaches permanently to the frame and mounts a narrowed Dana 60 rearend, its attendant coilovers, and an antiroll bar.

Pressing the brake pedal engages a linkage that transmits force to a Tilton master cylinder mounted on the frame's inner wall. That cylinder, in turn, converts mechanical force to hydraulic pressure, which a network of polished stainless lines distributes to Wilwood (front) and fourth-generation Corvette (rear) calipers.

The wheels bolted to those rotors aren't your average billets. Budnik Wheel made these wheels-at least their centers-the way you probably always thought billet wheels were made: by removing metal that didn't resemble a wheel from a solid block. Unencumbered by the constraints imposed by the pre-shaped forgings from which most billet wheel centers are machined, Ito penciled an entirely original wheel design. They are, by the definition of the word and just like the rest of the car, unique.

When the truck arrived at SAR it came with a Pro Street mandate. It also came with a billet blower, an Enderle-style injector hat bolted to one side, and a Chrysler Hemi on the other. Naturally, the truck shed the Pro Street theme, but as the hat poking through the hood indicates, the power remains.

The blower of note is a Blower Shop interpretation of a GMC 6-71. The hat that tops it is also a BDS piece, a fully functional throttle valve with linkage and various sensors hidden within it. An early Cragar manifold makes the marriage between the GM blower design and Chrysler engine possible.

Chris Ito preserved elements that make trucks truck-like, including the gauge cluster that made the truck look car-like in the first place. Naturally it underwent transformation, albeit for function only; Classic Instruments updated its gauges with modern electronic movements and re-screened the faces in the original typeface, albeit in contemporary statistics.

When Ito sketched the shape of the header between the dash and the windshield, he drew a hole in its middle. Inside it is a bezel stepped to reflect the main panel's detail; in it is a tachometer that Classic Instruments made in the likeness of the existing gauges.

Though the center console's shape and detail suggest an old radio housing, it's entirely original. Pressing and releasing the upper edge of the housing causes the door to descend fluidly to expose a Kenwood multimedia head unit. The head unit commands signal processors and amplifiers hidden behind doors in the bed. They, in turn, feed 6-inch component speakers, mounted kick panels, and 10-inch subwoofers in enclosures at the back of the cab.

The console also mounts the various controls for the truck and the Vintage Air climate-control system. Energizing the system causes air to blow through slots cut into what appear to be speaker grilles at the console's sides.

Its shape hints at handmade but the steering wheel began life as one of Juliano's Interior Products' banjo-type wheels. James Crow modified the tri-bar opening, added center spears, merged the spokes at the narrow end, and curled them around the rim. He also opened the hub to accommodate a N.O.S. Dodge Ram horn button.

To maintain absolute control over the pickup's finish quality, SAR elected to prep and paint it entirely in-house. The materials aren't any different than what any of us have at our disposal but the effort is: it reportedly took more hours just to fit, prep, and paint this truck than it usually takes to build most indoor show cars.

The door and dash inserts appear to be luxurious burled wood but it's entirely charade; they are in fact formed aluminum. What gives them their grain is a water-transfer decal applied by Aqua Graphics.

Following the precedent that the SAR crew established with the rest of the car, Sid Chavers rendered Ito's designs in leather ... and plywood, foam, and steel for that matter. In his trademark fashion, he cut Baltic-birch plywood to fit the cab and sculpted foam to fit its occupants. Naturally, he trimmed the seats, the door panels, and the various aluminum garnish panels that the SAR crew made in rust-colored leather. But that isn't the extent of his work; a jack of many trades, he also whittled blocks of wood to create the doors' armrests and milled the door pulls above them from aluminum. More than merely make the boot that conceals the shifter base, he also made the metal garnish that finishes it at the transmission tunnel.

Not a single piece of trim in or on the car existed prior to its construction. The front bumper resulted from assembling seven purpose-formed parts. Rather than merely open-back blades, the bumpers took shape as clamshells welded together. A foundry cast the bumper uprights from patterns drawn by Ito. Sherm's Custom Plating finished the bumper, however, between the copper and nickel baths Sherm's returned the individual parts to SAR for fine-tuning.

The grille shell's new profile required a custom insert, which Tim Bruning rendered in stainless bar stock and tubing. He also formed the horizontal grille material that fits within the openings in each hood-side blister. Emblem Magic in Grand River, Ohio, restored the original grille crest but Steve Frisbie (SAR) personally tended to the lights. A restorer at heart with an affinity for headlights, he restored the '33 Chrysler housings and updated their reflectors with modern bulbs.

The pickup's late and somewhat quiet entry in the Autorama wasn't the only surprise that weekend: despite ranking highly among its Great 8 peers, it didn't win the Don Ridler Memorial Award. But that didn't necessarily surprise the SAR crew. In fact, they half expected it.

Outwardly the pickup they built had everything you'd expect of a Ridler contender: innovation, craftsmanship, and eye appeal. It even boasted a display some deemed more thought-out than its competitors. Only the truck lacked one thing: intent. "We never planned to build a car for the Autorama much less win it," SAR's Chuck Barr admitts. So why go to all the trouble? "We just realized that we were close to finishing it when the show was coming up so we just thought, 'Hey, why don't we debut it there?'"

That's not a case of sour grapes. The pickup's intense level of workmanship led anyone who saw it to ask whether it was destined for Detroit, a question frequently met with hardly more than indecision or speculation. It was by the crewmembers' admission a show car, just not that kind of show car.

Of course that doesn't mean that Steve's Auto Restorations wouldn't one day like to call one of its cars a Ridler winner. For the past few years Steve Frisbie's crew has been working on one hell of a roadster. Not to spoil anything, but he recently told us that he hasn't made up his mind whether he'll take that one to Detroit, either.

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