Cars, Passion, and History at Detroit Autorama 2019

DETROIT, MI – For as long as cars have been around, there has been a need for speed. The earliest automakers took their cars to the track to prove their reliability to buyers – and it wasn’t long before many of those buyers hopped up their cars for fun.

It was called hot-rodding – putting newer, bigger engines into lighter-weight older cars to make ’em go faster. It was already being done in the 1930s, but it really took off a decade later. That’s when young soldiers, coming back from the World War II, had experienced the adrenaline rush of combat and certainly weren’t content to drive slowly around town. They took the covers off the cars they’d garaged while they were gone, bolted in new parts, and took them to the dry lakes and dragstrips to prove who was best.

And when looks became as important as speed, they took them to the car shows that were popping up across the country. That included the first Detroit Autorama in 1953. The show is still going strong, and was held this year on the first weekend of March at the city’s Cobo Center.

It’s not just about hot rods anymore; the car scene encompasses an enormous variety of vehicles and just as many fans. Lowriders started out when owners – primarily Latinos in southern California – cut down the suspensions on their 1950s cars to get the low stance they preferred. When police cracked down on them for driving at that low ride height, they used war-surplus aircraft hydraulic parts to craft adjustable suspensions: up for driving, down when parked. There were several of those at the show, too.

Custom cars – often spelled “kustom” – were originally created for the auto shows, by fabricators such as George Barris, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, and the Alexander Brothers, who took stock vehicles and changed the roofline, shaved off their chrome, and welded in parts from other cars for a unique look. While many of the earlier customizers have passed on, legendary car builder Gene Winfield was at the show and, at the age of 92, spent the weekend “chopping” a car – cutting off the roof and welding it back on at a lower height – to show folks how it’s done.

Autorama is a big event for the current top-of-the-line car builders, since it’s where the Ridler Award is handed out – considered the equivalent of a “Best Picture” Oscar for custom-built cars. A group of judges selected eight finalists as the cars moved in on Thursday night, and announced their top winner on Sunday.

The trophy comes with a cheque for $10,000, but nobody’s getting rich on it – that might cover what it cost to ship the car to the show. The Ridler’s all about bragging rights, since the cars that compete for it each year are always well into six or even seven figures of cash to build. It costs big for this much hand-formed metalwork, flawless paint, and even wheels that are designed and created specifically for the car.

I knew in my bones what car was going to win as soon as I laid eyes on it. It was “CadMad”, named for the fact that it started life as a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham four-door sedan, and was turned into a two-door station wagon along the lines of a Chevrolet Nomad. There was a tinge of sadness to it: its owner, Steve Barton, passed away while it was being built, and it was finished in his honour and shown by his brother Craig.

It took sixteen years from start to finish – longer than most, but nothing at this level gets cranked out in a hurry. It was built by a California shop called Super Rides by Jordan, and includes a handmade tube frame, 1,000 horsepower Chevrolet racing engine, and custom interior; the estimate is that about US$2 million went into its production.

Of course, besides the millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles upstairs, the car hobby isn’t always about who can spend the most. Many of the cars in the upstairs section of the show are beautifully finished and chromed, even though they were built by their owners in their garages and are driven extensively in the summer months.

But in the basement, it’s a party, as local car clubs bring in their wildest rides, and bands play throughout the show. This is where you see the rat rods (rusty and built with whatever their owners could find); the barn finds (discovered after many years of storage, and often left with that original, rust-tinged and paint-cracked “barn-fresh finish”); the resto-rods (they look original, but their drivelines are new); and everything in between.

Automakers may be funnelling us into a future where our cars will drive on their own and might not even have steering wheels, but don’t tell that to the Autorama folks. For the people here, if you can’t build it and then drive it, it’s simply not worth having at all.

Need for speed. 3/8/2019 8:00:00 AM