It's the second biggest car show held each year in Detroit's Cobo Hall, and while the lighting and display poshness suffer badly by comparison with that Other Show, the vehicles are equally interesting--if you can appreciate automotive artistry applied ex-works. AutoRama is one of the premier events at which to display customized cars, owing largely to the prestigious Ridler Award. Named for Don Ridler, a sports hall-of-famer and event promoter who did much to elevate the status of the AutoRama during the 1950s, the award is presented to the best built, most creative customized car making its world debut at AutoRama. We'll show you several of the finalists and you can match your tastes with the judges'.
1955 Chrysler Wagon
Call it the Nomad Chrysler never built but may wish it had. This gorgeous Ridler finalist is barely recognizable as a Chrysler by anything other than its grille and fender lines. The entire rest of the bodywork is totally new, as envisioned and fabricated by Team Revolution. At least it still runs on Chrysler Hemi power.
1960 Rambler "Ferrambo"
Okay, this one gets my vote for the Ridler award. How cool is it to take a frumpy Nash Rambler two-door wagon, give it the face of a Ferrari Lusso, and the drivetrain of a wrecked 2002 Ferrari 360 Modena? It even has custom carbon ceramic brakes and custom fitted luggage packaged under the hood where the pitiful straight-six used to live. Will the owner ever drive it? "I hope so, we went to a lot of trouble making the suspension and brakes work," replied a representative of Divers Street Rods.
1932 Ford "Willett Special"
The purists are all pulling for this one to take Ridler honors. This is as faithful a representation of the roots of car customizing as you'll find on the floor at Cobo. Built to evoke the dry-lake racing era "specials" it employs a '50s aesthetic inspired most directly by the Vogel and Max Balchowski lightweight '32 roadsters. Power, however, comes from a thoroughly modern Viper V-10.
1936 Ford Ute
Perhaps this would be our Aussie boss's pick, as it was originally built as an Australian Ford Ute-one of 118 ever built. It was found in terribly derelict shape, missing most of its parts after several restoration attempts had been started. Then it was shipped to Gerald's Hot Rods in Indiana and transformed into what you see now, powered by a 502 horsepower GM 454 crate motor and a five-speed 700 R-4 transmission.
1948 Triumph "Trium-Phant"
Another favorite of mine on the show floor was this quirky little British oddball, built as a 13-year labor of love by a local South Lyon, Michigan enthusiast. The original bodywork, which was a bit too tall and overly formal for the car's short overall length has been handsomely lowered and re-sculpted, preserving the essence of the original but vastly improving the proportions. Power comes from a Chrysler Hemi, and the entire front clip motors up to show it off.
1931 Ford Tudor Sedan "Witchy Woman"
This is how they used to build customs: Chopped six inches, channeled four inches, fitted with '39 Chevy tail lamps, a '32 Ford grille, riding on '35 Ford wire wheels and painted a '54 Plymouth shade, "Witchy Woman" runs an Offenhauser modified Ford flathead V-8 inhaling through twin Strombergs and exhaling out headers with integral (and we imagine cursory) mufflers. Just as God intended.
Lincoln Zephyr ZZ Rider
There's nothing sleepy about this one-time luxury coupe, which is now powered by a 4.6-liter DOHC V-8 built by SVT for the Ford Mustang Cobra.
1964 Chevy Malibu SS "Malibu Ice"
Most of the top-ranked customs on display in special shag-carpeted and mirror-floored displays are for show only. This is one of them, as evidenced by open wheelhouses that allow a clear view through one gigantic wheel, directly through the engine compartment and out the other side. Trust us; no road grime or splash will ever have the chance to intrude here.
1946 Chevy Truck "Ballistic"
This Ridler finalist arrived directly from the body shop, resplendent in celery metallic green. Oddly enough, while most of the Ford and Chrysler customs on the floor run GM crate motors, this Chevy employs a 6.1-liter Chrysler Hemi. Its owners plan to show the new truck for a while, then drive it. Toward that end it has functional A/C and power steering (no power brakes--too ugly in the engine compartment!).
This radical custom seems reminiscent of vintage designs like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Beatnik Bandit, but in fact it was completed just last year, whereupon it took top honors in Tulsa, OK at the Darryl Starbird Championship Rod & Custom Car Show.
1972 Chevy Caprice "Phantom Donk2"
Just when you thought wheels had gotten about as big as they could get, here come the '30's. To showcase these larger-than-life rims, Spade Creations and DUB went all out converting a Chevy into a drop-top Rolls Phantom knock-off (note how it towers over the real thing parked next door). Even as high off the ground as it looks here, the air suspension has to rise to allow it to steer. Power comes from a 700 horsepowre Chevy big block.
1968 AMC AMX
Not all the cars on display are radical customs. There are classes for restored originals, and "Conservative Customs," like this AMX. The body is pretty much stock, but the interior has been redone in bright red, white, and blue vinyl and under the hood there's a fire-breathing 423-cubic inch V-8 with 12:1 compression and Edelbrock heads good for 500 horsepower and 536 lb-ft of torque.
1962 Cadillac Convertible
Perhaps the coolest part of this Candy-Tangerine colored conservative custom is the Louis Vuitton vinyl used on the seats. Imagine how many New York street corner handbags had to give their life for this car!
1973 Chevy Vega "Funkist"
Even unloved compacts like AMC Gremlins and Vegas get their day in the rod-n-custom sun. This owner no longer worries about his aluminum engine melting down, as power now comes from a supercharged 355 painted in matching Funkist orange.
2008 Hudson Stinger
There was even a "new car" launch at AutoRama this year. Sort of. The Stinger qualifies as a motorcycle, and is designed to be adapted to practically any (preferably water-cooled) motorcycle. Remove the front fork and the body bolts to the motorcycle, with many of the controls adapting to those from the bike's handlebars. Hudson will sell turn-key Stingers for $26,500; much less if you provide the motorcycle. Perfect if you've buggered up the front of your bike and have lost the nerve to fix it and return to two-wheeled transport.
1949 Cadillac Sedanette "Bad Cad Zeus"
This malevolent looking beast spent the '60s terrorizing Detroit's east side as a street racer, running first an L88 Corvette motor and then other big blocks. With a 4.10 axle, it reportedly ran in the low 12s all day long. Today it still uses a GM big-block crate motor and has been restored to "Conservative" standards.
1970 Ice Truck
This one is an authentic oldie, having been built in 1970 and featured on the August cover of sister publication Hot Rod magazine. Clearly built for show, it's intimidating to imagine steering those enormous front tires with no evidence of power assist, using the tiny wheel that sprouts straight up from between the driver's legs. We won't contemplate the implications of a frontal collision either...Scouts!
1985 Chevy Monte Carlo Wagon
Two-door wagons made from cars that the factory never wagonized abound at Cobo. This one envisions a Magnum-style tailgate offering access to a killer (and likely deafening) sound system. Naturally it also sports the de-riguer air suspension and suicide doors as well.
1941 Lincoln Zephyr
Snuggled down beneath that long pointy hood is a honking Viper V-10, plumbed to ingest its intake charge through the sets of portholes located on each front fender, kind of reversing the traditional heat-exhausting role of the porthole.