Read about "America's Greatest Hot Rod Show" in the September '02 issue of Custom Rodder Magazine.
50th Annual Detroit Autorama
"America's Greatest Hot Rod Show"
From the February, 2009 issue of Custom Rodder
Author: Jerry Weesner
Indoor winter rod and custom shows have always been (at least since the L.A. Armory show of 1948) an exciting venue for the general public to attend, whether they are actual auto enthusiasts or merely those seeking some diversion in entertainment aside from movies or bowling, etc. This is especially true for the Midwest and East Coast regions of our country, where the indoor auto show quickly became a circus of sorts, allowing a break from the seasonal doldrums bestowed on residents by good old Mother Nature. At first, most of these shows were put on by local car clubs, featuring, pretty much, their own cars. Flushed with success, a few of the club members who helped organize and run these shows became enthusiast-entrepreneurs themselves, turning their talents at car show promotion into a career. One such show is was (and is) the Detroit Autorama, and one such individual is Bob Larivee, Sr.
Now, I've been to my fair share of indoor car shows, starting in my youth and continuing on through today. First as an enthusiast, and then as a professional photojournalist, I've even seen a couple of 50th anniversaries. But I've got to admit that for Detroit's Golden Anniversary, they pulled out all the stops. I feel I've been to the big city and seen the elephant, for indeed, this was the "Greatest Show on Earth!" This isn't just me saying this either, for everyone I've talked to has expressed much the same (elephant remark aside), no matter the area or country they're from. So how did such a show with so many historically significant rods and customs and so many legends of our hobby in attendance come about? For this I went to the history books and did a little digging. So, without further praise, I'll just say that for myself and the countless others old enough to really appreciate the experience with all its historical significance, thanks for the use of the hall! The following then is a brief account of how everything came about this past 50 years to converge at this particular time and place: February 22-24, 2002.
The very first Autorama was put on by the MHRA (Michigan Hot Rod Association) at the University of Detroit Field House in January of 1953, with 50 cars. The second Autorama the following year was moved to the Michigan State Fairgrounds, and for 1955, the third show was held at the Detroit Artillery Armory. Then it was back to the fairgrounds during 1956-60 for the fourth through eighth Autorama. For the show's ninth consecutive year of successful operation, it moved to Cobo Hall (now Cobo Center), where it has stayed ever since. In 1957, Don Ridler, a professional promotions agent, was hired to add his exceptional skills to improve the show--and improve it he did. Don brought popular musical acts and bands into the mix of rods and customs, such as Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Big Bopper, and Duane Eddy, to appeal to a larger audience--which it most certainly did! The year 1957 was also a pivotal year for another man, as well, for this was when Bob Larivee, Sr., a MHRA board member, became manager of the club's new dragstrip. (Note that I have always considered 1957 a pivotal year across the board for rodding and customizing, and this is just another example of why it's so.)
Of course with their mutual hobby, Bob and Don immediately became fast friends, with Bob learning the ins-and-outs of the business of promotion from Don. In fact, Bob was such a good student that he and his brother Marvin founded Promotions, Inc., and started producing car shows in not only the U.S., but Canada, as well. Bob Larivee, Sr., not only pushed for the move to Cobo Hall in 1961, but with his excellent track record, sold the MHRA on his new company and took on the task of producing the Autorama, as well. It's been said that although Don Ridler wasn't in favor of the move to Cobo, he's credited with making the new, larger quarters of Autorama so successful through his innovative approach of adding big-name bands and personalities to the entertainment roster. In 1963, after Don's untimely death at the age of 54, the Don Ridler Memorial Award was created in his honor, and first bestowed in the following year to Al Bergler's competition coupe. In June of 1963, Bob was also instrumental in launching the International Car Show Association (ISCA), an organization set up to create a common set of rules for judging the Detroit Autorama and other ICAS venues. Then, in 1966, the International Auto Show Producers Association (IASPA) was formed, with Bob serving as its first president. This was an organization whose roster of members included car show promoters from across the nation. In 1993, Bob Larivee, Sr., and Promotions, Inc., turned the Autorama's keys over to Bob Larivee, Jr., and his partners in Championship Auto Shows, Inc. (CASI), and a new era was born. Bob Larivee, Sr., has kept busy doing what he loves most, and his presence was felt at the 50th Annual Detroit Autorama, as the man seemed to be everywhere at once, his untiring energy and devotion to Autorama cannot be ignored.
"But other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?" Well, both she and I thought it was just swell, thanks! Hey, I figure that if I wasn't able to experience the first edition of Autorama firsthand, then this was the second-best time to be there. It was an amazing experience, seeing cars I recognized from the "Little Pages," rubbing elbows with legendary names (who literally could be found in most every aisle), and having one of the best times of my automotive life. Friends and acquaintances from all over the country were there, and I was introduced to so many people significant to the development of our hobby that everything seemed to become a blur. I spent some quality time walking the show with friends Kevin Anderson and John Kouw, checking out custom work with Dick Dean, discussing wacky showcars with Chris Dixon, talking custom golf carts with Tom Liechty, and custom painting with Art Himsl, Herb Martinez, and Yosemite Sam. I also checked out Norm Grabowski's latest skull carvings--yes, his whittlin' hand has fully recovered and his art is even more amazing than ever. I then played fly-on-the-wall while Jack Stewart autographed his book on the L.A. Roadsters and our own Dave Bell drew requests on Alexander Bros. posters. Renewing acquaintances with many others, including Keith Ashley, Randy Church, and Dave Auten, Jr. was a treat, too, as well as enjoying the company of Teddy Z and Mike Hines. I unfortunately missed bumping into other friends in attendance, like Jim Palmer, just because of the crush of humanity. I know I've left out mentioning a few hundred equally fantastic folks, but I guess that's what happens when you get to be my age.
To sum up, the Alexander Bros. display was absolutely amazing and worth the trip all in itself. I've known Mike Alexander for several years now, having met him at my good friend Bill Hines' shop (Bill was unable to attend, and was missed--same for another legendary customizer, Gene Winfield), but it was a real honor to finally meet Larry Alexander. These guys really stole the show--after all, Detroit is their town. And least I forget, Bill Hines turned 80-years-young on March 23, so happy 50th birthday Detroit Autorama, and happy 80th birthday Bill--you've got 30 years on the show!
The whole rodding spectrum...
The whole rodding spectrum was at this year's Autorama in Detroit--from kustoms to customs! On the one end of the styling curve was Tracy Tichner's "Pretty in Pink," a flamed '50 Merc done up with a white and purple interior, which was in contrast to Chris Williams' M-80 Chevy--last year's Don Ridler Memorial Award winner built by Randy Clark.
How do you make a '67 Chevy...
How do you make a '67 Chevy wagon look good? Ask Brookville, IL's Bill Jelinek. His Bow Tie used a 350/350 engine and trans combo, Billet Specialties wheels, and featured a leather interior from Ogden Top & Trim.
Rick Cox, from Lansing, MI,...
Rick Cox, from Lansing, MI, rolled into the show with his '61 Olds 88. Powered by a 394 Sky Rocket motor, the custom is fitted with Radir wheels, as well as a cloth and leather interior by Bob Fender.
How cool is this? Barry Penfound...
How cool is this? Barry Penfound from Elyria, OH, added portholes to his '59 Buick LeSabre after nosing and decking the project. An Air Ride airbag suspension is found under each wheelwell, as well as 18- and 20-inch road wheels.
Gary Chopit built both these...
Gary Chopit built both these rides: a sliced-and-dropped '50 Merc (with a Caddy roof) for Phil Krasnoff, and a '92 Harley Heritage Softail for Ike Goldstein.
What has George Barris been...
What has George Barris been up to lately? He recently directed this '41 Chrysler project, nicknamed the Chrysler City Coupe, which was built by Jerry Kinds.
Former Ridler-winner Eric...
Former Ridler-winner Eric Peratt picked up the prestigious Alexander Brothers Award for the '51 Ford wagon he built out of a coupe (!) for Pine, CO's Jim Fynes. A sharp-looking Boss 429 is used for motorvation while Brian Bradford and Matt Halverson applied the brilliant DuPont paint.
Historic cars were everywhere,...
Historic cars were everywhere, including the "Deora," the Ridler-winner from 1967. The Dodge truck was one of several cars in a special display of vehicles built by the Alexander Brothers in the '60s, and both brothers (Mike and Larry) were on hand to answer questions.
That's Norm Grabowski about...
That's Norm Grabowski about to sign an autograph for an adoring fan. One of Norm's latest creations, the skull hand-carved from exotic woods, can be seen at the left.
Built a few years ago by Sam...
Built a few years ago by Sam Foose, this '49 Ford was recently purchased at the Barrett-Jackson auction by Ann Arbor, MI, resident Mike Johns. Arguably one of the best looking customs ever built, it's no doubt Mike is all smiles with his acquisition.
Called the "Baby Bat," the...
Called the "Baby Bat," the '65 AMF pedal car was modified by owner Mike Gaydos to emulate the famous custom built by Bill Hines. Gaydos even went so far as to have Hines do the paint on the lil' sidewalk cruiser!
How often do you see a '55...
How often do you see a '55 Chevy dressed as a full custom? Jim Goff did it right with his red ride, which utilized a white pleated interior for the full effect.
Wes and Bob Rydell are a father-and-son...
Wes and Bob Rydell are a father-and-son duo that hired some very talented designers and metalcrafters (chiefly Doug Peterson's team in Grand Forks, ND, and Chip Foose's group in Huntington Beach, CA) to customize this '35 Chevy sedan. The rod is a brilliant example of style, class, and design elegance, which is why it won this year's Don Ridler Memorial Award.
The Detroit Autorama Circle...
The Detroit Autorama Circle of Champions inducted three people into the elite group: (from left) longtime (27 years) show chairman Dick Forton, last year's Ridler winner Chris Williams, and promoter/enthusiast Bill Moeller.
Stanley Mouse's well-known...
Stanley Mouse's well-known artwork is collected all over the world, but his history involves a time when he was known for airbrushing T-shirts at car shows in the '60s (usually right alongside Ed "Big Daddy" Roth). He returned to his roots at this year's Autorama, airbrushing shirts and selling lithos. You can see more Mouse at www.mousestudios.com.