The Detroit Autorama, also known as "America's Greatest Hot Rod Show" is a showcase of custom cars and hot rods held each year at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan, in either late February or early March.
It is promoted by Championship Auto Shows Incorporated (CASI) and hosted by Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA), part of the International Show Car Association (ISCA) schedule for the Summit Racing Equipment Show Car Series, which includes other prestigious show car events such as the Chicago World of Wheels and Houston Autorama.
The Detroit Autorama is best remembered as home to the Don Ridler Memorial Award, which is presented to the "best in show" at each year's event, and has been won by many well-known car designers and builders, such as Chip Foose, Jerry Pennington, Troy Trepanier, and Bobby Alloway.
The first-ever Detroit Autorama was held at the University of Detroit Memorial Building on Six Mile Rd and Livernois, on January 31 and February 1, 1953. It featured only 40 cars, and was hosted by members of the Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA), which was created only a year before to "organize small local clubs into one unified body that could raise the money needed to pull drag racing off the streets and into a safe environment". Eventually, the MHRA grew to also include clubs from the custom-car and hot-rodding scene, such as the Bearing Burners and Spark Plugs, who combined efforts to pull-off the first event, along with other Detroit Car Clubs such as The Road Kings, Shifters, and Milwinders.
For the second show, activities were moved from Six Mile to the Michigan State Fairgrounds Colosseum, where it was held from 1954 to 1960. For the fourth event in 1956, the MHRA hired local band and sporting-event promoter Don Ridler to help the show reach a broader audience. Ridler served as the show's first-true promoter until his death in 1963. The following year, the MHRA created a "best-in-show" award for Autorama-named after the man who made the biggest impact in the show's first eleven years, and thus the Ridler Award was born.
The 9th Annual Detroit Autorama was the first to be held at the new Cobo Center, off of Washington Blvd in downtown. That year featured a new-record 230 cars competing, and filled all 100,00 square feet of Cobo's lower-level basement. The 1961 show's last day also broke the event attendance record by drawing a crowd of approximately 35,000 people. During these early years at Cobo, the event began to attract the competition of big industry names from outside the Motor City, including George Barris, Darryl Starbird, Carl Casper, and "Big Daddy" Ed Roth. And as part of Ford Motor Company's "Ford Custom Car Caravan", the show also generated attention from other big name car-builders-and-customizers, including Bill Cushenberry, Jack Florence, Dean Jefferies, and Gene Winfield.
Though the show was by then in its twelfth year, it was first in 1964 that the Don Ridler Memorial Award was introduced as the event's top-prize. The Inaugural Don Ridler Award went to Macomb's Al Bergler, with a Competition Slingshot Dragster (Bergler went on to be known in the National Hot Rod Association-NHRA-as the driver of the Motown Shaker Top Fuel Funny Car).
Following Bergler's win in 1964, the next ten years saw both a jump in exhibitors, as well as the number of professional custom-car builders competing for the show's new top-prize. From 1965 to 1973, all nine Ridler-winning entries were either owned-or-built by The Alexander Brothers (Larry & Mike), Jerry Pennington, or George Busti-all of whom were professional builders.
The 1970s brought on some of the craziest and unique rides to have ever won the Ridler.[according to whom?] Jerry Pennington's rear-engine Corvette ("Scorpion""), and hand-built custom Street Rod ("Devilfish") featured many of the era's trends, including shag carpeting, velvet seating, and sharp-winged edges. 1974's event was a first for Autorama, as Wimauma, Florida's Don Campbell and his '27 Ford became the first out-of-state entry to capture the Ridler Award. The decade was then capped-off with a series of six Ford T-Bucket-Ridler winners, including three '23's ('76, '78, '79), two '27's ('74 & '75), and one '26 ('77). The Ford Roadster-trend continued throughout the 1980s as well, with two '34 coupes ('81 & '82), a '28 ('80), a '29 ('83), a '33 ('85) and a '35 ('84). The first non-roadster to win the Ridler since 1973 was Dale Hunt's late-model Pontiac Grand Am Pro-Stock at the 34th annual Detroit Autorama in 1986. Hunt's Grand Am remains one of only two Pro-Stock cars to have won the Ridler (the other being Bob Rizzoli's '92 Mercedes 560 SEC).
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the Autorama continued to grow into one of the most prestigious car shows in the country.[according to whom?] To assist in growing, the next generation of professional builders and renowned car owners began to make their way to Cobo every winter in hopes of capturing the much-desired Ridler Award. Among them were California's Bobby Alloway and Boyd Coddington, Memphis' George Poteet, along with many others. The only downside to this growing national attention was Michigan's dwindling presence. As exhibitors started traveling from across the country to fight for the show's top prize, many local Detroit and Michigan entries became less competitive against cars from other states, most of whom were being built with much larger budgets. Though the Alexander Brothers continued to build local cars for the show (including a Great-8 competitor in 2012), to-date,[when?] Rochester Hills's Dave Emery and his '32 Ford Roadster ("Revolver") were the last Michigan-built entry to win the Ridler Award at the 45th Annual event in 1997.
The new millennium brought forth a new form of styling and look to the Ridler and Great 8 cars. It also brought with it yet another generation of professional car-builders. Wes Rydell's '35 Chevy "Grand Master" became designer Chip Foose's first build to win the Ridler Award in 2002. Foose returned again the following year with a '34 Mercury "Stallion" for Arizona's Ron Whiteside, which made him only the third builder in the show's history, and the first since Jerry Pennington, to win the Ridler Award two-consecutive years in-a-row.
Foose returned again in 2005 with a '36 Ford ("Impression"), this one built for Littleton, Colorado's Ken Reister. It was with Impression that Chip set a record, becoming the first builder to ever win three Ridler Awards, having won them all in a four-year span. Foose would snap his own record yet again ten years later, when his '65 Chevy Impala ("Imposter") for Don and Elma Voth captured his fourth Ridler at the 63rd Annual Detroit Autorama in 2015.
Beginning in 2007, Ridler cars transitioned from individual-builds to group-builds. Ross and Beth Myer's '36 Ford ("First Love") was the first Ridler winning-car to be built by a custom car shop in the modern era (they did so with "Rad Rides By Troy" and owner/operator Troy Trepanier). The transitioned continued with 2010 winner Tammy Ray and her '34 Ford Phaeton ("Gold Digger") built by T & T Customs and owner/operator Ted Thompson, 2012 winner Dwayne Peace and his '55 Thunderbird built by Torq'd Design Lab & Greening Auto Company, and 2013 winner Rob & Deb Cizek and their 1940 Ford Coupe ("Checkered Past")-built by Cal Customs.
In recent years,[when?] the roadster-trend has begun to fade-out. Since 2008, only four roadsters or pre-1940 cars have gone on to win the Ridler (Ray's "Gold Digger", Cizek's "Checkered Past", along with Doug Cooper's '32 Ford "Duecenberg", and Billy Thomas' '39 Oldsmobile). Also, another streak dating back to Dave Emery's 1997-winner was snapped in 2014, when Osoyoos, British Columbia's J.F Launier and his '64 Buick Riviera won the Ridler as a single Owner/Builder entry.
In 2002, the Detroit Autorama celebrated its 50th anniversary with special promotions from Murray's Auto Parts, and inducted an honorary list of "50 People Who Made a Difference" during that year's "Ridler-Ball". A hall-of-fame, entitled "The Autorama: Circle of Champions", was also introduced in 1997, and has inducted at least one member every years since. The "Circle" of inductees include George Barris (1999), Ed Roth (2000), Crain Communication's Keith Crain (2003), Street Rodder's Brian Brennan (2010), Chip Foose (2013), and Hurst-Shifter girl Linda Vaughn (2014). Autorama also introduced for their 50th anniversary a special "Builder/Owner of the Year" award-presented every year to a past Ridler-winning or major show contributor. The winner is honored at the annual Ridler Ball in Cobo's ball room, and is featured in a special exhibit within the show which showcases the owner/builder's previous work. Past "Builders of the Year" include the Alexander Brothers (2002), Blackie Gejeian (2004), Ed Roth (2006), So-Cal Speed Shop (2007), Gene Winfield (2008), Darryl Starbird (2009), Bobby Alloway (2011), and Troy Trepanier (2014).
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ridler Award in 2013, the 61st annual Detroit Autorama "Builder of the Year" exhibit was replaced with the largest-gathering of former Ridler Winning-cars ever assembled. Some of the cars included in the exhibition were Al Bergler's "Aggravation", The Alexander Brother's "Venturian", Pennington's "Devilfish", Bob Rizzoli's '92 Mercedes, Rydell's "Grandmaster", Reister's "Impression", Ray's "Gold Digger", Bruce Rick's "Sunliner", and Peace's "55-T-Bird". In addition to the gathering of former Ridler-cars, the exhibit included a special Saturday-autograph session, which brought out names like Bergler, Alloway, and Foode-to sign commorative "50th Anniversary Artwork" with each of their cars on it. To cap-off the celebration, the winners of the 50th Ridler Award (Rob & Deb Cizek & their 1940 Ford "Checkered Past") were presented with a one-of-a-kind Gold Ridler trophy unlike any given-before or after.
The Detroit Autorama has been put together in-collaboration between the MHRA and Championship Auto Shows (CASI) since 1961. In 1963, CASI President Bob Larivee Sr. helped the MHRA form a new governing body for show car events, titled the International Show Car Association (ISCA). The ISCA has since become the leading promoter and governing body of show car events and competitions in the country. Along with CASI (now "North America’s largest producer of indoor hot rod shows") they co-promote and judge events from coast-to-coast, ranging from the Boston World of Wheels to the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California. All ISCA events have a series of "Outstanding Awards" for more than three-dozen classes. Each one counts as a single point in the ISCA point standings, which is split into four overall classes: Rod, Custom, Truck, and Bike. If at the end of a season, a single contributor has four Outstanding Awards in a single category, they are locked-into the ISCA Championship Finals, which is held every as part of the Chicago World of Wheels, the week following the show at Cobo. Many Ridler Winners and Great-8 cars have gone-on to attend other ISCA shows and win an overall Class Championship. Most recently Tammy Ray and her '34 "Gold Digger" did so in back-to-back seasons in 2010 & 2011.
The most events ever on an ISCA schedule was 99, set during the 1982–83 season. The current schedule features 30 events, including the Detroit Autorama, and the ISCA Championship Finals-held within the Chicago World of Wheels. It promotes and judges shows in 14 states and four provinces, and typically runs from Thanksgiving weekend through mid-April.
Autorama's "best in show" award is the Don Ridler Memorial Award, named after Don Ridler, a former Michigan State Football Player, Lawrence Tech Athletic Director, and Autorama's first promoter from 1956-1963.
It was awarded for the first time at the 12th annual Autorama in 1964, and has been awarded every year since.
The Pirelli "Great 8"
On the application for Autorama, a box is to be checked to indicate to the promotional staff if the submitted entry is a Ridler contender. Those entries who've checked-off the box on their applications are told to move into Cobo the Wednesday before the show, a full day ahead of other exhibitors. Then on Thursday Night before the show opens, the ISCA judging staff goes through all the Ridler Contenders, and sort-out which eight of them outweigh the rest.
These "Great 8" entries were formerly announced during the annual Ridler Ball inside the Cobo Ballroom the Friday Night of the show, but are now announced earlier in the day, usually before the show opens to the public at noon on Friday, in order to accommodate online-publications and social media outlets. Each car has a banner within its display, distinguishing it as part of the "Pirelli Great 8".
On Friday night, while the owners and builders are attending the Ridler Ball, an entire staff of ISCA Judges are assigned to solely the Great 8 cars, and go through each one before making a final decision the following morning. Once a decision is made, the winner is announced during the Sunday Night Awards Ceremony-again in the Ballroom; after all Great-8 owners have been previously brought-up on stage, and a short video presentation showcasing all eight-nominees to the tune of Europe's "Final Countdown"-is completed.
The Ridler Award is presented to the winner by the management of GM Performance Parts, and is also given an embroidered jacket and a $10,000 check. Along with receiving a personal Ridler Award with only their name engraved in it, the owner's name is also engraved among the list of past recipients on the full-scale Ridler trophy, which is kept at GM Performance's Headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
The criteria to win the Ridler is to be the "most outstanding from among the cars being shown for the first time". It must also have "limited media exposure" prior to the event, and must be "minimally operable", which requires it to "start, stop, move forward and backward under its own power, turn left and right and stop using the brake pedal".
The 53 recipients of the Don Ridler Memorial Award are shown below:
|1964||Al Bergler||AA Comp[clarification needed] Bantam coupe||Aggravation|
|1965||Bob Massaron||1956 Chevrolet Custom||Venturian|
|1966||Maynard Rupp||1966 Chevy Malibu SS 396 Funny Car||Chevoom|
|1967||Mike Alexander||1966 Dodge Pickup||Deora|
|1968||Chuck Miller||Hand-built fire truck||"Fire Truck"|
|1969||Larry Alexander||Ford T roadster||Top Banana|
|1970||Jan Bergel||1966 Dodge Hemi Charger||Electro Charger|
|1971||John Greer||"C" Cab truck||Brinks Express|
|1972||Jerry Pennington||Rear-engined Corvette||Scorpion|
|1973||Jerry Pennington||Hand-built street rod||Devilfish|
|1974||Don Campbell||1927 Ford T sedan||Tartan T|
|1975||Bob Gutzke||1927 Model T Altered rod coupe|
|1976||Robert Sweatt||1923 Ford AA/FA roadster||El Toro|
|1977||Frank Camden||1926 Ford T sedan||Frigid T|
|1978||Bob Anzalone||1923 Ford T roadster||Black Diamond|
|1979||Frank Morabito||1923 Ford T touring||Garagefather|
|1980||Everett Rezendes||1928 Ford sedan delivery||The Cranberry Delivery|
|1981||Bob Tiano||1934 Ford 3-window coupe|
|1982||John Pappert||1934 Ford Model Y|
|1983||Ron Barnum||1929 Ford 3-door sedan delivery[clarification needed]||Renaissance Delivery|
|1984||Bob Reed||1934 Ford Altered street coupe||The Khrome Shoppe Special|
|1985||Bobby Alloway||1933 Ford Victoria Altered street sedan|
|1986||Dale Hunt||1986 Pontiac Grand Am Pro Stock||special thanks to Dewayne White for his hard work to complete this car|
|1987||John Kolbusz||1934 Ford Altered street roadster|
|1988||Mal Kieswetter||1932 Ford 3-window coupe||The Gambler|
|1989||Mike Baliestiero||1934 Ford cabriolet Altered street roadster|
|1990||Dan Webb||1932 Ford Altered street roadster|
|1991||Tony Carlini||1933 Ford Altered street roadster|
|1992||Jimmy Stewart||1932 Ford sedan|
|1993||Dave Stitzer||1940 Ford coupe|
|1994||Fred Warren||1937 Ford coupe||Aero Coupe|
|1995||Bob Rizzoli||1992 Mercedes 560 SEC|
|1996||George Poteet||1937 Ford roadster|
|1997||Dave Emery||1932 Ford roadster|
|1998||Eric Peratt & Ken Reister||1933 Ford roadster||21st Century Comet|
|1999||Bob Young||1932 Ford 3-window coupe|
|2000||Paul Atkins||1933 Ford speedster coupe (phantom)|
|2001||Chris Williams||1949 Chevy Coupe||M-80|
|2002||Wesley & Bob Rydell||1935 Chevy||Grand Master|
|2003||Ron Whiteside||1934 Mercury||The Stallion|
|2004||Al Brockly||1937 Willys coupe|
|2005||Ken Reister||1936 Ford hardtop convertible||Impression|
|2006||Kevin & Karen Alstott||1935 Ford|
|2007||Ross Myers||1936 Ford||First Love|
|2008||Mike Warn||1960 Nash Rambler||Ferrambo Ferrambo Project Profile|
|2009||Doug Cooper||1932 Ford B400||Deucenberg|
|2010||Tammy Ray||1933 Ford Phaeton||Gold Digger|
|2011||Bruce Ricks||1956 Ford Sunliner Convertible||Suncammer|
|2012||Dwayne Peace, Tyler, Texas||1955 Ford Thunderbird (Pictured in Photo)||Peace 55 T-Bird Peace 55 T-Bird Project Profile|
|2013||Ron & Deb Cizek, Bennington, NE||1940 Ford Coupe||Checkered Past Checkered Past Project Profile|
|2014||J.F. Launier, Osoyoos, BC||1964 Buick Riviera||Rivision|
|2015||Don & Elma Voth||1965 Chevrolet Impala||The Imposter|
|2016||Billy & Debbie Thomas||1939 Oldsmobile convertible||Olds Cool |
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- Autorama Online
- 2'09 brief history of Autorama since 1'53, including leadership by Bob Larivee, Promotions, Inc...
- Autorama#58 - Detroit Free Press 2/28/2010 gallery of 16 photos plus link to story
- Autorama#58 - gallery of 78 photos, Detroit News 3 January 2012