Detroit Autorama 2011
By Charles Krome
When the entire auto industry cratered a few years back, the effect obviously was felt far beyond the new-vehicle market. But I wonder if any area of automotive culture was hit quite as hard as the custom-car segment. By 2007 or so, custom hot rods were well on their way to escaping their blue-collar roots and becoming a fixture in modern-day pop culture. People were pimping their rides and overhaulin’ their beaters, and guys like Chip Foose were gaining a fair amount of public recognition.
He had already garnered every major custom-car award, many multiple times, and had just signed a development deal with Ford, which showed a Foose edition F-150 at the 2007 New York Auto Show. And he was a design consultant on renovations to the Motor City Casino—sort of a big deal here in Detroit—and was putting his Hemisfear hot rod—an evolution of the Foose design that became the Plymouth Prowler—into limited production. One of them was even sold at Barrett-Jackson, for a cool $340,000.
It marked a big change for the hot-rod world, which had long been shunned by both the automotive elite and the public, primarily out of socio-economic prejudice. Despite the fact that some of the cars could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and showcased the kind of precision engineering that would put Mercedes to shame, the stereotype of the hot-rod aficionado as an uncouth redneck with grease under his nails was exceedingly difficult to overcome. Yet it was slowly happening … until the auto industry completely fell apart.
Today, well, I’m not sure what Chip is up to, but custom-car culture certainly seems to be on the rebound, at least in Detroit. That was the setting for this past weekend’s 59th annual Autorama show, and it was jam packed with cars, trucks and hot-rod fans—myself included.
As is the case every year, the highlight of Autorama was the announcement of the Ridler Award, which goes to the top car to make its public debut at the show. The award is named after Don Ridler, a local promoter who helped turn Autorama into a national affair before he passed away in 1963.
This year’s winner was Bruce Ricks, whose 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible was nothing short of exquisite. Like many of the Ridler competitors, it mixed old-school elements like an original Ford SOHC 427 V8, with later hardware, such as a Tremec five-speed and Baer brakes, and a fair amount of custom fabrication work, including a one-of-a-kind cast-aluminum intake manifold.
But that was just one of the highlights: There also was a funky four-wheel-drive roadster that started its life as a 1927 Ford, a long and low two-tone Buick Riviera covered in one of the deepest deep-black finishes I’ve ever seen, a nice collection of flamed-out rods from featured builder Bobby Alloway, displays from GM, Ford and Chrysler, and the proverbial much, much more.
The bottom line: If you’re a real gearhead and you haven’t been to a show like this in a while—or ever—you should find out what you’re missing.