Show Coverage: Meguiar’s 2016 Detroit Autorama

For more than six decades, the Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama, presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts, has rolled into Cobo Center in downtown Detroit and delivered to the masses the current state of hot rodding. And, by all standards, things are looking great!

There is 623,000 square-feet of floor space in Cobo Center, the site of every Detroit Autorama since 1962. Organizers did their best to fill every inch of it.

Mark Gentile, Jr., slid into the show with his ’37 Ford pickup, which is slammed on the ground. Old pickup truck bodies are still affordable, and are a less expensive way to get into the street rod hobby.

Massive crowds filled the 600,000 square-foot facility each day, all there to witness to one of the best indoor car shows in the country. The Autorama takes in all sorts of vehicles, motorcycles, race cars, customs, and even a few speed boats, and has become known internationally as a place to display your newly-finished ride.

Cal and Christina Dent went all out with their Heavy Metal ’53 Cadillac and had Ryan’s Rod & Kustom turn their vision into a reality. Chris Ryan painted the slate gray convertible, and there’s a 427 LS7 powering the ride.

From New York, Keith Goggin had a great spot in the show for his ’55 Studebaker. The green and white color combo used on the exterior was carried over to the interior, with green carpet below and white door panels, steering wheel, and seating.

The show is actually split in two, with an upstairs and a downstairs. The upstairs area is what you’d expect to find at a big-time indoor show, with hundreds of glossy vehicles on display, as well as many vendor booths, a large toy and collectible area, and even two of the Big Three: Ford and Chevrolet, presenting the latest offerings to the public.

Ed Laman’s ’48 GMC panel truck was built at Langs Custom Auto in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania and features body and paintwork from Langs’ Matt Dimeler. Under the hood an LS3 6.2-liter motor powers the vehicle, and it rolls on American Racing wheels.

Jon Wright has owned this ’36 Ford roadster for a few decades, but Squeeg Jerger did the recent metal work on the car, and it was finished at Custom Chrome Plating in Ohio. A 351 Ford motor with three twos is under the hood, and Doug Jerger sprayed the deep black paint.

Another California car in the show belongs to James Eudy, whose ’60 Corvette was in the Radical Sports class due to the heavy customizing, and one-piece flip forward nose section. The rear fenders were widened 3 inches, and a ZO6 motor is bolted to a Tremec six-speed transmission.

The Autorama Extreme (referred to by some as “the basement”) is housed downstairs, and puts a spotlight on more traditional-style hot rods and customs, as well as vendor booths that cater to the lifestyle.

Mike Boerema’s chopped and channeled ’27 T coupe was pretty fast with just a naturally-aspirated 278-inch Flathead, and we can only guess what it’s like now that he’s added a TorqStorm supercharger to the mix.

Tony Vestuto made a splash with his ’41 Willys Gasser coupe with some outrageous lace painting techniques going on. It almost makes you miss the Dyers-blown small-block! Tony claims it’s a street car, and we’d love to see it there.

Upstairs you can find autograph sessions with trending television stars, while downstairs you can purchase original hot rod artwork and have it signed by the artist. Upstairs in the Motor City Auto Art Mavens section, pinstripers from around the world attend and donate art they created on show day to an onsite public auction that runs every few hours to benefit Leader Dogs For The Blind. At this show, $50,000 was raised for the charitable organization.

Not your normal shop truck, this ’55 F-100 came from owner-builder Dustin Foust. A 545 Ford big-block resides up front, and the ride rests on a custom chassis assembled with an independent front and rear suspension.

Neil Blackie is one of the handful of Canadian hot rodders with a car in the show. His ’66 Chevy Nova was ultra straight, due to the bodywork and paint rendered by Randy Colyn Restoration & Rod Shop. Up front, an LS1 Camaro motor is backed to a L460E transmission.

Downstairs, rockabilly bands pound out the tunes all weekend long, and a group of 20 pinup girls compete for a chance to win $700, and add another title to their resume. You can also find legendary customizer Gene Winfield over at the Chop Shop performing a chop on some type of vehicle.

Lots of great custom touches on Jesse Wolfsen’s ’40 Mercury convertible, including frenched headlights, skirted fenders, pleated white interior, flipper caps, and wide whites.

Jason Graham has been building great-looking rods for customers in his Portland, Tennessee shop, but this chopped ‘n’ slammed ’40 Merc is for himself, and it’s a testament to his fine fabrication skills.

A special area was set aside for concept cars of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which included the ’59 Cadillac Cyclone — the last dream car created under the Harley Earl era. Futuristic features included a flashing light and warning sound when a vehicle or object comes into the car’s path.

But one of the top reasons the Autorama has attained the status level it has is because of the Don Ridler Memorial Award. Ridler was an early promoter of the show and, after he passed away early in his life, the show organizers decided to honor his memory with an award named for him; 2016 was the 52nd time they’ve handed out the prize.

Danny Schaffer lives in California, but he debuted his ’64 Fairlane Sports Coupe at the Detroit Autorama. Subtle and clean, the Ford uses a 600-horse Coyote motor and a Tremec T56 trans, has Standox moss green paint, and was built at American Speed Company in Michigan.

Gerard Feigl used Axalta candy apple red to cover his ’60 Starliner. It’s powered by a 4.6-liter twin-cam backed up to an AOD transmission. Most of the body has been de-chromed and a custom grille adds a futuristic look to the full-sized Sixties-era cruiser.

The Ridler award has since become one of the top prizes in the country, one that both car owners and car builders look to obtain. Of all the possible entries in any given year, judges pare them down to eight vehicles (collectively known as the Pirelli Great 8), from which one winner is decided upon.

Ron Dunn bought this shoebox new in 1950 and immediately took it to Valley Custom’s Neil Emory to be customized. With a 5.5-inch section, the rod got a lot of looks in its day, but was sideswiped in 1957, rebuilt, then languished in a driveway for decades. In 2006 it was bought and stored until 2015, when it was restored to its original look by Steve Frisbee, who won the Autorama’s Preservation Award for his efforts.

Larry Powell’s ’25 Model T is not chopped but it is heavily channeled. Gary Roberson oversaw the build, highlighted with an inky black paint job by Todd Powell.

The eight cars are built to such an extreme level of fit and finish, no one knows how the judges are able to decide which one is best. It has to be a very hard job. This year the Ridler title went to Billy and Debbie Thomas of Georgetown, Texas for their exceptional ’39 Olds convertible.

Don’t recognize a ’56 Chevy when you see it? Dennis Heapy used influences and styling cues from a dozen or so customizers of the ‘50s and ‘60s to complete the work on his roadster, built and painted by the owner in his backyard garage.

Bob Gratton’s Model A had the traditional look down pat. Travis Hess painted the unique color, and Hilton Hot Rods built the coupe using a Ross Racing engine and an interior from Mikey Seats.

This was the 64th annual Detroit Autorama, and it seems the show just keeps better and better each year. Though there have been “up” and “down” years in the past, this year’s event was very strong, with lots of great cars to check out, and we can hardly wait for the 65th next year!

There is a big evening party at the show called the Ridler Ball, where folks are inducted into the show’s Circle of Champions — the Autorama’s hall of fame. The prior year’s Ridler winner is always inducted, this year being Don Voth (far left). Charlie Rose (second left) has been a fixture at the show since its inception, while customizer Gene Winfield’s (second right) life has been highlighted in book form. Michael Kinsman (far right) has spent 50 years in the automotive industry, including time as the vice president of Gratiot Auto Supply.

Gasser T-birds always look great. Kevin Doolittle’s ’55 is stuffed with a 427 small-block Ford topped with Hilborn injection poking through the hood. Pete Clark and Scott Bonnell are the builders, and Bonnell’s Collision sprayed the paint.

Before it was a glossy candy apple red show car, Gary Zaborowski’s ’40 Ford was a race car and, in 2003, hit the wall at the drag strip at 167 mph. The coupe was rebuilt and looks better than ever.

There was also a pinstriped event that raised money for the charity Leader Dog For The Blind. Motor City Auto Art Mavens have organized an extensive panel jam for several years now, and was able to raise $50,000 at this year’s  show by auctioning off artwork and other items throughout the weekend.

About the author

Eric Geisert

A journalist and photographer, Eric Geisert, worked for three years at VW Trends magazine before joining Street Rodder magazine in 1991. In 2002, he was named one of The 50 Who Made A Difference at the 50th Detroit Autorama and, in 2004, was named editor of Kit Car magazine, a 30-year-old title. By 2006, a move back to Street Rodder came with a senior editor position and, in 2007, Eric was inducted into the Circle of Champions, the Detroit Autorama's Hall of Fame. In 2013, he became a freelance writer and works on his expansive car collection that includes a ’34 five-window Ford coupe, '32 Ford roadster, reproduction '59 Lotus 11, 356 Porsche speedster, and '59 Karmann Ghia.
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