Please consider this post to be an exercise in automotive ecumenism. Sometimes car enthusiasts like to separate into tribes, Fords vs Chevys, road racers vs drag racers, customs vs concours. About a year ago I wrote a piece for Hemmings about the competition at the Detroit Autorama for the Ridler Award, that show’s top prize. Apparently some people are rather orthodox and fussy about their view of the car hobby. A few of the comments complained that Hemmings, a publication often devoted to 100 point concours or historically significant collectors’ cars, had deigned to slum among the customs at the Autorama. Before I had a chance to respond and point out that the same family that was showing Chip Foose’s Eldorod at the 2013 Autorama had won “best of show” with a prewar Mercedes at the 2012 Pebble Beach concours, a couple of other readers pointed out that the build quality on a Ridler level custom is at least the equal of a top shelf concours winner. We provide detailed coverage of the big corporate auto shows here at TTAC, but we haven’t covered the custom car scene much. That’s a shame because the Detroit Autorama is probably a better expression of enthusiasts’ car culture than the big NAIAS held a couple months earlier in the same Cobo Hall.
There are car guys that do attend both shows, which redounds to the benefit of enthusiasts. Some of the people who attend the Detroit Autorama are part of the automotive design community in the Motor City. That community includes staff designers at the Big 3, as well as Toyota and Hyundai/Kia who have design centers in the region, along with freelance designers and students at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. It’s an undeniable fact that features and trends first seen in the custom and hot rod world end up on production cars. Since the event is large and content-rich, I hope to be putting up a few posts on this year’s Autorama.
Getting back to that tribal thing, some in the hot rod and custom world look down on the Ridler competitors that are displayed in the front part of Cobo Hall. Downstairs at Cobo where the Autorama organizers put rat rods, works in progress, and other “Extreme” customs, you may hear a remark or two about the basement crowd being “real Detroit car culture” as opposed to the detailed to a fare thee well “checkbook hot rods” that come in from around the country to compete for the Ridler. Still, when tribal bone fides are put aside, nearly everyone that attends the Autorama admires the skill and talent that goes into the cars vying for that award.
Over the years the Ridler, named for Detroit area promoter and PR maven, the late Don Ridler, has developed into the most prestigious award in the world of custom cars. Only the top award at Pomona, California’s Grand National Roadster Show comes close and that’s restricted to more traditional style hot rod roadsters. A persuasive argument can be made that the Detroit Autorama is the best custom car show in the world. Participating in the build of a Ridler winner, or even doing the paint, bodywork or interior of one of the Great 8 finalists, can be a huge break in a fabricator’s career.
All manner of custom cars can compete for the Ridler and the Detroit custom show has become the place where high dollar hot rods and customs get revealed. One of the rules is that to be eligible for the Ridler Award, a car must not have been shown to the public (including publications of the build process) prior to that year’s Autorama.
It’s probably appropriate that a custom show in Detroit has a more diverse selection of competing cars than one in California. Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Detroit’s great Alexander Brothers (who made the Dodge Deora, Little Deuce Coupe and other award winning customs) were trying to get the attention of hot rod magazines based on the west coast, their ideas were regarded as being a bit outside the envelope. The California tribe had a different concept of the hot rod than the Detroit tribe. Much of hot rod and custom culture started in Southern California, but there’s a reason why they gravitated to fairly traditional looking vehicles based mostly on Fords from the 1920s and 1930s: rust, or rather a lack of it. In the late ’50s, those old Fords may not have been worth much, but in sunny California, they didn’t rust into nothingness, like cars around Detroit did, subjected to winter weather and salted roads. So Detroit customizers were more likely to be basing their projects on more recent cars than the trad rods of SoCal. Their projects were also more radical, also because of rust problems with donor cars. When the lower edges of doors, front and rear pans, and even complete rocker panels, were no longer there, the victim of the tinworm, that gave customizers in the midwest more freedom to create new and radical shapes, sometimes so radical that it was hard to tell just what the donor vehicle was to begin with.
Most years the majority of Ridler competitors seem to be pre war Fords and tri-five Chevys. This year was no exception with 7 of the 8 finalists wearing either the blue oval or a bow-tie. The winner, though, was neither a classic Ford, nor a 1950s Chevrolet, it was J.F. Launier’s 1964 Buick Riviera appropriately named “Revision”. Launier owns the car and his shop, J F Kustoms, did the job updating Bill Mitchell’s masterpiece with more than a few modern touches. Launier has built three Ridler finalists for other people and with Rivision he was specifically aiming to win the Ridler for himself, putting in approximately 20,000 hours of labor and over $300.000 in parts and materials.
Many of those 20,000 hours were devoted to creating what Launier considers to be more of a concept car than a custom. In back, the 3rd generation Riv’s boattail was grafted on and below the front bumper is a very contemporary looking and rather aggressive aero splitter. Body mods include that fastback roofline and rear window from a ’71 Riviera, hand formed fenders, hood and quarter panels as well as a completely fabricated rear section. The body is mounted on a one off custom perimeter frame that lets the body sit close tot he ground. All four wheels are unique to their corners. The interior is full leather, though those the interior’s most prominent feature is a huge intake duct that runs from the back of the car to the engine compartment. The reason for that duct is that the Rivision’s two turbochargers and related waste gates are mounted under glass in the rear of the car. With the hood down, all that plumbing and the car’s radical looks tricked more than a couple of observers into thinking that the the bright yellow Riviera is a midengine car but the 850 hp 6.2 liter GM LS family V8 sits about where the Riviera’s original Nailhead sat. Now that the subject has been brought up, though, I expect to see a midengined boattail Buick at a future Autorama. Use a first gen Toronado “unitized power package” transaxle and keep it in the E Body family.
The Autorama runs from Friday through Sunday and the Ridler Award winner is named late on Sunday, at the awards banquet. Prior to that announcement, eight finalists, today known as the Pirelli Great 8, are identified. I don’t envy the judges’ their task. To begin with, picking out 8 cars from the two dozen or so cars conceived and built to a level that puts them under Ridler consideration is hard enough. To my eyes, they all look amazing, with superlative build quality and clever design touches. Choosing one winner from eight worthy competitors is a job best reserved for experts.
Here are the remaining Great 8 finalists:
In 1956, the Chevy 210 was the brand’s middle trim level, in between the base 150 and the more luxurious Bel Air. I guess the supply of Bel Air hardtops must be running low because Dan Duffy of Marietta, GA started with a pillared two-door 210 and proudly named the bright metallic orange result “two ten” (if he makes a replica, perhaps he can sell the pair to a medical marijuana dispensary to use as promotional vehicles since 210 x 2=420). Tom Manner was responsible for the design and fabrication, while Thunder Valley Customs, of White, GA did the final body prep and paint. M&M Hot Rods, of Holly Pond, AL provided the interior. A 450 HP LS3 provides the motive force.
John and Phyllis Sadler of Little Rock, Arkansas own this ’57 Chevy hardtop that they call “Cross Hair”. At first glance it may appear to be just another tri-five Chevy but that’s only because the alterations, including a chopped top, are so subtly done. Unlike many top shelf customs these days, which often have custom frames made by someone like Art Morrison, Cross Hair retains its original frame, albeit with more than two dozen alterations. Heidts supplied the independent rear suspension, Colin Kimmens of Lake Havesau, AZ did the metal fabrication, D&D Specialty Cars of Van Buren, Arkansas did the body and paint work, and Chuck Rowland Upholstery, of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma did the full-leather (including the floor) interior. It’s not unusual for cars competing for the Ridler to have been shuttled around the country as their builds progress. Another LS engine, this one a LS6, powers Cross Hair.
Steve Tornari’s 1967 Chevy Nova, done up as a pro touring style resto mod, was finished just three days before it had to be on the stand at the Autorama. It’s my personal favorite among the Great 8 finalists and is the definition of clean. Miranda Built, the shop that built the car, was just barely able to get it on a trailer in Florida, headed north for Detroit. Charley Hutton, who gained notice spraying paint for Boyd Coddington and who has painted a number of Ridler winning cars before, did the color. Eric Borckmeyer designed a very contemporary looking interior, which was fabricated by Extreme Performance. Instead of a ubiquitous first gen SBC or LS engine, it uses a different kind of small block Chevy, a 355 cubic inch Chevy SB2 NASCAR engine out of Rick Hendrick’s engine shop. With the twin turbos spooled up it can produce 850 hp at the rear wheels. The Ride Tech air suspension as well as all of the car’s electronics are controlled by an iPad embedded in the dash running through an ISIS Intelligent Multiplex System.
One of my “rules” when deciding what to photograph at a car show is “no ’57 Chevys and no ’69 Camaros” (and I’m thinking of adding perfectly restored Isetta microcars to the list). Why take pictures of cars you can see at just about any car show? Of course rules are meant to be broken and when I come across a real ZL1 or Yenko Camaro, you can be sure that I take lots of photographs. This year’s Ridler finalists included both a ’57 Chevy 210 and this 1969 Camaro RS/SS and to be honest, I probably would have shot this pro touring Camaro despite my rule, even if it wasn’t a Great 8 car because it is so nicely done. That two of the Great 8 finalists were pro touring resto mods says to me that show organizers and judges are starting to appreciate cars that can handle and stop in addition to having straight line speed and custom styling. Having been founded by the Michigan Hot Rod Association the Autorama has always been as much about go as it’s been about show.
Brian Ganos, of Fond du Lac, WI, calls his car a Camaro ZRS. Larry Williams rendered the design and Jim Hubbel did the build. As with at least one other Great 8 car, Charley Hutton prepped the body and painted it. Advanced Plating, another frequent choice of Ridler competitors, did the chrome and powder coating. M&M Hot Rods, yet another name that shows up in the build sheet of another competitor, did the interior.
Opting for a Gen I small block Chevy V8 that’s been bored and stroked to 427 cubic inches, rather than a LS, Ganos specified a Tremec T56 six speed manual transmission to transmit power and torque to the independently suspended rear end, courtesy of a C4 Corvette which also donated the front suspension as well. Baer six pot brake calipers are at the corners. It’s all wrapped up in a very cleanly executed body painted in cerulean blue.
Another blue car, this 1933 Ford Sedan Delivery, didn’t start out as a panel truck. Before Albert Seese of Lee’s Summit, MO, made over 200 body modifications it was a regular ’33 Ford sedan. I’m rather partial to panel trucks so I spent some time shooting this one. Seese’s team was standing nearby and I happened to mention to them the vital role the Dodge brothers had in supplying Henry Ford in FoMoCo’s early days. One of them reacted in mock horror that I was talking about the Dodges to Ford fans. Then I pointed out that with a C6 Corvette transaxle in back, front and rear suspensions out of an ’05 ‘Vette, and a LS2 engine, most likely from the same C6 donor as those other components, their “Ford” could be described as a 2005 Corvette with a custom body.
The Brown Car Appreciation Society should take note, not only was one of the Ridler Award finalists painted in that earthy tone, quite a few of the other high quality customs and hot rods in the front section of Cobo Hall were painted, brown, beige, copper or brownish shades of red. Because of brown’s renewed popularity Rocky Roler of Creative Rod & Kustom in Southampton, New York was able to choose a current factory Chrysler 300 color to paint his restyled Ford five window coupe. That restyling is supposed to, according to Roler, combine European styling with a classic American hot rod look. Roler is an artist whose medium happens to be sheet metal. Per classic rods, his ’33 has been chopped 4 inches and channeled 3 inches to get a real low look. The grille shell and integrated radiator cover was scratch built from steel. The entire back section of the car, including the trunk lid, was also newly fabricated. Lest you think that it’s only supposed to look good and go fast in a straight line, check out the IRS with coilovers in the back and unequal length control arms with pushrod actuated inboard coilover shock absorbers in front. Customs at this level are very sophisticated machines.
Don Smith of Mansfield, Texas told Hot Rods by JSK that he wanted a late ’50s, early ’60s period hot rod, a traditional rod with an old school look. JSK succeeded. This “Fordor” just looks right, particular from the back. It states “hot rod” unequivocally, I used quotation marks around Fordor because they didn’t really start with a deuce four door. The entire car has been fabricated, taking three years to complete the build.
It has a custom frame that’s closer to that of a ’33 or ’34 Ford than a ’32 and a completely new body was built on that frame to reproduce the look of a Ford sedan that had been chopped and channeled. The car’s name, Y’d Open, comes from the fact that there is apparently no B pillar between the doors. The doors open to reveal a wide open interior. That look was achieved by integrating the B pillar structure into the leading edge of the rear suicide doors.
The period theme is consistent, with a bored and stroked 312 cubic inch real Y block Thunderbird V8, with chromed Laker style headers flowing into straight pipes on each side of the car. Induction is via a hard to find Hilborne fuel injection unit, though it’s been modernized with digital controls so the car isn’t exactly a period build. Another modern concession to driveability is the 5-speed Chevy gearbox.
Y’d Open is so well executed that its picture should be next to the dictionary listing for “hot rod”.
The judges liked the custom Riv, and it’s hard to fault their decision. Though it wasn’t my personal aesthetic favorite, engineering is one of the judging criteria, and Rivision’s induction system may look roundabout but the car is indeed well engineered. On the other hand, the underlying concepts and build quality of the Great 8 finalists would make any of them worthy winners, even the ’57 Chevy or the ’69 Camaro.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS