Until Tuesday, organizers of the 2019 Detroit Autorama were planning on opening the show on March 1st with a car jump by a replica Smokey and the Bandit Trans Am Firebird. A couple of years ago, the Autorama featured a jump of a Dukes of Hazzard “General Lee” Charger replica, to considerable press coverage, including here at TTAC.
This year, the same group of car enthusiasts that put on the General Lee jump, Northeast Ohio Dukes, was going to be back on Atwater Street behind Cobo Hall, only with a black and gold Pontiac, not an orange Dodge. When it comes to famous fictional car jumps, the Bandit’s Mulberry Bridge leap is right up there with the General Lee’s vault in the Dukes’ opening credits, and the Autorama jump was going to be part of a more general tribute at the custom car show to the late Burt Reynolds, a Michigan native, who starred in SATB.
Detroit’s City Council, though, has put a kibosh on the jump, apparently over a nonexistent Confederate battle flag, voting 7-1 to reject the jump. In the 1977 film, the black and gold Trans Am wears a period-correct Georgia license plate on the front of the car. The plate’s Confederate war banner offends current woke sensibilities.
Photo courtesy of Cars In Depth
If pressed, I’m pretty sure that I could come up with at least a half dozen different posts on the connection between automobiles and popular music, particularly rock ‘n roll and blues. There are songs like Terraplane Blues, Little Red Corvette and Baby You Can Drive My Car. You could probably do a series of coffee table books just on the car collections of rock stars like Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, J. Geils, Jeff Beck, Billy Gibbons and many others. “Stars & Cars” or “Cars & Guitars” has been used as a display or exhibit theme by museums devoted to both automobiles and musical instruments. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who love both cars and guitars have managed to join those interests, at the enthusiast level, with licensing deals, and at the advanced design studio level.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. After subjecting you to that curious Hudson Terraplane “coupe”, please consider this my apology. A visual palette cleanser, if you will. Before organizers let the public in to the Detroit Autorama at noon on the Friday of the show, members of the media can get in at 9 AM while the Ridler Award competitors and other top-quality, high-dollar customs are still being set up in their sometimes elaborate displays. Those displays in the front part of Cobo Hall include stands to jack the cars up off the floor so you can see the undercarriages, mirrors to do the same, professional lighting, build books and hero cards. There was one car in the front of the hall, though, that had a decidedly minimalist display, just enough machine turned aluminum floor tiles so the ’32 Ford roadster’s retro bias ply tires weren’t sitting on bare concrete.
From this angle it almost makes visual sense. Almost. Full gallery here.
While the annual Detroit Autorama always features many outstanding examples of the automobile as art, there are usually at least one or two vehicles that vividly demonstrate that one’s technical skill (or the financial resources to pay someone with the requisite technical skills) can sometimes reach where one’s artistic talent or aesthetic taste fails to grasp. This Hudson Terraplane “coupe” based on a Dodge Ram 2500 Diesel pickup is without question an impressive build, and it drew some of the biggest crowds of any car at this year’s show. But then, bad traffic accidents draw lots of gawkers too.
The Detroit Autorama has a definite blue collar vibe. Even those of the half million dollar cars competing for the Ridler award that are “bought, not built” are paid for by couples who obviously are affluent, but who have made their money not as doctors or lawyers or financiers but rather from operating some kind of small business enterprise. Most owners participate one way or another in their builds and most also have some experience working with their hands. Last year I had the chance to visit the facility where Chevy has the COPO Camaros built and I was present to watch two owners take delivery of what is essentially a $100,000 toy. One of them, Dan Sayres, of Waverly, West Virginia, now owns a number of automotive related businesses, including a collision shop and a recycling yard. He told me that he started with a single tow truck. It takes some smarts to go from one used tow truck to buying purpose built drag racers. Of course, you don’t need deep pockets to come up with a big idea. From the mid six figure Ridler competitors to the unfinished projects in the basement, there are lots of big ideas at the Autorama, not all of them successful. One of the biggest ideas, both figuratively and literally, is the car that Tom Carrigan built because he thought he could do it.
I’m so glad that Al Grooms brought his truck back to the Detroit Autorama this year. Last year it was the car that everyone that attended the show with whom I spoke mentioned. He hasn’t made any changes to it, but there are so many clever touches that it’s hard to take in all at once, which is why I was happy to have a second look. Al lives in Ohio and works in a steel mill and he is undoubtedly a deviously clever man. He was having so much fun with the people coming up and admiring his project that I’m sure his facial muscles were sore from grinning.
2014 Ridler Award Winner: “Rivision” – 1964 Buick Riviera. Full gallery here.
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.