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Corvette at 2017 Autorama

Autorama 2017: The ‘Other’ Detroit Auto Show Highlights the Hot Rods

The European Renaissance has been the inspiration for some of the world’s most beautiful works of art, from Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel to the Mona Lisa of Leonardo Da Vinci. A more modern-day example also debuted recently in Detroit, where Nancy and Buddy Jordan’s Renaissance Roadster – with a design by Chris Ito and Steve Frisbie – was named winner of the 2017 Ridler Award.

It’s among the most prestigious trophies in the hot-rod world, but its presentation was just one of the highlights of the 2017 Detroit Autorama.

Autorama: Facts and Figures

Ford Model A Coupe
1930 Ford Model A Coupe (CARFAX, Inc.)

While new-car sales reached another record last year, it’s clear that interest in older hot rods and custom-style vehicles also remains high. In fact, according to the Specialty Equipment Market Association, sales of restoration, street-rod and custom parts has become a multi-billion-dollar industry in the United States. That kind of interest is further stoked by shows like Autorama, which, this year, featured more than 800 cars, trucks, and motorcycles. There was also at least one life-size mechanical elephant.

The event is a Motor City staple that began in 1952 as a fundraiser for the Detroit Dragway, a famed Motor City dragstrip, and it was originally held on the campus of the University of Detroit. By 1961, however, Autorama had become so popular that it moved into the same site used for the North American International Auto Show. In that location, Detroit’s Cobo Hall, Autorama currently spreads out across two levels and 725,000 square feet.

And the Ridler Award Goes To …

1930 Ford Roadster (Renaissance Roadster)
Ford Renaissance Roadster (CARFAX, Inc.)

One of the great things about custom-car culture is that it attracts fans from all walks of life, and that was again reflected in the vehicles at this year’s Autorama. On hand was everything from unrestored rat rods to the impeccably polished show cars competing for the annual Ridler Award. Named for Don Ridler, a tireless promoter of Autorama who passed away in 1963, the award goes to the vehicle that makes its premiere at the event and best “emphasizes creativity, engineering and quality workmanship.”

This year’s winner was, in theory, a 1933 Ford roadster, but there wasn’t a lot left from Henry’s factory. Much of the Renaissance Roadster had been hand-formed or machined by the team at Steve’s Auto Restorations in Portland, Oregon. The shop’s efforts included the car’s sheet metal, wheels, bumpers, headlight buckets and even its gas and brake pedals. Other key elements were modified from other vintage cars. The Renaissance Roadster’s headlight lenses, for instance, came from a 1934 Chrysler, and its instrument cluster was adapted from a 1930 Nash. Even the car’s powertrain was from General Motors. It combined a 4L60 automatic transmission with an Anniversary Edition LS7 V8 from GM Performance Parts that was initially rated at 430 horsepower and 444 pound-feet of torque.

A Celebration of 65 Years

More Aggravation Dragster
1964 More Aggravation Dragster (CARFAX, Inc.)

The 2017 edition of Autorama marked the 65th anniversary of the first show, so organizers also pulled together a special display of important vehicles from past events. Perhaps most notable was the very first Ridler Award winner, Al Bergler’s More Aggravation dragster. This working racecar was built from the body of a 1932 Bantam, featured a 480-inch Chrysler engine and a Logghe chassis, and was the real deal on the track. After winning the Ridler trophy in 1964, Bergler also won the Super Eliminator class with the car at the 1966 NHRA Springnationals.

Also in the anniversary spotlight was a selection of other previous Ridler winners, including the 2002 Grandmaster created by modern-day design icon Chip Foose, and a car that probably should have won the Ridler when it premiered at Autorama, but didn’t: the Chrysler Imperial Speedster designed by Murray Pfaff.

1959 Chrysler Imperial Speedster
1959 Chrysler Imperial Speedster (CARFAX, Inc.)

Starting with a 1959 Chrysler Imperial, Pfaff and his crew cut the large luxury sedan into 45 sections, then put it all back together in the shape and size of a two-seat roadster. The result is more than 4 feet shorter than the original Imperial, and 8 inches narrower. Yet the car still has room to fit a massive chrome grille and a 6.1-liter Hemi V8 engine that can deliver 425 horsepower.

Much More on the Floor

Sears Allstate 150 Motorcycle
1966 Sears Allstate 150 Motorcycle (CARFAX, Inc.)

A number of automotive oddities also appear at each Autorama, with this year being no different. While boring cars are sometimes called “appliances” today, the show had a couple of vehicles that, literally, used to be sold with appliances. One was a Sears Allstate 150 motorcycle that came straight from the catalog. Dating from the mid 1960s and engineered by Puch, an Austrian manufacturing company, it was part of a full line of two-wheeled vehicles sold by Sears at the time.

Nearby as well was a 1952 Crosley Super Station Wagon, from a U.S. entrepreneur who also designed radios, refrigerators and other household products. Stretching all of 148 inches – about the size of a modern-day city car – the Super Station Wagon could achieve 50 mpg, but it also topped out at 50 mph.

Nor was it just wheeled vehicles on exhibit. Tucked away in the Autorama Extreme display, on the lower level of Cobo Hall, was the previously mentioned Stuart Mechanical Elephant from the 1940s. A jumbo-sized, gasoline-powered machine, it was designed by British inventor Frank Stuart as an attraction for local seaside resorts. The driving controls are located in the elephant’s “head,” and hydraulics were used to mimic a real animal’s gait. Like a many of the cars, it had a nice trunk, too.

Stuart Mechanical Elephant
Stuart Mechanical Elephant (CARFAX, Inc.)

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