Detroit Does It Again! Highlights From the 70th Meguair’s Autorama
Seven decades is a loonnngg time. 70 years ago, the first color TVs started appearing in a few homes, the Corvette debuted, Swanson introduced the frozen TV dinner, comedian Tim Allen was born, and the first Detroit Autorama was held. Post-World War II hot rodding was also becoming a thing and, as the hobby grew out of its West Coast roots, several other areas in the nation picked up the ball and ran with it.
One group, the Michigan Hot Rod Association, was made up of several very active hot rod clubs in the Detroit area and they collectively wanted to build a racetrack for their souped-up hot rods. To finance the project, they decided to hold a car show and charge admission to create the funds. Little did they know the car show would outlive the racetrack and that the Detroit Autorama would become one of the most prestigious custom car shows in the world.
Part of its success came from developing an ideal formula for what a wintertime indoor hot rod show should be: live bands playing, vendors selling stuff you need, celebs on hand for autographs, General Motors showing off their latest drivetrains, a huge collectible toy show area and, of course, tons of cars and trucks to check out.
Held at downtown’s Huntington Place (formally Cobo Hall) and presented by O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, the show has two main areas of concern: an upstairs (for all-out show cars) and the downstairs (for the not-so-glossy ones). It’s said that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that’s what you find in the basement of the Detroit Autorama. What started years ago as an anti-gloss version of what is found upstairs, the Autorama Extreme gives space to those who embrace cars that may not have 10,000 hours of build time or a million-dollar budget, but they definitely have an attitude.
This year the Autorama also acknowledged its heritage by have special parking for cars of George Barris (the Munster TV cars and a Batmobile), a reunion of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s custom creations (such as Tweedy Pie and the Orbitron), and a hometown remembrance of the Alexander Brothers with an eight-car field that included the famous Deora (the 1967 Ridler winner).
Every year Detroit also celebrates traditional custom car culture with a 10-car display, and they also hold an art auction in the back of the massive hall featuring work by pinstripers who come in from all over the country to participate and create artwork on the spot. Celebrity interaction has also been a part of Detroit’s long history and this year’s autograph sessions included Dave Kindig from TV’s “Bitchin’ Rides,” actor (and onetime Fonz) Henry Winkler, and rapper Flavor Flav.
But the real celebrities of the show are the cars themselves and here you can find everything from scissor-door C8 Corvettes to ’23 Ford T-buckets and everything between. About 800 or so vehicles are displayed, and many attend hoping to be accepted into competition for the show’s highest honor, the Don Ridler Memorial Award, presented by Meguiar’s. Hopeful owners and builders qualify first by being picked to be a part of the BASF Great 8 and then, by late Sunday, a winner is determined from those eight to receive the title of Ridler Winner, the Ridler trophy, and a check for $10,000.
It’s a tradition the Autorama has upheld since the first Ridler award was handed out in 1964, and the competition draws well-known rod builders from around the country (and a few from outside the U.S.), as well as up-and-coming first-timers to what many consider to be one of the biggest stages in hot rodding.
THE 2023 DON RIDLER MEMORIAL AWARD WINNER
New Jersey’s Luigi Deriggi found his ’50 Merc for sale online in Wisconsin and brought it home in 2013. It was a dream car for him, ever since he saw the Merc Sylvester Stallone drove in the movie Cobra. But before he’d start on it, he was having some paint work done on his ’68 Mustang by Bruce Harvey (from Pro Comp Custom in Glenshaw, PA) who was also building what would become last year’s Ridler winner – the chopped red ’31 Chevy Coupe called ShoBird.
Luigi and his friend Joey Gambino had started on the car with making some parts and pieces, but it sat in a warehouse before Luigi discussed making it a Ridler contender with Harvey.
Pro Comp took it through the next several levels with the addition of an Art Morrison chassis before modifying the body by performing a 5.5-inch chop, reshaping the nose and wheel arches, and adding Mercedes headlights. The drivetrain consists of a Coyote engine regulated by a Holley computer setup and a Borla stack injection system that runs back to a polished and chromed Winters quickchange (because Luigi was tired of always seeing Ford 9-inch rearends).
Custom valve covers, a handmade grille, and one-off door hinges were also made, and big HRBB billet wheels (20×10 and 22×10) are found on the car’s corners. After Harvey swapped out the Merc dash for something more contemporary, Paul Atkins was called upon to finish the bucket seats and the rest of the interior in different shades of tan leather.
In April of 2020 Deriggi caught a severe form of COVID and wasn’t expected to live, but he persevered and pulled through, and is now happy to see his car finished, a Ridler trophy with his name on it, and a long list of car shows he intends to take his ride to in the future.
Photos by Eric Geisert