Autorama’s shine extends beyond car celebs

Melissa Preddy
Special to The Detroit News

Fantasy, nostalgia, hopes, dreams and wild notions — all accented by the pungent aroma of burning rubber — are what fuel the creators of the 700-plus lovingly burnished hot rods, customized classics and concept vehicles that will show off this week at the 64th Annual Meguiar’s Autorama at Cobo Center.

At least one entry in this year’s expo will represent not just the present owner’s ambition, but the dreams and hard work of three generations of a Metro Detroit family.

William Hill Jr., 17, has spent the last few months putting the final touches on “Thunder Belle,” the 1949 Ford coupe his grandfather began to rehab three decades ago. As far back as he can recall, the ’49 Ford has been a presence in his life and the garage of his Garden City home.

Coached by father William Hill Sr., the younger Hill has assumed the lead in restoring the classic “gasser” with its sleek, post-World War II styling.

“It was my grandpa’s wish to have it ready when I was a senior in high school,” said Hill Jr., whose work on the car has sparked a plan to earn a mechanical engineering degree and seek a career in the automotive realm. His grandfather passed away in 2009, but the family is excited about honoring their patriarch with a dazzling display at Autorama.

The car is mostly under wraps until showtime because the Hills are hoping to vie for the Ridler Award, an Autorama tradition that is only open to cars never before displayed. And Hill Jr., an Air Force ROTC member, can’t wait to show off the metallic silver car with its paint job reminiscent of a World War II B-17 aircraft.

Complete with a military star, “bomber girl” pin-up portrait and even the illusion of seams and rivets, the “Thunder Belle” leverages the aerodynamic styling of the coupe.

His father has been coaching and supervising his son in the restoration. Though sidelined for several years because of an accident, Hill Sr. has put in as much garage time as possible and attended Autorama several times in a wheelchair pushed by his teenage son. More mobile now, he too is thrilled at the results of their labors.

“If we win it would be nice, but our award is that we are together and we are finally fulfilling my dad’s dream,” he said.

While a showcase for celebrity car builders, high-performance shops and other elites of the genre, the efforts of families like the Hills “are really the fabric of the show,” said Pete Toundas, the longtime producer of Autorama and president of Championship Auto Shows Inc. He gets a kick out of helping the next generation find its place in the world of autos.

“These genes are inherited,” he said. “I’m seeing second- and third-generation car builders out there. They say car culture is a graying market, but I can’t tell you how many young people I see at our shows saying, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ ”

The student career day at Autorama is growing each year, he said, with some 3,500 high-schoolers expected to visit via the program this year. And the Pedal Car Challenge, produced with other sponsors, invites students from high schools and trade schools to take a basic shell and transform it into a hot rod.

“You wouldn’t believe the one-of-a-kind creations these kids are making out of those cars,” said Toundas. “And it opens their eyes to a whole new world — painting, pinstriping, body design. There are a lot of career possibilities.”

Toundas continues to inject octane into the expo, which offers contests, live demonstrations, charity fundraisers, music and celebrity appearances and novelties.

Highlights will include a live burnout and wheelstand performance by Farmtruck and AZN of the Discovery Channel’s “Street Outlaws” fame. The burnout will occur outside Cobo’s main entrance, at about 11:45 a.m.

And throughout the weekend, live auctions of works by noted pinstriping and airbrush artists will aid the Leader Dogs for the Blind charity.

Meguiar’s Autorama

When: Noon-10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $19; $6 ages 6-12; free age 5 and under

Location: Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit