65th annual Autorama hot-rods into Cobo

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

Patricia and Tim Matichak were tooling down Woodward last year during the Dream Cruise, enjoying the ride and the admiring glances directed toward their 1984 Chevrolet El Camino.

A chance invite to exhibit her modified El Camino at Autorama brought tears to Patricia Matichak’s eyes.

Suddenly a man darted forward from the curb and flagged them down.

“We were just cruising along minding our own business and then he waved us over,” said Patricia Matichak. “And when I realized who it was, I cried.”

The man who intercepted their Dream Cruise ride was Chuck Miller, custom-car legend and longtime curator of the invitation-only Cavalcade of Customs at the annual Autorama show that starts Friday at Cobo Center.

Would the Matichaks like to bring their eye-popping green El Camino to the 2017 Cavalcade of Customs, Miller asked, on that blustery day last summer.

Would they? For car builders, having a connoisseur like Miller tap your vehicle is sort of like peeling the wrapper on a chocolate bar and finding one of Willy Wonka’s rare golden tickets. Miller invites only about 10 cars a year to the Cavalcade — the cream of the crop he sees at cruises, car shows and other venues nationwide.

Patricia Matichak accepted at once, and her uber-modified El Camino will be among the more than 800 hot rods, customs, trucks and bikes at the three-day show. It’s the 65th year for Autorama, and Miller, of New Boston, is among the prestige car builders whose career is deeply entwined with the history of the show.

Patricia Matichak’s El Camino boasts 35-plus major modifications, including the white vinyl interior.

He apprenticed as a teen and opened his first custom shop at age 20, more than 50 years ago. “Back then we did whatever we had to do to survive — painting used-car lot vehicles or fixing a dent for the neighbor,” Miller recalled. But his passion and creativity soon led to bigger things including high-end commissions for collectors and increasing stature in the industry.

On display this year as part of an historic exhibit will be Miller’s funky Fire Truck, based on a Model T Ford, which won him Autorama’s coveted Ridler Award in 1968. For car customizers, that’s akin to winning an Oscar or a Grammy.

He’s looking forward to being reunited with the Fire Truck, as well as some other creations including the Zingers, half-scale hot rods with giant engines that he scratch-built for a client in the 1970s.

As much as Miller enjoys encountering his creations that now belong to other collectors (“They’re my babies”), he also likes bringing together other enthusiasts through diligent and resourceful assembling of Autorama exhibits.

In addition to the Cavalcade of Customs, he organizes a specialty exhibit every year. Past themes have ranged from “cars with fins” to Woody wagons to vintage Thunderbirds. This year’s line-up will feature “Orphan Cars,” from makes that have long since faded into history — like the Nash, Studebaker, Crosley, Kaiser and Isetta. Unlike most of the vehicles at Autorama, where designers have added their own artistic twists to the original stock, the orphan cars are restored as factory classics.

It takes Miller about nine months of each year to scout and enlist the vehicles and owners for these specialty exhibits, persuading builders and collectors from across the U.S. and into Canada to display their unique cars at Autorama.

Patricia Matichak says this will be the biggest show ever for “Low Sugar,” as the El Camino is dubbed. As the first woman pipefitter for an Illinois gas utility and lifelong gearhead, she says, she has plenty of mechanical aptitude, and she knew the car had major possibilities when she bought the well-used El Camino from her dad for $2,500. (It’s now insured for a cool $100,000.)

But she credits former husband Lenny Pavnica with executing most of the 35-plus major modifications to the vehicle, including its modernistic white vinyl interior, which is a stunning foil to the dozen or so layers of “Jolly Rancher Green” that make up the dazzling exterior paint job.

The decade-long project was interrupted from time to time as Pavnica dealt with diabetes and a kidney transplant — hence the car’s moniker — making this week’s triumph at Autorama all the more sweet for these backyard builders. Still “the best of friends,” Pavnica will be sharing the glory in Detroit with Patricia and with her present husband and fellow gearhead, Tim Matichak. The trio also plan to take in the displays at The Henry Ford and otherwise enjoy a fairytale Detroit weekend basking in the glow of a project well done.

For her part, Patricia also wants to pose with Miller, and add the photo to the gallery of famous car builders she displays at her home.

“It’s just an incredible honor,” she said. “Autorama has always been our dream show, and nobody can understand what it means to have worked so hard to build this car and then have it recognized here.”

In addition to exhibits, the show features performances, guest appearances by TV stars such as the “Dukes of Hazzard” cast and cars, the Miss Autorama Pin-Up contest, Pedal Car challenge, automotive toy exhibit and more. The Ridler’s Ball cocktail reception, a ticketed event, is 6-9 p.m. Friday in Cobo Center’s Grand Riverview Ballroom.

Automotive artists (pinstripers, airbrush experts and more) will once again be on hand donating their time and talents to raise funds for the Leader Dogs for the Blind organization; last year’s show raised nearly $50,000.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com

65th annual Autorama

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

Cost: $20; $7 ages 6-12; free for ages 5 and under

Where: Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit

Information: autorama.com