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Autorama off to flying start

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Detroit — Gear heads will tell you it’s not rocket science: the stronger the economy, the more money you can spend on your hot rod.

“If the economy is up, people who have discretionary income typically will spend it on toys, on hobbies, on enjoyment,” Paul Behling, 61, of Highland, said Friday, standing among throngs of shiny and curvy classic cars on the Cobo Center’s main exhibition floor during the Detroit Autorama.

Dubbed “America’s Greatest Hot Rod Show,” the 65th annual Autorama opened Friday and runs through Sunday.

To kick off the show Friday, a 1969 Dodge Charger painted to look like the General Lee from the 1980s TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” jumped a ramp on Atwater Street behind Cobo Center.

U.S. automakers are coming off a record sales year in 2016, with 17.55 million units sold, and analysts expect carmakers to set another record this year — all bolstered by the country’s economy.

Closer to home, the good health of the automakers, coupled with job growth and increases in housing starts and home prices in Michigan and Metro Detroit, have translated into a buoyant economy.

“If the economy is up, then everything is taken care of at home and the family’s all good, you throw a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there (on your customized car),” said Behling, who builds hot rods. “If the economy is good, it does definitely make this sport or hobby thrive.”

Behling isn’t the only one who thinks a healthy economy gives customized car fans the green light to spend a little green.

“When you get an uptick in the economy, it gives everyone a little extra money,” said Dave Brookes, 69, of Rochester Hills, and Behling’s friend. “And you can afford to put some money into your passion.”

Both Behling and Brooks are members of the Motor City Hot Rods Club.

On Friday, thousands circulated between souped-up street machines and works-of-art-on-wheels as merchants hawked everything from custom parts to clothing to chamois.

Down the escalator to the basement, 1950s rockabilly music blared from the floor of The Extreme, the Autorama’s collection of vintage hot rods, where Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and his Rat Fink cartoon would have felt at home.

It’s also where Roger “Crow” Robbins, 60, of Athens, near Battle Creek, had his hand-built Ford Model A hot rod on display.

He said he loves building hot rods so much that he keeps doing it, even when the economy isn’t firing on all cylinders.

“I’d do it even if I had to penny pinch,” he said. “Of course, when things are good and there’s more money, I can build my cars faster because I don’t have to worry about spending it.”

Bob Peterson, 67, of Beaverton, Oregon, said he thinks there are two factions among hot rodders and custom car buffs.

“On one side, you’ve got people who have worked all their lives, have disposable income and they’re okay with their investments,” said Peterson, president and owner of CON2R (con-tour), a company that makes and sells custom car accessories such as steering wheels, instrument panels and shift knobs. “They’re on track to build a hot rod and they don’t care what happens with the economy.

“On the other end of the scale, are guys who are trying to do stuff on a budget,” he said. “They got a family, but they want a hot rod. That end of the market is definitely affected by what happens with the economy.”

cramirez@detroitnews.com