Autorama packs Cobo with custom rods and lowriders
The Detroit auto show may be leaving Cobo for warmer summer temps, but winter’s Autorama custom-car circus isn’t going anywhere.
This weekend’s show, which opens at noon Friday and runs through Sunday, packs two floors of Detroit's convention center and features more jaw-dropping beasts than ever. There will be everything from Ridler Award custom mods to Burt Reynolds' original "Smokey and the Bandit" Pontiac Firebird Trans Am to the first-ever display of bouncin’, dancin', shinin' low riders.
"This is our Daytona 500 of the custom car scene. It’s one of the oldest shows, started right here in the Motor City, and this is where our roots are," show producer Peter Toundas said as he surveyed a Cobo floor bustling with activity Thursday.
Toundas is president of Championship Auto Shows, which takes the Autorama circus to 14 stops around the country. The Detroit and Chicago stops are the biggest.
Autorama claims it fills more space than January's diminished Detroit auto show. Every part of the 800,000 square-foot show space is packed with eye candy.
Show-goers will encounter a kick-line of some 30 gorgeous custom mods as they enter Cobo's first level. These polished, chopped, dumped and decked cars are being shown publicly for the first time and are eligible for the coveted Ridler Award.
"It's pretty exciting because we have so many new cars from all across the country to compete for our most coveted award," says Toundas.
One of them is a 1959 Cadillac El Dorado Brougham from the Super Rides by Jordan mod shop in San Diego. This rare animal is typical of the lengths that builders will go to to win the Ridler.
Patty Wiegand and her husband Philip traded a broken potato digger to a neighbor for the 1957 Chevy Belair convertible which they then restored. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
One of just 99 Broughams produced by GM's luxury brand, the flesh-colored Caddy has been totally remade from headlights to tail fins. Its wheelbase chopped, the sedan has been converted into a two-door "sport wagon" with exotic wood finish in the cabin and boot.
Under the hood? A twin-turbocharged 632-cube Corvette V-8 prepped by Nelson Racing making 1,025 horsepower.
"The owner is Steve Barton who recently passed," says builder Jordan Quintal. "We'd love to win the Ridler for him."
Mixing in with the Ridler classic is a brash new lineup of lowriders, many from southwest Detroit.
Lowriders famously stop at lights and hop up and down on their air suspensions. With roots in Mexican culture going back to the 1940s, they have grown in popularity among auto enthusiasts.
"This is huge for us, because it’s an opportunity for people to know who we are," says Debbie "Queen of the Lowriders" Sanchez who organized the 14 entrants coming from Saginaw, Flint, Lansing, Toledo, Milan and Detroit.
Sanchez's own creation is an orange, 1970 Buick Regal — nicknamed "Taboo" — complete with signature lowrider details like a trick suspension operated by hydraulics and batteries in the trunk..
"The cars are very heavy because they have a big system in the trunk. They go up and down, side-to-side and three-wheel. They can be at stop and put a wheel up in the air," Sanchez says from behind her trademark sunglasses and jacket with "La Jefita" — "The Boss" — embroidered on the right pocket.
Autorama expects about 150,000 attendees to ogle the 525 cars competing for prizes in six mod categories: custom, truck, pro-touring, rod, bike and restored.
But attendees will also get an eyeful of celebrity.
The Burt Reynolds-owned, original "Bandit" Firebird will be on display along with the late actor's collection of movie memorabilia. A stunt version of the Bandit car was originally scheduled to kick off the show Friday in front of Cobo with a high-flying stunt spectacle. But the exhibition was canceled after a Detroit City Council member alleged the car wore a Confederate flag. Neither the stunt car nor Reynolds' car now bears the flag.
The Reynolds exhibit bookends the lowrider display.
Smack in the middle is Carl Casper's Batmobile from the the blockbuster movie "Batman Returns." Casper's multi-car display will also turn back the clock to 1961 with his "Empress" mod that won best of show six decades ago.
Show-goers will have opportunities to see NASCAR Racing Legend Tony Stewart, the Hanson Brothers (from the movie “Slap Shot”) and WWE superstar Seth Rollins.
Want more? Autorama Extreme fills the basement with even more wild animals.
Toundas calls them "hot rods from Hell," an appropriate moniker given their subterranean lair. There's "Horny," an enormous, jacked-up, green Ram Heavy Duty pickup with, yes, horns sprouting from its windshield. Nearby lurks a wicked-looking jalopy, its face and grille fashioned into a cartoon face right of the "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
Hours: Noon to 10 p.m. Friday, March; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $21; $8 ages 6-12; free age 5 and under
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.