The 2020 Detroit Autorama is so much more than hot rods and the Ridler

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Most of the national attention focused on the Detroit Autorama concentrates on the Ridler Award winner and the other seven finalists competing for the award, which is among the most prestigious trophies in the wider custom car world. (Pomona’s America’s Most Beautiful Roadster show focuses on traditional hot rod roadsters.) Indeed, the custom vehicles up in the front of what was formerly known as Cobo Hall, now rebranded as the TCF Center, are worthy of the limelight.

Still, it should be remembered that Autorama is more than just a venue for the Ridler. The event was founded by the Michigan Hot Rod Association club, and it remains a diverse gathering of the Detroit area’s disparate tribes of automotive enthusiasts.

A few of those tribal affiliations are formal. Space on the main floor of Cob.. er TCF, is reserved for a number of regional car clubs, some brand- or model-specific, others more inclusive. Between the clubs and private entries, just about every facet of car enthusiasm in the region is represented by the more than 800 vehicles at the show, with fully restored classics sitting just a few feet from half-million-dollar customs.

Those “checkbook customs” have the build quality of a Pebble Beach Concours winner. The meticulous preparation involves more than just shining up the cars. Show officials let the press in early, during which time some displays are still going up. I noticed one of the Ridler competitors was using an orbital polisher to buff up the display.

The Autorama is not solely about cars (nor trucks), either. There are motorcycles, both custom and vintage (downstairs there was a great collection of vintage Honda Dreams), bicycles, and mini-bikes, including a couple of mini-bikes set up for the dragstrip, and of course there are all sorts of vendors selling everything from crate engines to English wheels, plasma cut man-cave signs, and Mackinaw Island fudge. There were even boats, with three hydroplanes on their trailers—Detroit has a long history of hosting the Gold Cup races, many of which were won by native son Gar Wood. Wood’s Packard-powered, mahogany-bodied runabouts, though, are a far cry from the jet-turbine-powered hydroplanes.

race cars or boats
1964 ca72 red motorcycle

red fire dept pickup front three-quarter

I stopped for a minute or two to talk with some firefighters representing the Detroit Fire Department Clown Team with the fire engine red 1958 Ford pickup the team uses in its appearances. Detroit firefighters have been clowning around since before World War II, entertaining patients at burn centers and working with children’s charities. The group was officially organized in 1946, making it the oldest operating clown team in America.

The Autorama is in many ways as much a social event as a car show. Joining the clubs returning year after year are many families who likewise come every year to show off their cars, bikes, and works in progress. After you go to enough car shows around Detroit, you get to know some of those families. I wasn’t surprised to see the 1964 Mercury Park Lane convertible that Ford engineering technician AJ Jedryczka bought off the lot at Ford after the company was done using it on the Walt Disney designed Magic Skyway at Ford’s New York World’s Fair pavilion. I was surprised to see that Jedrycka’s daughter Virginia and her husband have located, bought, and resto-modded a Palomino beige Park Lane hardtop to make a matched set.

1964 super marauder 390 front three-quarter

Some people have the mistaken impression that car events in Detroit are narrowly focused on American Iron, envisioning shrines to domestic automotive icons like the Ford Mustang and ’57 Chevrolet. To be sure, the Motor City is proud of its manifold contributions to the automotive world, but the truth is that Detroiters like cars in general. To paraphrase the bartendress of Bob’s Country Bunker, we Michiganders like both kinds of cars, domestic and foreign.

ferrari race car number twenty side-view

Perhaps it’s because I like to think of myself as a nonconformist, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been jaded by seeing way too many ’57 Chevys and ’69 Camaros, but I always keep an eye out for interesting foreign cars at the Autorama. I’m not sure, however, if the gorgeous Ferrari 330 P3 replica on display with a Ford GT40 replica, both of them used in the filming of Ford v Ferrari, counts as a foreign car or not. The “Ferrari” was actually fabricated, perhaps ironically, in a suburban Detroit area shop, Race Car Replicas, that specializes in dimensionally and aesthetically accurate replicas of great vintage racers. I’ve always been smitten with the great looks of the GT40, but as Ken Miles’ character alludes to in the film, if Le Mans was judged by aesthetics and not speed, Enzo would have won the day in June, 1966. Replica or not, the P3 is right up there with the Lamborghini Miura, Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale, and Jaguar E-Type when it comes to rolling sculpture.

roxor beach going wood paneled two door buggy

Mahindra’s Roxor off-road 4×4 may have originated in India (of course originally licensed by Willys), but it’s assembled in Auburn Hills, Michigan, so it’s both foreign and domestic. Mahindra used the Autorama to showcase the Coastal Cruiser concept, a wood-paneled beach car based on the Roxor, with a Fiat Jolly or Mini Moke feel to it. I bet, as with the Jolly and Moke, Mahindra might actually find a market for the concept as a resort vehicle if they put it into production. As with the other Roxors on display, the Coastal Cruiser sports a new face, hopefully resolving intellectual property over the Roxor’s originally Jeep-esque grille.

front three-quarter british roadster

As a fan of British sports cars, I took immediate notice of a lovely seafoam green Austin Healey 3000, but I’d have to say that I was most excited to see another British car that’s even rarer on this side of the Atlantic. How often do American car enthusiasts get to see Great Britain’s perennial contribution to worst-cars-ever lists: the Reliant Robin? Even more amazing is that owner Keith Roberts went through the bother of restoring the little three-wheeler, better known in America for tipping over in an episode of Top Gear than for any other reason. Who restores a Reliant Robin? Only a true car enthusiast, the equal of anyone commissioning a Ridler competitor. Perhaps Roberts was inspired by his Robin’s rare “R” trim spec.

front three-quarter three wheeled car

At an historic car show with hundreds of thousands of horsepower, I end up getting geeked over a 39-horsepower trike that likes to fall over. Maybe that’s a sign I’m getting jaded, but it’s more likely evidence of the fact that an event like this has so much going on that anyone can find something that catches their eye. The next time you ask a friend to go to the Detroit Autorama, and they’re reluctant, whining they’re not into hot rods or big V-8s, you can just show them a photo of the Reliant.

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