IMPRESSIVE: 2020 Detroit Autorama Ridler winner’s name says it all

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America’s Presidential election process could learn a thing or two from the efficient method used to winnow 800 entrants at this year’s Detroit Autorama spectacle down to a single best-in-show Ridler award winner. According to event co-chairman and chief judge Butch Patrico, the first step is thinning the herd of 21 hopefuls down to the Great 8 group of finalists.

That phase took place as entrants arrived at the TCF Center (formerly Cobo Hall) February 27–28 in preparation for the public opening at noon on Friday, February 28. A crack team of six judges inspected the premier hand raisers while they proved their cars capable of propelling, steering, and braking themselves on a several-hundred-foot-long indoor “road course.” Towering Great 8 banners showcased these semi-finalists, which were positioned near the entrance portals to command the attention of every Autorama visitor.

The Ridler winner was announced at the final awards ceremony on Sunday, March 1. From start to finish, the whole process took only three days. And the winner of the $10,000 top prize, sponsored by Meguiar’s car-care products? A radically customized 1963 Chevrolet Bel Air station wagon appropriately named IMPRESSIVE.

Although this is the 68th year for the Detroit show, the Ridler award was inaugurated in 1964 to commemorate the role that Don Ridler played in promoting the event to national prominence. This esteemed Michigan Sports Hall of Fame member was not only a capable athlete and coach, his creativity was instrumental in elevating the visibility of numerous entertainment groups as well as Michigan’s best dead-of-winter excuse to toast custom cars, trucks, motorcycles, and a speedboat or two at the Detroit convention center.

The judging team ultimately agreed that the custom 1963 Chevy wagon constructed by the father-and-sons team of Brad, Brady, and Cory Ranweiler was indeed the most IMPRESSIVE. What’s so impressive about this two-box family hauler? Its tasteful elegance; its long, sleek lines; its conservative use of bright accents; its magnificent oxblood leather interior; and, most of all, the brilliant black paint job. Judges and spectators alike agreed that every IMPRESSIVE detail was perfected to the fare-thee-well.

The Ranweilers’ livelihood is their Show Cars Automotive business, in New Ulm, Minnesota, which sells restoration parts for 1958–64 Chevy Impalas. In 2010, Brad Ranweiler declared the moment right to customize the 1963 Bel Air four-door wagon rattling around their business. The father’s creativity and inspiration, blended with his sons’ hard work and dedication, turned into a decade of effort. Add up their hours of sweat and contributions from sympathetic suppliers and you’ve got a trophy winner they estimate is worth $2.5 million.

1963 Chevy wagon 2020 Detroit Autorama Ridler winner
1963 Chevy wagon 2020 Detroit Autorama Ridler winner

1963 Chevy wagon 2020 Detroit Autorama Ridler winner
1963 Chevy wagon 2020 Detroit Autorama Ridler winner

1963 Chevy wagon 2020 Detroit Autorama Ridler winner

Not much of the core car survived the journey to the IMPRESSIVE finished product. The chassis is a custom design by Art Morrison Enterprises on a 121.0-inch wheelbase with Uni-Steer Performance and Chassisworks electrically assisted rack-and-pinion steering. The front suspension is a control arm design, while the live Ford rear axle is located by four trailing links. Evod Custom Industries manufactured the gorgeous 8×18-inch front and 12×20-inch rear aluminum wheels shod with Pirelli radial tires. Wilwood supplied the 14-inch disc brake rotors and calipers.

A 409-cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8 was bored and stroked to 509 cubic inches, in-house. Edelbrock aluminum heads with Hilborn electronic fuel injection, David Walser nose cone air cleaners, and a Joe Hunt Magnetos billet distributor yield 615 horsepower and 685 lb-ft of torque. The multi-layer valve covers provide the clearance needed for the roller rocker arm valve train and a means of hiding the ignition wires. GP Headers built the 2-inch headers and 3-inch exhaust pipes out of stainless steel. The transmission is a GM 4L80E automatic supplied by TCI Automotive. Griffin Thermal Products supplied the custom radiator and cooling fan components. The stainless steel fuel cell is by Rick’s Tanks.

By the time the body shell was switched to a more svelte two-door configuration and channeled over the new frame, only snippets of the factory sheet metal remained. The hood is new, the Dynacorn International front fenders are welded in unit with the main shell, bumpers are modified for a tighter fit with their surrounding sheet metal, and the roof is altered. Dropping the roof height three inches and relocating the B-pillars rearward necessitated totally different pillars, glass contours, and bright trim components.

The grille began as a 1000-pound chunk of aluminum but ended up as 69 separate bar-and-surround pieces. When a dozen or so parts farmed out to fabricators returned with expensive invoices attached, Cory Ranweiler signed up for a two-week training course to polish his CNC machining skills. This allowed him to craft the next 320 metal parts totally in-house. 

The greatest challenge, according to Brady Renweiler, was perfecting the black paint job, which is precisely why that color was selected from the beginning. Brad Renweiler brought to the party 40 years of painting experience and challenged his sons to aim for perfect surfaces before the first drop of PPG paint was sprayed. The sanding and polishing process lasted years. A chunk of aluminum measuring 6-feet long by a half-inch thick, wrapped with sandpaper, eliminated any hint of waviness in the long side-body panels.

M&M Hotrod Interiors created the black, burgundy, and chrome inside trim. Evod Industries machined the steering wheel parts as well as the custom tail lamp rings. The billet switchgear came from Watsons Streetworks, and the custom instruments are by Dakota Digital. Advanced Plating applied a sparkling finish to the custom trim parts, which were made by the Ranweilers. The in-car entertainment system is by Kenwood USA and Kicker Performance.

There’s no doubt that the creative force behind this project exceeded some ambitious goals. The boys made their father proud and vice versa. Their Ridler win proves it was a decade very well spent.

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