This ’31 Chevy “Sho Bird” is your 2022 Autorama Ridler winner
The Detroit Autorama returned this year, following a pandemic-related hiatus that canceled the 2021 event. While show organizers haven’t yet released official attendance figures, the sense on the ground was that car lovers returned in droves. Lest you think that the Detroit Autorama is a showcase reserved for hot rods or wild customs based on vintage American cars, you may surprised to learn that Autorama’s 800-or-so roster boasts a startlingly diverse range of enthusiast automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. Example: while I was talking to the owner of an eye-popping, orange 1930s Ford sedan, my eye caught sight of a Jaguar XJ13 replica, finished in the appropriate British Racing Green. And then, one of the more popular cars at the show was a Creamsicle orange-and-white 1965 Volkswagen Beetle decked out in all sorts of store-bought and custom Beetle memorabilia, all displayed by a family that considers it to be part of theirs.
Most people’s idea of the custom car world is formed by the various build shows that have proliferated over the years on cable television, complete with artificial drama and deadlines. However, it’s also a safe bet to say that most of what you see on “reality” television has a limited relationship with actual reality. If you want to see the real deal when it comes to custom cars and trucks, you have to come to the Detroit Autorama to see the competitors for that show’s Ridler Award, named after Don Ridler, one of the show founders more than 60 years ago. The Ridler is arguably the custom world’s most prestigious award.
The winners of the 2022 Ridler Award are owners Rick and Patty Bird of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, for their radically customized 1931 Chevrolet Independence coupe: the “Sho Bird.” Rick and his brother own the trucking company their father started, R.W. Bird Trucking in Pleasant Gap, Pennsylvania. For a first-time Autorama competitor to win the Ridler is quite an accomplishment.
The car was built by Bruce Harvey’s shop, Pro Comp Customs in Glenshaw, Pennsylvania, over a two-and-a-half-year period. Rick Bird told me that six months into the build he decided to add twin turbos to 509-cubic-inch big-block Chevy V-8 by Shafiroff. The only problem was finding a place to put the turbos and their plumbing; the engine and transmission had already been pushed backwards so they couldn’t be behind the engine. The turbos could also not be moved to the back of the car, as some customizers do, because that’s where the radiator was placed. Bird and Harvey ended up mounting the two 72-mm Nelson Racing turbochargers and their polished chrome plumbing stacks right up at the front of the car, with the spools facing forward, making the turbos and their intake and exhaust pipes into visual elements. The setup gives the front end an aggressive, imposing look. The Chevy is painted in PPG Vibrance Wineberry and Orange Glow over a variety of basecoats.
Bird said that canceling the 2021 Detroit Autorama because of the pandemic gave him another year to get the car “just right.” Getting things just right included a 5-inch chop to the roof and matching the trunk lid to the roof’s profile, and channeling the floor over the frame to lower the body. Pro Comp hand shaped the grille, hood, hood scoop, fenders, running boards, side scoops for the rear mounted radiator, windshield frame, and taillight panel. The frame was also hand fabricated while Advanced Custom Chrome of Erie, Pennsylvania, was responsible for chrome plating. The car has a custom cantilevered front suspension that manages to combine a 1930s era solid front axle with a modern pushrod coilover shock absorber setup. Mickey Thompson tires are mounted on custom wheels by Billet Specialties.
All in all, the Sho Bird is a stunning car, built to an exceedingly high standard. The interior is fully custom, with a custom dash with a bespoke Classic Instruments instrument panel. The dash flows into a custom console. Above is an additional roof mounted console. Door panels and seats are also custom.
Rick Bird didn’t expect to be a Great 8 finalist. When I spoke to him on Friday, he couldn’t stop grinning. By Sunday evening, when they were presented with the Ridler Award, he and Patty were walking on air.
In past years the Ridler trophy was awarded at the show’s Ridler Ball, but apparently this year organizers were unable to find a ball sponsor. Instead they used the Riverfront Ballroom at Huntington Place (formerly Cobo Hall) for a more extensive award ceremony open to the public. The Detroit Autorama is a judged show, with trophies given to scores of vehicle classes, and additional cash awards.
Judges for the Ridler Award pick eight finalists on the Friday morning of the show, before it opens to the public. The Ridler finalists are called the Great 8, sponsored by BASF coatings. This year’s Great 8 seemed to me to diverge from previous years with what I think are more inspired choices. No ’69 Camaros or ’57 Chevys, just one traditional Ford roadster, a Chevy coupe from the same era, three orphan brands, Studebaker, Pontiac, and Oldsmobile, a couple of Mopars, and a very cool scratch-built homage to the 1950s Devin sports cars.
Competitors typically spend a half million dollars or more, and devote years, to see their dreams made real in metal, fabric, and composites. There are rules, of course. No matter how wild the customizations may be (and some cars are actually built completely from scratch, rather than customized versions of production vehicles) Autorama is a car show at its heart; vehicles have to be functional enough to be driven under their own power onto the show floor. Hoods are up to expose the engines.
Build quality is as high as you’d expect at a major concours like Pebble Beach or Amelia Island, perhaps even more so as concours cars are restorations to existing templates, while the Ridler competitors are very often making entirely new things.
While the “Sho Bird” Chevy won the ultimate prize of $10,000 (not to mention eternal glory), there were plenty of other glamorous and inventive creations at Autorama 2022. We’ll be shining a light on the other Ridler finalists in a future story—stay tuned.