Autorama celebrates 50 years of the Ridler Award

Custom hot rods make their debut at Cobo Center March 8-10

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published March 4, 2013

 Al Bergler’s supercharged dragster, “More Aggravation,” was the winner of the first Ridler Award, and will be returning to rev its engine loudly and get this year’s Autorama off to a powerful start with the all-new “cacklefest.”

Al Bergler’s supercharged dragster, “More Aggravation,” was the winner of the first Ridler Award, and will be returning to rev its engine loudly and get this year’s Autorama off to a powerful start with the all-new “cacklefest.”

Photo provided by Linda Ashley

DETROIT — The North American International Auto Show is the place to see new rides that will someday be ready for consumer use. But to view truly one-of-a-kind cars that have never been seen before, there is Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama, where millions of dollars’ worth of custom hot rods will be on display at Cobo Center, including ones making their public debut for the nationally renowned Ridler Award.

The event itself is now in its 61st year, but this year’s Autorama, set for March 8-10, marks a significant milestone: 50 years of the Ridler Award, sponsored by Chevrolet Performance. All 50 winners from past years have been invited to bring back their winning rides on “Ridler’s Row,” and at press time, about 30 had been confirmed.

“This will be a once-in-a-lifetime event, because when else would these cars all be together in one place at one time?” said Linda Ashley, event spokesperson. “It’s been a two-year effort on the part of the organizers to get all these people together in the same place at the same time, and took some investigative work to track them all down. It was a challenge, but it’s going to be outstanding.”

To appear in Autorama, a vehicle must meet the high standards of the Michigan Hot Rod Association, the show’s co-producer alongside Championship Auto Shows. There will be more than 1,000 exhibits, from exceptionally rare vintage vehicles beautifully restored, to rides customized in rather unique ways.

But to qualify for the Ridler Award, the vehicle must be appearing in a show for the first time. A panel of judges will examine each ride with a fine-toothed comb, awarding points for creativity and workmanship. Eight finalists are selected and each awarded a $1,000 check by Pirelli, one of the sponsors. The winner of the Ridler Award then receives $10,000 in cash, plus a custom trophy and jacket. 

“The Ridler Award is key to what makes this a unique hot rod custom car event,” Ashley said. “Ten years ago, there was a big influx of Californian hot-rodders, which took the event to the next stratosphere. They became reacquainted with Autorama, and now people from across the country enter with the goal of winning. The car that expresses everything you want to say as a hot-rodder and custom car specialist, you save it for the Detroit show, since it can’t have been shown anywhere else.”

Al Bergler, the first winner of the Ridler Award, will be in attendance, bringing two supercharged dragsters, the Ridler-winning “More Aggravation,” and “Motown Shaker.” He’ll rev them up for the “cacklefest,” an outdoors demonstration that will get the event off to a thunderous start.

Three Batmobiles — the 1966 model used by Adam West, the 1989 one from the first Tim Burton film, and the “Tumbler” from the 2005 Christopher Nolan reboot — will be on display. So will 10 specially invited ’50s customs in the “Cavalcade of Kustoms,” and a collection of two-seat SS Thunderbirds from 1955-57 in “Ford’s First Feather,” all hand-selected by Chuck Miller, past Ridler winner and reputable car customizer.

There is also Detroit Autorama Extreme 1953, a show-within-a-show now in its seventh year, featuring more than 200 custom vehicles inspired by the ’50s, filling all 100,000 square feet of Cobo Hall’s lower level.

There are other special events lined up for Autorama, but the main draw is the chance to see the custom rides of car enthusiasts from across the country.

Robert Slater, of Madison Heights, has been attending Autorama with the same friend since he was a child. An electrical engineer, family man and member of the Great Lakes Classic AMC Club, he is exhibiting at the show for the first time this year, with his gray 1969 AMC Javelin SST, bought when he was age 17.

He reworked it bit by bit, replacing the front factory steel fenders with fiberglass fenders, moving the turn signals from the front bumper to the grille, installing brake-cooling vents in the bumper, and filling in the seams between the headlights and fenders so they blend together.

He also did what car customizers call “shaving,” removing all tags, names or anything tacky on the car, and he changed most of the lights over to LED, as well as rewiring the car with a well-concealed CAN bus system and other modern trappings, such as lights that fade out when the car is turned off.

A high-mounted brake light across the back windows lights up in red, white and blue, the same colors as the racing stripe he added, and there are a string of LEDs through the reflector between the taillights, as well.

The vehicle has 17-inch wheels and low-profile tires, running on a 390-cubic-inch V8 engine yielding about 560 horsepower. The whole car has been a labor of love for Slater, winning him an award at a show in Boston.

Since it’s been shown before, the vehicle cannot be entered for the Ridler Award, but Slater is looking forward to sharing it with others, and seeing the rides others bring.

“You really get to look into other guys’ minds and see how they think about their car, what they see in it and the important parts for them, how they emphasize them with colors that match and so on,” Slater said. “They more or less take the cars they bought from the factory, and try to pull the ugly out of them. It’s basically car art.”

The 61st Annual Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama will take place at Cobo Center, on Washington Boulevard at Jefferson, from noon to 10 p.m. Friday, March 8; from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 9; and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, March 10.

Admission at the gate is $18 for adults, $5 for children ages 6-12, and free for children ages 5 and younger. Discount tickets are available through O’Reilly Auto Parts.

For more information about Autorama, call (248) 373-1700. For more information about the Great Lakes Classic AMC Club, visit