Autorama celebrates 50 years of the Ridler Award

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

By: Andy Kozlowski, Chris Jackett | Royal Oak Review | Published March 6, 2013

 Royal Oak resident Murray Pfaff stands with his 1959 Imperial Speedster, which has been featured in auto publications and car shows across the country. The Speedster will be one of several vehicles from Pfaff Designs on display at Autorama this weekend.

Royal Oak resident Murray Pfaff stands with his 1959 Imperial Speedster, which has been featured in auto publications and car shows across the country. The Speedster will be one of several vehicles from Pfaff Designs on display at Autorama this weekend.

Photo courtesy of Murray Pfaff

DETROIT — The North American International Auto Show is the place to see new rides that will someday be ready for consumer use. But to see truly one-of-a-kind cars that have never been seen before, there is Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama, also at Cobo Center, where millions of dollars’ worth of custom hot rods will be on display, 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, around 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 model from the first Tim Burton “Batman” film, and the “Tumbler” from the 2005 Christopher Nolan reboot — will be on display. So will 10 specially invited 1950s 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.

One car enthusiast who won’t have to drive far is Murray Pfaff, of Royal Oak. Pfaff, who owns Royal Oak-based Pfaff Designs, will have about a dozen vehicles on display that he owns, designed or built.

“At Autorama, all the cars are personal statements,” Pfaff said. “It’s more approachable in that these are things that many of these guys built in their own garages.”

Among the vehicles on display at the Pfaff Designs section of Autorama will be “Boost,” Randy Weaver’s 1950 Chevrolet Speedster; the twin turbo Full Force Trans Am from Schwartz Performance; “Mayhem,” the Optima Challenge-winning 1967 Camaro prepped and raced by Pro Touring guru Mark Stielow, as well as Pfaff’s own 1959 Imperial Speedster, which has been featured in auto publications and car shows across the country.

He said nine of the vehicles would be on three 20-by-60-foot displays next to one another, where the group will hand out free posters. The other vehicles are featured elsewhere throughout the show.

“Cars have always run deep for me,” Pfaff said. “The company is design and the building is still my hobby. Me being a builder helps me be a better designer.”

One of the vehicles Pfaff designed, a 1933 Ford named “Rogue,” is among the candidates for The Ridler award.

“That’s one they’ve been working on for seven years,” Pfaff said. “I’ve always had cars that I’ve designed entered in the show.

“My favorite part is the covers coming off the cars. They’re always fresh — they’re always new. It’s just like Christmas mornings and taking off the wrapping paper.”

In addition to the cars, several celebrities will also be making appearances, including pro wrestlers Sheamus and Edge, Christopher Douglas Reed (Filthy Phil from “Sons of Anarchy”), Davis Cleveland (Flynn Jones from “Shake It Up”), Stefanie Scott (Lexi Reed from “A.N.T. Farm”), “Mountain Man” Tim Guraedy (“Duck Dynasty”) and even SpongeBob SquarePants.

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.