Autorama draws car owners from Clinton Township, Fraser

By: Nico Rubello | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published March 11, 2013

 From left, ClintonTownship resident Don Cilli and sons Kyler and Cody pose with Cilli’s 1979 Ford Mustang.

From left, ClintonTownship resident Don Cilli and sons Kyler and Cody pose with Cilli’s 1979 Ford Mustang.

Photo by Nico Rubello

DETROIT — At Meguiar’s Autorama in Detroit, throngs of people passed by Eric Phipps’ custom cars, stopping to admire them, snapping a few photos of the colorful paintwork and the gleaming chrome, and exchanging a few words with Phipps about the cars.

After putting years of work into perfecting the autos — a 1969 red convertible Chevy Camaro, a 1965 black convertible Chevy Corvette and a 1996 multicolored Honda Civic — the joy of having other people admire them is barely explainable, the Fraser resident said.

“It’s a hell of an ego boost,” said Phipps, the owner of Inch Customs in Warren. “I’ve had chills since this morning.”

The March 8-10 show brought thousands of people to admire hundreds of custom hot rods and muscle cars spread over the Cobo Center’s 100,000 square feet.

Besides millions of dollars’ worth of cars, the show also featured numerous vendors selling model cars, other auto-related collectibles and toys. Three Batmobiles from Batman movies were on display at one end of the venue as well.

But the main draw, as always, was the autos.

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.

Among the crowd this year were nine Clinton Township residents showing 13 vehicles, and three Fraser residents with seven vehicles.

Like the other local car owners, Phipps planned to spend the weekend at Autorama, checking out others’ cars and answering questions about his own.

Judges distribute awards in a number of different car categories, the most prestigious of which being the Riddler Award. The Riddler, which is given to the best car never seen before in the show, attracts car owners from around the U.S. and Canada to the Detroit Autorama.

“If we win, we win. If we don’t, we don’t,” Phipps said, adding that,  for him, the highlight of the weekend was getting to see the innovative cars built by renowned car builders, like TV personality and hot rod shop owner Chip Foose.

Rich Doran, of Clinton Township, has been coming to the show as a spectator for years, but this year he entered his red 1951 Chevy pickup as part of his car club, the Mount Clemens-based Bearing Burners Auto Club.

For Doran, there’s a certain pride in the fact that he did all the work on the truck himself, including everything except painting the truck cherry red. To him, the truck seems to symbolize a slice of Americana.

“It’s a work truck. It’s America — what can you say?” he said at the show. “It’s not the $200,000 car sitting over there; it’s not like one of the ones sitting on the turn tables. But hey, I did it all myself.”

He said working on the car became a bonding experience for his whole family.

“It was something I just did out in my garage. … You come home from work, you go out in the garage and it just takes your mind off of things. You’re just puttering out there and having a good time.”

While Autorama events are held around the U.S. every winter, the one in Detroit is the biggest and oldest.

“This is the mother of all shows for the wintertime,” said Fraser resident Frank Cusumano. “Nothing competes with the Detroit Autorama.”

Autorama was a family affair for Cusumano, who entered a 1969 Plymouth Satellite Wagon, a 1970 Dodge challenger and a 1967 Chevy Chevelle. His son, Eric Cusumano, entered a 1971 Dodge Demon.

Frank Cusumano said the cars — which he worked on at his shop, Cuzie Customs in Clinton Township — were built especially for Autorama.

It’s not uncommon for owners to work hectically on the cars up until the day they’re taken to Cobo. “It’s like a marriage; you’re always working on it,” Frank Cusumano laughed.

As of this past September, Don Cilli’s blue 1979 Ford Mustang was completely gutted.

“Completely empty — no suspension, no motor. All the interior was out of it,” the Clinton Township resident said, noting his nights and weekends leading up to the show were consumed by working on the car. “I built the motor for it. I re-did the engine compartment. I redid the entire paint job. I put all new, updated suspension underneath it.

“We literally got it finished on Tuesday (March 5), and we had to have it down here on Wednesday (March 6).”

Cilli sat by the car throughout the weekend, accompanied by his three children. Ultimately, all the hard work was made worth it by the admiration of spectators at the show.

“It’s finally says other people, besides myself, appreciate what I’ve done,” he said. “This was my dream, to have my own car in a show this large.”