WARREN — It was a school night in 1971. Families across America were sitting down for casserole dinners and episodes of “Adam-12” or “Hawaii Five-0.”
Greg Pennington was just 8 years old. And instead of hitting the sack after dinner, he was out in the garage using his little fingers to polish chrome on one of his dad’s creations.
Greg’s father, Jerry Pennington, was more than a car builder. The collision shop owner from the mountains of West Virginia used his hands and his creativity to forge legendary, award-winning custom cars.
It had to be a dream for Greg and his siblings, watching their dad and his cohorts morph classic American metal into things “radical” and spectacular, using a combination of skill and imagination. The guys wrenching on the cars even helped hide Greg in the garage when his mom came knocking at bedtime, sometimes buying him another hour.
And while Jerry passed away years ago, the dream is still alive for his family, who’ll show two of Jerry’s most-famous rides — a red 1968 Chevy Corvette “Scorpion,” and the full-custom 1972 “Devilfish”— at the 61st Annual Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama March 8-10.
The show will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ridler Award, originally given to Autorama’s best first-time-shown vehicle and now bestowed on the basis of “creativity, engineering and workmanship.”
Jerry’s “Scorpion” won the Ridler in 1972. His “Devilfish” took the award in 1973.
“They’re still in the family. They’re still in my mom’s basement,” said Greg, of Warren, 49, last week. “When he built the house, he built it around his two prized cars. Once he passed away, we got together and decided these two cars are too badass to sit in the basement and never be seen in public.”
Greg said his dad moved from West Virginia to the Detroit area in the 1950s. The family eventually settled in Warren. Jerry worked for Michigan Bell, and in 1968, he opened a collision shop in Troy that’s still in business.
By that time, Jerry had already been restoring Corvettes in the garage at home. In the early 1970s, his work really started to turn gearheads’ heads.
“He’d go to a car show and sweep the entire show — best paint, best design, best interior,” Greg said. “Once it was on paper, my dad could make anything out of anything. He grew up dirt poor in West Virginia. You had to do with what you had. He’d basically take a chunk of aluminum and make a shifter out of this chunk of aluminum.
“My dad was the greatest painter in the world. He was the best,” Greg said. “That was his final touch. He’d make sure it was perfect.”
Jerry’s 1968 Corvette that won the Ridler in 1972 had a dash-mounted television screen. The full-custom 1972 “Devilfish” that took home the award in 1973 had a digital dashboard.
“The Scorpion was built in our garage in Warren,” said Jerry’s daughter, Cindy Pennington, of Lake Orion, 50. “This was way back in the early ’70s. My dad was way ahead of everything.”
Cindy said her dad’s love of cars and attention to detail is embedded in her family’s DNA.
She said her own 30-year-old daughter, Holly Pennington, is learning to do bodywork and paint cars at a dealer shop.
“It was a lot of fun growing up. My dad was always doing something in the garage,” Cindy said. “We had dune buggies and little roadsters, and all kinds of automotive stuff to play with. We were doing fun things, going on trips.
“My dad, for a ninth-grade education, he was the most intelligent man I know,” Cindy said. “He was so articulate and creative. He was hardworking. If you needed it done, Dad would do it.”
For tickets and more information about the 61st Annual Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama at COBO Center March 8-10, visit www.autorama.com or call (248) 373-1700.