Cole Giles, of Madison Heights, will be bringing his 1951  Chevrolet Fleetline to this year’s Autorama, which will be held March 1-3 at Cobo Center in Detroit. The 18-year-old started with just the car’s body and shell and built it out from there.

Cole Giles, of Madison Heights, will be bringing his 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline to this year’s Autorama, which will be held March 1-3 at Cobo Center in Detroit. The 18-year-old started with just the car’s body and shell and built it out from there.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Custom car fans rev up for Autorama

Show returns to Cobo Center March 1-3

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 15, 2019


METRO DETROIT — Auto enthusiasts from across the region will be rolling into Detroit’s Cobo Center during the first three days of March for this year’s Autorama, billed as “America’s Greatest Hot Rod Show.”

Now in its 67th year, the show — properly known as Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama, presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts — will feature around 800 hot rods and custom cars, including many from metro Detroit. 

There will also be a pinch of celebrity star power, including NASCAR driver Tony Stewart and the Hanson Brothers from the movie “Slap Shot,” as well as iconic cars like the Batmobile from the film “Batman Returns” and the original Trans Am from “Smokey and the Bandit,” which will feature in a high-flying stunt at the start of the show, complete with a Burt Reynolds lookalike.   

But arguably the real stars of the show are the ordinary people who share their beloved rides — and the passion and insight that comes with them. 

‘It’s inspiring’

Cole Giles, of Madison Heights, will be bringing his 1951 Chevrolet Fleetline.

The 18-year-old acquired the car in a Craigslist trade where he offered up a toolbox. The car was just the body and shell — essentially a rolling frame — with no engine, transmission or interior. But Giles was eager to restore his first vehicle. 

He added a sub-frame from a 1970 Chevy Nova, and a 350- cubic-inch small-block engine from a Chevy Camaro. He installed seats with Mexican blankets for an interior — “super simple,” he said. The exterior is maroon red — not the original color, but the color it was when he received it. The roof had already been chopped and lowered decades ago. 

“This is the first car I’ve put together myself. My dad’s always been into it,” Giles said. “When I was like 16, I got a job at Brothers Custom Automotive in Troy, and I just learned a lot there. Then I got this, and I’ve been using what I’ve learned on this car.

“Recently, I’ve been having an issue with the transmission,” he added. “It runs and drives, but there are still some issues that I’m working out.”

Giles has been attending Autorama for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve gone every year since I was old enough to walk,” he said with a laugh. “It’s always been a goal of mine to get ready for Autorama and to be featured in it. This is the first year I’ve had a car in the show.

“I just like how it’s stuff you don’t see every day,” Giles said of Autorama. “It’s a very wide variety of cars and styles. It’s cool to take pictures and see the way different people do different things in different styles.” 

Lance Garcia, of Hazel Park, will also be at this year’s Autorama, bringing a custom car and a motorcycle. 

His 1950 Ford Sedan first appeared in the show two years ago. It’s a stock model with light custom work done: The rear has been lowered 4 inches, and a custom visor has been installed over the windshield. It still has the original black exterior, with a gray-and-black interior. 

“Previous to that, I had a 1930 Model A,” Garcia said. “My friend wanted my Model A for years, so he ended up trading me his (Ford Sedan).” 

Garcia is a member of the Dead Last Car Club, where the members own cars that were released before 1964. He said he knows someone in the club who paints cars, and in the future he will ask that person to give the roof a “wild” custom paint job, with a different color from the body. 

“I will basically let him redesign it,” Garcia said. 

He also plans to repaint the body in its original black, since it’s starting to rust in places. 

As for the bike, it’s a 1986 Harley-Davidson Sportster that started out stock, but Garcia chopped off the rear frame and made it into a hardtail frame, with a longer front end and a king-queen seat. The only original parts that remain are the motor and the front end of the frame. It’s bare metal at the moment, but Garcia is thinking he’ll paint it black. 

The bike was a winter project for him and his friends. Garcia acquired it by chance when he was shopping for parts for another bike at his friend’s shop. It was there that he saw the Sportster and bought it as a gift for his wife. But she ended up wanting the bike next to it instead. 

“So in buying parts for one bike, I ended up getting two more,” Garcia said with a laugh. “And I already have other bikes beyond them!” 

For him, collecting vintage rides is a bug he caught from his grandfather.

“When I was growing up, he always had old cars lying around,” Garcia recalled. “It always stuck in my head that I wanted a collection like that, too.”

He said that Autorama is always a treat.

“You get to see what your friends have been working on throughout the year, trying to get it done by the show,” Garcia said. “And then downstairs, it’s mostly car clubs from around Detroit and other places. It’s always nice to get together with people you haven’t seen in a while. It’s inspiring.”

So much to see

While Detroit may be best known for the North American International Auto Show, which highlights industry trends, Autorama is more about vehicles that are no longer on the market, and that have been altered to be one of a kind.  

There will be hundreds of cars to see. But there are other kinds of spectacle as well.

“I think that the challenge to us, always, is to keep topping ourselves,” said Linda Ashley, spokesperson for Autorama. “We have established a reputation for having a great outdoor stunt at the opening of Autorama. And this time we’ve put together something truly spectacular.”

The opening act this year will be a high-flying stunt featuring the black-and-gold 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am from the cult hit film “Smokey and the Bandit.” The car will make a jump at the back of Cobo Center at 11:45 a.m. March 1, just before the show opens. 

“There’s nothing else like it,” Ashley said. “We found the stunts add so much excitement to the show that once we started it, we were determined to keep it going. Everyone is excited to see it.” 

Afterward, the car will move indoors to the Smokey and the Bandit Roadshow exhibit, which will also feature the police car from the movie, and other memorabilia as well. There will also be a Burt Reynolds look-alike.

“It’s just pure fun,” Ashley said. “We always like to salute iconic cars — movie cars, race cars and wonderful custom cars.” 

To that end, there will also be an exhibit featuring Carl Casper, renowned in the hot rod world, including one of his most iconic creations, the Batmobile from “Batman Returns,” as well as his famous “Young American” dragster, and the Empress — a custom 1951 Chevy that was his teenage car and won Best in Show at the first Autorama in the early ’60s. He will be at the show meeting fans and signing autographs for all three days.

There will also be celebrity appearances by WWE superstar Seth Rollins 6-8 p.m. March 1; Tony Stewart, of NASCAR fame, noon-2 p.m. March 2; Dave Kindig, of Kindig It Designs and Velocity TV’s “Bitchin’ Rides,” 4-8 p.m. March 2; the Hanson Brothers, from the movie “Slap Shot,” 1-4 p.m. March 3; and Horny Mike and the Roadshow Rig, from the History Channel’s “Counting Cars,” all weekend.

This year’s Autorama will also feature a new event called the Lowrider Invitational — a special exhibit of 14 low-rider vehicles.

“It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the custom car enthusiast world, with cars from across the region,” Ashley said. “It’s really about the hydraulics of the car, how they go up and down. They shake; they often have murals on them; and they have huge batteries. The thrill of the builders is to be as creative as possible.”

While the low-riders won’t be running inside Cobo Center itself, they will be configured in different positions so guests can see how they operate, and there will be videos showing them in action.

“I just think what’s most exciting about Autorama is the creativity of everyone there, ranging from some of the most well-known builders in the country to Michiganders who are putting together, with their own heart and soul, these cars from their own garages. Each is a work of art, and nothing like you’d see in a normal car. I like to call it ‘Hot Wheels: Grown Up.’ 

“It’s just so much fun to see the cars up close and personal, and to talk to the builders who are so proud of their work,” Ashley said. “It’s a wonderful way to see there can be an artist in each of us, expressing ourselves — in this case, through cars.” 

Show hours for Autorama are from noon to 10 p.m. Friday, March 1; from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 2; and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday, March 3. Admission at the gate costs $21 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-12, and is free for children ages 5 and younger. Discount tickets are available at O’Reilly Auto Parts at a rate of $19 for adults and $7 for children ages 6-12. 

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