DETROIT: Autorama; Customs, Candy and Chrome

9 Mar

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Detroiter’s have had a long-standing love affair with the automobile, this has always been and probably always will be a car town.  Every winter for the last 60 years hundreds of custom vintage vehicles roll into town showing off the final results of time, labor and money…….lots of money. This my friends is what we call Autorama! The Michigan Hot Rod Association held the first Autorama as a way to raise money to build a local drag strip, the show took place at the U of D Field-house with 50 cars.  In 1956 the club hired Don Ridler, a professional promotions agent, the show took off from there. Don brought in musical acts and bands such as Bobby Rydell, the Big Bopper and Mitch Ryder. Celebrities such as Adam West, Wolfman Jack and William Shatner made appearances along with wrestlers, Tigers and Red Wings. It was always the cars that were the real stars of the event. After moving to various locations through the years, Autorama found a permanent home at Cobo Hall in 1961. Don Ridler died an untimely death in 1963, thus the Don Ridler Memorial Award was created, honoring the “Best In Show”. This is the most prestigious award on the show circuit, 2012 marked the 49th Ridler award; the winner, Dwayne Peace took the trophy and a check for $10,000 for his 1955 Ford T-Bird. 

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I have been coming to the show for years, I think Kris has been coming since before he could spell C A R. My perspective is that of an admirer of the time and hard work, beauty and creativity these folks put into their cars, the end result is astounding. I am always taken aback walking into Cobo, the show is enormous. Fresh paint  glows under bright lights, chrome is polished to a high shine, proud owners display photo albums taking you through the restoration process. Row after row of custom paint jobs; metalflake is one of my favorites. Painters rule; from stripes and flames to flip-flop colors and original artwork the cars themselves are unique pieces of art. Interiors get a makeover too; upholstery comes in all colors and fabrics here, so much more fun than the gray of today’s cars. Some of the cars start out life as one kind of car, after a body man has had his way, it takes on a completely different appearance. For example, a hard top may now be a convertible, several feet of length may be eliminated, grills, hoods and taillights may be exchanged for something completely different. What I love about Autorama is that individuality is encouraged, and even rewarded. The funkiest ones get the most attention! Someone even made a watermelon themed  pickup truck…… They painted the outside watermelon green, the interior is well, watermelon pink,  didn’t miss a detail, the engine compartment even had a watermelon in it. 

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I walk the aisles in awe of the men and women who take on such a project, the cars are beautiful. Often mirrors are strategically placed on the floor reflecting the underside of the vehicle. Oh, and the engines! From stock to high performance everything is finely detailed; color keyed pieces, braided fuel lines and chrome valve covers. Speaking of chrome, here it reigns supremely; Grills, bumpers, moldings, pipes and wheels, a chrome polish salesman’s dream come true.  The same cannot be said for the lower level of the show. The basement showcases what are known as “Rat Rods”. These are the vehicles you will often see in primer; vintage pick-up trucks, street rods and lowered sedans, they have an appeal all their own. It surprises me how much money can be spent on something you want to look like no money was spent on it. I especially like the really old ones that have some sort of artwork on the door, or the name of the company that owned the truck, with just enough paint left of the lettering that you can barely make it out, I think it’s cool!  This year there were about 1000 cars on display, I heard attendance for the weekend was 151,000 people; I’m  not surprised, after all, this is the Motor City.

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Click here for more cool car photos.

We weren’t sure where we were going  for lunch, when we walked back to the car from Cobo we saw Finn & Porter about 100 feet up on the left, perfect! Located in the lobby of the Double Tree hotel, Finn & Porter offers 2 dining spaces, the main dining room is not open for lunch, so we ate at the Finn & Porter Round Bar. We were seated at a table by the window, I love that.  The room is contemporary in decor, lots of windows on two sides give you a front-row seat to the happenings on the street. We had just missed the Soul food buffet, served from 12-2, so we ordered off the menu. With lots of good sounding items we decided on the Baby Iceberg Salad: a wedge of iceberg lettuce , diced red onion, crumbled apple-wood smoked bacon, blue cheese crumbles topped with a green goddess dressing, delicious.  The Italian Panini  was filled with thinly sliced meats, yellow peppers and tomato, the bread was grilled perfectly giving it a nice crunch. Home made potato chips served alongside were excellent. 

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Bear Claw Coffee is located in the lobby of the hotel, we stopped in for a warm beverage before heading out into the cold and what had become snowy day.  With our drinks in hand we took a seat in the hotel lobby, the couches and chairs were very inviting. Hilton spent $90 million on the restoration of this hotel. Originally opened in 1917 it was known as the Pick-Fort Shelby Hotel. In 1927 the hotel expanded adding a 22-story tower designed by (you know who..) Albert Kahn. The hotel was one of Detroit’s top luxury hotels back in the day, in 1983 it was placed on the National register of Historic Places.  One day I’d like to take a good look around the place, I’ve seen photos of a restored ballroom that were just stunning! We enjoyed our little respite, drinking our coffee and talking about our favorite cars. Even if you’re not a car lover give Autorama a try sometime. Celebrities, Pin-ups, toys and tools there’s something here for everyone. Great for a dose of nostalgia, art and design .

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