Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Detroit Autorama 2014 and the Past Forward Award

March 10, 2014 Archive Insight

Last year I was invited to serve as a guest judge for the CASI Cup at the Detroit Autorama, the signature hot rod and custom car show that comes to Cobo Center every March. I’m happy to report that the Autorama team invited me back this year, but with a nice amendment – this time I got to give out an award created and sponsored by The Henry Ford.

The Henry Ford’s members and visitors know that our institution is dedicated to American innovation, a commitment reflected in our mission statement. Hot rods and custom cars were born of the time-honored American traits of ingenuity and individuality, and the Detroit Autorama showcases the finest examples of creatively modified automobiles. The Henry Ford’s Past Forward Award celebrates these traditions. Winning cars are those that best evoke the spirit of hot rodding and customization. These vehicles:

  • Combine traditional inspirations with modern innovations
  • Exhibit a highly skilled technique
  • Show a decided sense of whimsy
  • Capture the “anything goes” attitude behind the rodder’s and customizer’s craft

With these criteria to guide me, I hit the show floor in search of potential winners. To be sure, there was no shortage of candidates. The show seems to get bigger each year, and more than 1,000 exhibits filled Cobo Center for 2014. While pre-war Fords, post-war Mercurys and late 1950s Chevrolets were all present in big numbers, I was struck by the number of more recent cars. Fieros, Camaros and Mustangs from the 1980s all appeared. It seems that rodders from my generation are drawing on the cars from our youth for inspiration, just as the Boomers have done for years. While I haven’t seen a chopped Plymouth Horizon yet, it seems there’s hope.

After a few trips around the floor, I settled on three possibilities. With only one award to give, though, I let the crowd help me make my final choice. While every car had its admirers, there was a steady stream of people drawn to “Orange Crush,” a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle owned by Joseph Messina of Fair Haven, Michigan. The Chevy had presence – even beyond that electric orange paint. What really struck me in talking to Joe, though, was the pride he took in the small details. He boasted about the car’s stainless steel bolts, explaining that he spent 20 minutes grinding and polishing each one personally. The companion washers were all laser-cut to exacting specifications. It was the perfect blend of new technology and old fashioned craftsmanship that the Past Forward award is all about. Plus, I loved the double meaning in the name. Sure, the car’s color looked a lot like the soft drink, but it’s also clear that Joe had a deep “crush” on his car and was rightfully proud of his work. I hope he’s proud to be our 2014 Past Forward Award winner, too.

And so another great Autorama came to a close. It was a much-appreciated reminder that, despite all the bitter cold and snow this winter, it won’t be long before these cars come off of their mirrored platforms and start hitting the streets as cruising weather returns.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford

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