Past Forward

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With the North American International Auto Show now moved to June, we’ve had an unusually long dry spell in the Motor City when it comes to automotive exhibitions. The drought was finally broken by the annual Detroit Autorama, held February 28-March 1. Always a major show, this year’s edition was no exception with more than 800 hot rods and custom cars spread over two levels of the TCF Center.

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Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s “Outlaw,” honored as one of the 20th Century’s most significant hot rods.

The most memorable display this year was immodestly (but quite accurately) labeled “The Most Significant Hot Rods of the 20th Century.” It was a veritable who’s who of iconic iron featuring tributes to Bob McGee’s ’32 Ford, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s  “Outlaw” and “Beatnik Bandit,” Tommy Ivo’s ’25 T-Bucket, and Norm Grabowski’s ’22 T-Bucket – the last immortalized as Kookie Kookson’s ginchy ride in the TV show 77 Sunset Strip.

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“Impressive” indeed. The 1963 Chevy wagon that won this year’s Ridler Award. (The chrome on those wheels practically glows!)

The biggest excitement always surrounds the Ridler Award, named for Autorama’s first promoter, Don Ridler. It’s the event’s top prize, and only cars that have never been shown publicly before are eligible. Judges select their “Great 8” – the eight finalists – on Friday and, for the rest of the weekend, excitement builds until the winner is revealed at the Sunday afternoon awards ceremony. The winner receives $10,000 and the distinction of having her or his name engraved forever on the trophy. It’s among the highest honors in the hot rod and custom car hobby. This year’s prize went to “Impressive,” a 1963 Chevrolet two-door station wagon built by a father-son-grandson team from Minnesota. With a Ridler now to its credit, no one can question the car’s name again.

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Replica race cars – a Ford GT40 and a Ferrari 330 P3 used in the 2019 film
Ford v Ferrari.

There’s always a little Hollywood magic on the show floor somewhere, and this year it came from a pair of replica cars used in two big racing scenes in the hit 2019 movie Ford v Ferrari. From the 1966 Daytona 24-Hour was the #95 Ford GT40 Mk. II driven by Walt Hansgen and Mark Donohue. From the 1966 Le Mans 24-Hour was the #20 Ferrari 330 P3 driven by Ludovico Scarfiotti and Mike Parkes. How accurate were the copy cars? Judge for yourself by looking here and here.

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The Michigan Midget Racing Association introduces kids to the excitement of auto racing.

Those who are worried about younger generations not being interested in cars could take comfort from the Michigan Midget Racing Association. The organization’s Autorama display featured a half dozen cars that kids could (and did) climb into for photos. Quarter Midget cars are sized for kids anywhere from 5 to 16 years old. And while they look cute, these race cars aren’t toys. Their single-cylinder engines move the cars along at speeds up to 45 miles per hour. M.M.R.A.’s oval track in Clarkston is surfaced with asphalt and approximately 1/20 of a mile long.

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Our 2020 Past Forward Award winner – a 1964 Pontiac GTO that matured with its owner.

Each year, The Henry Ford proudly presents its own trophy at Autorama. Our Past Forward Award honors a vehicle that combines inspirations of the past with innovative technologies of the present. It exhibits the highest craftsmanship and has a great story behind it. This year’s winner put a novel spin on the “Past Forward” concept. It’s a 1964 Pontiac GTO owned by Fred Moler of Sterling Heights, Michigan. Fred bought the car while he was in college and, appropriately for someone at that young age, drove it hard and fast. When adult responsibilities came along, he tucked the Goat away in a barn. Some 40 years later, Moler pulled the car out of the barn for restoration. He wanted to relive his college days but knew that neither he nor the GTO were the same as they were decades ago. Moler kept the trademark 389 V-8 but replaced the drivetrain with a more sedate unit. He added air conditioning, improved the sound system, and ever so slightly tinted the glass. In his own words, Moler enhanced the car to make it comfortable for his “more mature” self. He brought a piece of his own past forward to suit his present-day wants and needs. Like I said, a great story.

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Autorama’s oldest entry – an 1894 horse-drawn road grader.

Autorama veterans know that the grittiest cars are found on TCF Center’s lower level – the infamous domain known as Autorama Extreme. Here you’ll find the Rat Rods that take pride in their raw, unabashedly unattractive appearance. By all means, take the escalator downstairs. There are always gems among the rats. This year I was thrilled to find an 1894 horse-drawn road grader manufactured by the F.C. Austin Company of Chicago. Utilitarian vehicles like this are rare survivors from our pre-automobile age. Autorama Extreme is a great place to tap your feet as well. Live music fills the lower level throughout the weekend – lots of 1950s rockabilly, of course, but plenty of blues and soul too.

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Don’t miss Toy-a-Rama with its assortment of vintage car books and brochures.

Each year, I make a point of visiting Toy-a-Rama at the back of TCF Center. Vendors sell hundreds of plastic model kits, diecast models, memorabilia, and toys. But it’s the great selection of auto-related books, magazines, and vintage sales literature that always reels me in – and leaves my wallet a little lighter on the way out.

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A beautiful 1:1 scale model of “Uncertain-T” – some assembly required.


And speaking of model kits, maybe the coolest thing I saw all weekend was down in Autorama Extreme. It was a beautifully crafted, partially-assembled model of Steve Scott’s “Uncertain-T” just like Monogram used to make – but this one was life-sized. Really, the giant sprue was terrific enough, but the giant hobby knife and glue tube took the whole thing to the next level. (Skill Level 2, as the box might’ve said.)

All in all, another great year celebrating the wildest, weirdest, and winningest custom cars and hot rods around. If you’ve never been, make sure you don’t miss Autorama in 2021.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

racing, toys and games, Michigan, Detroit, cars, car shows, by Matt Anderson, Autorama

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Cobo Center brimmed with more than 800 custom cars and hot rods at the 2019 Detroit Autorama.

Winter was a little late arriving here in southeast Michigan, and it doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. But the colder-than-average temperatures made it all the more satisfying to check out the hot cars at the 67th Annual Detroit Autorama.

autoram2A superb blend of old and new – a 2018 Dodge Charger Hellcat with the face and Coke bottle doors of its timeless 1969 predecessor.

Anyone in the hobby knows that Detroit’s Autorama is among the most prestigious hot rod and custom car shows in the world. More than 800 cars from throughout the United States and Canada come together at Cobo Center to be judged on their craftsmanship and creativity. The best entrants join Autorama’s “Great 8.” And from these eight finalists, judges choose the winner of the best-in-show Ridler Award. Only cars that have never been shown before are eligible to win, so it’s a special honor indeed. In addition to the bragging rights, the Ridler winner receives $10,000 and enshrinement in the online Winner Archive. This year’s Ridler Award went to “Cadmad,” a wild 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham station wagon owned by Steve Barton of Las Vegas, Nevada. Mr. Barton passed away before the car was completed, giving added poignancy to this year’s prize.

autorama3Wes Adkins’s 1956 Ford Victoria took home The Henry Ford’s “Past Forward” award.

For the sixth year The Henry Ford presented its “Past Forward” award at the Detroit Autorama. Our prize goes to a car that 1.) Blends custom and hot rod traditions with modern innovation, 2.) Exhibits a high level of craftsmanship, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” spirit of the hobby, and 4.) Is just plain fun. Our winner this year was a 1956 Ford Victoria owned by Wes Adkins of Dover, Ohio. The Victoria features a 301-cubic inch Y-Block V-8 with twin superchargers; hand-crafted rocker panels, floors, and inner fenders; vintage Thunderbird door handles; and a 3D-printed hood ornament – at 60 percent the size of the original for a lower-profile look. Everything was beautifully executed – particularly the paintwork, done by the owner himself.

autorama4“The True Vine” – a 1977 Buick LeSabre at Autorama’s Low Rider Invitational.

This year brought a special milestone as the Detroit Autorama hosted its first-ever Low Rider Invitational. Some 14 cars from Michigan and Ohio were featured in a special display. In the past, lowriders at Autorama tended to be scattered around the floor wherever space permitted. Exhibiting them together recognized the fact that lowriders represent a distinct – and thriving – subculture in the broader custom car hobby. Equally important was the fact that the lowrider display was curated by veteran gearhead Debbie Sanchez. Car shows – all kinds of car shows – have been dominated by men for too long. It’s refreshing to see women participating in greater numbers each year.

autorama5With their rambunctious reputation, John and Horace Dodge might have gotten a kick out of this rodded-up 1915 Dodge Brothers.

With so many cars on view, there’s something for everyone in Cobo Center. For race fans, there were slingshot dragsters and funny cars. For kids, there were go-karts and quarter midgets. For movie fans, there was a screen-used Batmobile from 1992’s Batman Returns, as well as a tribute to the late Burt Reynolds, who brought new car fans into the hobby with movies like Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, and The Cannonball Run. And live music throughout the weekend ran the gamut from ’50s rock and roll to hard-driving R&B.

autorama6Minibikes lined up at Autorama Extreme.

For all of the great cars on the main floor, Autorama veterans know that the wildest rides are found down below – at Autorama Extreme on Cobo Center’s lower level. There you’d find the rat rods, the bobber bikes, and the way-out customs that are more riddle than Ridler. There’s even an on-site chop shop where you can watch skilled fabricators at work.

autorama7Toy-a-Rama featured vintage toys, diecast models, racing memorabilia, and automotive sales literature.

If your budget (or your garage) won’t permit you to collect full-size cars, then you could check out the Toy-a-Rama show at the back of Cobo Center. Vendors offered hundreds of diecast cars and plastic model kits, from Hot Wheels on up to beautifully-detailed 1:18 scale pieces. Other sellers offered transportation-related books and magazines, and an incredible collection of vintage automotive sales brochures and advertisements.

There’s no other show quite like it, which explains why the Detroit Autorama continues to be known among builders and fans alike as “America’s Greatest Hot Rod Show.”

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

by Matt Anderson, Michigan, Detroit, Autorama, car shows, cars

dodge-demonDodge Demon 1.0: “Insidious,” one of 800 hot rods and custom cars on view at the 2018 Detroit Autorama.

There’s still snow on the ground in the Motor City, but car show season is officially underway after the 66th annual Detroit Autorama, held March 2-4. Some of the wildest, weirdest and/or most beautiful customs and hot rods filled Cobo Center in a celebration of chrome and creativity. For those who’ve never been, Autorama is a feast for the eyes (and, at closing time when many of the entrants drive off under their own power, the ears). Some 800 cars, built by the most talented rodders and customizers in the country, are brought together under a single roof to be admired, coveted and judged.

chevy-truckWit is as much a part of the customizer’s toolbox as wrenches and rachets. Check out this 1955 Chevy “Bad Humor” ice cream truck, surrounded by used popsicle sticks.

The most prestigious prize at Autorama is the Ridler Award, named in honor of show promoter Don Ridler. Only cars that have never been shown before are eligible. On Autorama’s opening day, the judges select their “Great 8” – the finalists for the Ridler. Anticipation builds throughout the weekend until the winner is announced at the end of the Sunday afternoon awards presentation. In addition to considerable bragging rights, the Ridler Award winner receives $10,000 and enshrinement in the online Winner Archive. This year’s Ridler went to “Imagine,” a silver 1957 Chevrolet 150 owned by Greg and Judy Hrehovcsik and Johnny Martin of Alamosa, Colorado.

chevy-camaroOur 2018 Past Forward winner, a 1956 Continental Mark II with a fifth-generation Chevy Camaro powertrain under the body.

Each year The Henry Ford gives out its own prize to a deserving Autorama participant. Our Past Forward award recognizes a car that 1.) Blends custom and hot rod traditions with modern innovation, 2.) Exhibits a high level of craftsmanship, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” spirit of the hobby, and 4.) Is just plain fun. Our 2018 winner, a 1956 Continental Mark II owned by Doug Knorr of Traverse City, Michigan, and built by Classic Car Garage of Greenville, Michigan, had all these qualities in the right combination. Everything about the car said “Continental,” only more so – from the oversized turbine wheels to the elegant Continental star on the valve covers. And if the 400-horsepower LS3 Camaro V-8 under the hood doesn’t say “anything goes,” then I don’t know what does.

dodge-monacoThe 1976 Dodge Monaco – notably a model made after catalytic converters, so it won’t run good on regular gas.

If chrome-plated undercarriages aren’t your thing, then Autorama Extreme was there for you again this year on Cobo’s lower level. Shammy cloths and car polish are decidedly out of place among the Rat Rods down below. In addition to show cars, vendors and the ever-popular Gene Winfield pop-up chop shop, Autorama Extreme features a concert stage with ongoing musical entertainment. There’s always a healthy dose of 1950s rockabilly on the schedule, but this year’s lineup also included a Blues Brothers tribute act – complete with a 1976 Dodge Monaco gussied up (or down, I suppose) into a fairly convincing copy of the Bluesmobile.

ford-model-aUnpolished and proud of it. A 1930 Ford Model A with the Rat Rods in Autorama Extreme.

amc-spiritNot everything at Autorama is textbook classic. Here’s a 1980 AMC Spirit patriotically living up to its name with lots of red, white and blue.

lethal-t“Lethal T,” for those who’ve always dreamed of putting a 427 Cammer in a Model T. 

If you haven’t been to Detroit Autorama, then make a point of being there in 2019. You won’t find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Michigan, Detroit, Autorama, by Matt Anderson, car shows, cars

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“Madam X,” a 1939 Cadillac Sixty Special and one of the stars of the 2017 Detroit Autorama.

The car show season usually feels far away in late February. (Usually. Maybe not this year, when Detroit temperatures have already approached 70 degrees.) But the weekend of February 24-26 brought us a tease of the top-down, volume-up cruising weather to come. More than 800 cars filled Cobo Center for the 65th annual Detroit Autorama, among the most important shows in the hot rod and custom car hobby.

IMG_6275The VW Beetle-based “Baja Bandeeto,” showing that presentation is everything.

Naturally, Autorama doesn’t simply open the doors to kick off the event. No, it starts with something special. This year launched with a nod to The Dukes of Hazzard, the downhome television series that undoubtedly influenced every Autorama participant born between 1970 and 1980. The Northeast Ohio Dukes stunt show team patched together a derelict Dodge Charger, gave it the necessary orange paint, and jumped it 134 feet over Atwater Street, just outside Cobo Center. The flight was fantastic, but the landing… well, that Charger needs more care than Cooter Davenport can give it if it’s ever going to fly again.

IMG_6367“More Aggravation,” recipient of the very first Ridler Award in 1964.

Autorama’s top prize is the revered Ridler Award, named for early show promoter Don Ridler. Qualifying cars cannot have been shown publically prior to Autorama. Judges announce their “Great 8” – the eight finalists – at the Ridler’s Ball on Friday night. For the rest of the weekend, anticipation builds until the winner is revealed at the end of Sunday’s awards ceremony. The winning owner earns a small piece of immortality, with her or his name forever engraved on the trophy and added to the Winner Archive, and a not-so-small chunk of change in the form of $10,000. This year’s Ridler Award went to “Renaissance Roadster,” a scratch-built 1933 Ford powered by a GM big-block 427 crate engine.

IMG_6336One of the Rat Rods – the deliberately under-restored cars – that populated Autorama Extreme on Cobo Center’s lower level. Even in this condition the ’55 Chevy’s inherent beauty shines through.

For the fourth year, The Henry Ford presented its Past Forward award. With the prize, we look to honor a car that 1.) Combines traditional inspirations with modern innovations, 2.) Exhibits a high level of skill in its construction, 3.) Captures the “anything goes” attitude of the hot rod and custom car hobbies, and 4.) Is just plain fun.

IMG_6297“Pearl Necklace,” winner of The Henry Ford’s Past Forward award for 2017.

For 2017, we found all of those qualities in “Pearl Necklace,” a 1959 Ford Galaxie 500 built and owned by John Oberg and Roy Oberg. Apart from the pearlescent paint that inspired its name, and the beautiful marbled wheels (with retro Ford Motor Company logos on the hubs), “Pearl Necklace” could almost pass for stock. But this Galaxie’s a sleeper. The 352 V-8 was bored out by .020 inches, the stock differential was replaced with a 3.73 gearset for faster launches, and the transmission was replaced with Ford’s rugged C6 automatic to handle extra torque. Not that the car was too shabby even when originally built. Plaques on the door proudly boast that it’s “Air Conditioned by Ford Select Aire,” a ritzy option that accounted for almost 20 percent of the original $2,500 sticker price!

IMG_6394This 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was pointed west in Cobo Center, but it was eastbound in spirit.

But the best thing about “Pearl Necklace” was simply this: The car was a labor of love, built by John and Roy (with help from one or two friends) in a two-car garage over the course of 26 years. It’s that kind of dedication that makes a custom car special – and makes the Detroit Autorama a car show like no other.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Autorama, by Matt Anderson, Michigan, Detroit, car shows, cars

Detroit Autorama 2016: Hot Rods, Customs and Classics at Cobo
"Jade Idol II,” built as a tribute to master customizer Gene Winfield’s original, is typical of the Detroit Autorama’s top-tier cars.

Even in the dead of winter, it’s never a long wait around here for the next car show. Soon after the North American International Auto Show closes its doors, we look forward to the Detroit Autorama, the annual show featuring the best in custom cars and hot rods. The 2016 show, held February 26-28, did not disappoint with some 800 vehicles spread over 750,000 square feet in Cobo Center.

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Concept cars of the 1950s were spotlighted. This ’54 Chrysler La Comtess came from FCA’s Walter P. Chrysler Museum. The show car was designed expressly to appeal to women.
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Michigan, Detroit, by Matt Anderson, Autorama, cars, car shows

“Fordillac” – it’s a 1940 Ford powered by a Cadillac V-8, and it represents everything that makes the Detroit Autorama so great.

The snow is melting and the weather is warming (after a particularly frigid February), but the surest sign of spring in the Motor City is the arrival of the Detroit Autorama, the annual gathering of the best in hot rods and custom cars. From March 6-8, more than a thousand vehicles filled Cobo Center. It was exciting, inspiring, and maybe even a little overwhelming.

Greeting visitors at the exhibit hall’s main door were the “Great 8” – the eight finalists for the show’s big Ridler Award. The Ridler honors the best first-time Autorama entry, and the judges’ task is never easy. This year, their choices included everything from a 1937 Ford woody wagon to a 1965 Dodge Dart. Their winner was “The Imposter,” a fantastic 1965 Chevrolet Impala designed by the legendary Chip Foose and owned by Don Voth of Abbotsford, British Columbia. Why the name? This Impala was an imposter – the ’65 body sat atop a 2008 Corvette chassis. Continue Reading

by Matt Anderson, Michigan, Detroit, Autorama, car shows, cars

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.

by Matt Anderson, Autorama, Michigan, Detroit, car shows, cars

Over the weekend of March 9-10, I had the pleasure of serving as a guest judge at the 2013 Detroit Autorama. The show, which features some of the best hot rods and custom cars in the country, is to car guys what the World Series is to baseball fans. My task was to select the winner of the CASI Cup, a sort of “sponsor’s award” given by Championship Auto Shows, Inc., Autorama’s producer.

I’d like to say that I entered Cobo Center and got straight to work, diligently focused on my duties. But it would be a lie! I quickly got distracted by the amazing vehicles. There was “Root Beer Float,” the ’53 Cadillac named for its creamy brown paint job. There was the ’58 Edsel lead sled with its chrome logo letters subtly rearranged into “ESLED.” There was the famous Monkeemobile built by Dean Jeffries. And, from my own era, there was a tribute car modeled on Knight Rider’s KITT. (You’ve got to admire someone who watched all 90 episodes – finger ever on the pause button – so he could get the instrument panel details just right.)

Every vehicle was impressive in its own way, whether it was a 100-point show car or a rough and rusted rat rod. In the end, though, my pick for the CASI Cup spoke to my curator’s soul. Dale Hunt’s 1932 Ford Roadster was, to my mind, the ultimate tribute car. It didn’t honor one specific vehicle – it honored the rodder’s hobby itself.

The 2013 winner of Autorama’s CASI Cup: Dale Hunt’s 1932 Ford highboy roadster.

Hunt built his car to resemble the original hot rods, the fenderless highboy coupes that chased speed records on the dry lakes of southern California. The car’s creative blend of parts and accessories – the ’48 Ford wheel covers, the stroked and bored Pontiac engine, the lift-off Carson top – all spoke to the “anything goes” attitude that is at the heart of hot rodding and customizing to this day.

It was a privilege to be a part of the show. Like most of the fans walking the floor with me, I’m already looking forward to Autorama 2014!

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

cars, Michigan, Detroit, by Matt Anderson, Autorama, car shows