Texas T-bird wins Ridler at 2012 Autorama

A 1955 Ford Thunderbird with a twin-turbo, 1150-horsepower 6.0-liter engine stuffed under the hood beat our stiff competition to win the 2012 Ridler Award at the Autorama held in Detroit’s Cobo Hall.

Owner Dwayne Peace of Tyler, Texas said he has owned the Thunderbird for close to 20 years. Its restoration dates to 2008 when, after putting it on the market for only one week, he turned it over to sons Matthew and Jonathan.

“That was three years and four months ago,” said Peace, who had never entered a car in Autorama.

“My sons got it ready for restoration, did a design, built the framework and reassembled the car,” Peace said.

The 60th anniversary Meguire’s Detroit Autorama, with some 1,000 exhibits, that over three days drew crowds that began with the best opening day attendance Feb. 24 in several years. Attendance at the 2012 Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama was 151,986, up fifteen percent from last year.

The coveted Ridler Award is presented each year to a vehicle being shown for the first time. So entrants like Butch and Donna Downs of Colona, Ill. were not contenders.

The Downses were showing their elegant 1934 Hupmobile rumble-seat convertible. This body style was one of 1,006 produced by the Detroit-based company. The couple bought the car from a man in Wisconsin and Butch Downs began a two-year, frame-off restoration.

The bamboo pearl and black sapphire -metallic car was completed in the spring of 2011 and re-entered public life, winning awards at major shows in Columbus, Ohio and Louisville, Ken.

“It recently was appraised at $250,000,” Downs said.

“Caliber,” a 1933 Ford belonging to Gregg and Jodi Blackford of Lake Bluff, Ill., was one of the 50 cars entered in the Ridler award competition.

Gregg Blackford admitted he and his staff at Hot Rods by Greg were still finishing the car as late as two days before the 2012 show opened.

“We were doing things like polishing panels,” Blackford said as he continued prepping the car at Cobo 24 hours before showtime. “We put it on a trailer and arrived in Detroit late Wednesday.”

Blackford said he bought a fiberglass ’33 Ford kit but then proceeded to raise the top, cut off most of the rear end, fabricate a cowl, side panels and fenders.

The perfect silver exterior of the Ford was the result of four base coats and five clear coats of paint, he said.

George Poteet was another owner who didn’t wait to debut his vehicle in Detroit. The Memphis, Tenn. resident had his 1956 Chevrolet 210 sedan out in Pomona, Calif. at the Grand National Roadster Show in January.

Poteet hired Dan Kemppainen of Dollar Bay, Mich. to complete the car, with its 500-horsepower ’80s-era NASCAR engine.

“It was our biggest project for him,” said Kemppainen, who spent four years on the steel-bodied Chevy. Among other things, Kemppainen lowered the roof close to an inch and brought the car’s body down some three inches. He figured the car has over $500,000 invested in it.

In a before-and-after display, Murray Pfaff of Royal Oak and Earl Smith of Detroit were showing their 1959 Crown Imperials. Smith owns an Imperial much as it came from the factory 50-plus years ago. Pfaff took a similar car and turned it into “the sports car Chrysler never built.”

“I shortened it in five places, narrowed it and took out three inches in height,” he said. Pfaff showed his downsized Crown Imperial at Autorama a year ago; 2012, he said, is like a “victory lap.”

Smith’s ’59 was as much or more of a draw. The Detroiter said he saw it for sale 12 years ago on a front lawn in Oak Park. He paid less than $8,000 for the all-push-button luxury car which had spent 35 years in storage. He said he has turned down an offer from the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills to put it on display.

On Friday the Ridler field of 50 was narrowed when the Pirelli Great 8 were announced. Each of these Ridler finalists won $1,000.
</p><p>The Ridler Award is presented to the outstanding new car at Detroit Autorama, shown for the first time anywhere. Decided by a panel of judges, it is considered by many to be the ultimate hot rod award in the country.

The 2012 Pirelli Great 8 included these finalists:
— Ronson Burton of Milton, Delaware with his 1963 Chevy Nova
— J.F. Launier of Osoyoos, British Columbia with his 1967 Ford Mustang
— Robert Komlofske of Prineville, Oregon with his 1953 Chevy Pick-up
— Dwayne Peace of Tyler, Texas with his 1955 Ford Thunderbird
— Dave and Joyce Emery of Rochester Hills, Michigan with his 1932 Ford
— Johnny Edmundson of Athens, Tennessee with his 1955 Chevy
— Mike Alexander of Grosse Ile, Michigan with his 1933 Ford
— Peter Datino of Valhalla, New York with his 1932 Ford

Detroit Autorama bowed six decades ago at the University of Detroit Field House. It was a fund raiser for the Michigan Hot Rod Association, which aimed to  build Detroit Dragway. It subsequently moved to the Michigan State Fairgrounds and the Detroit Artillery Armory before finding its current home at Cobo in 1961.

Jenny King is a  Detroit-area free-lance writer. She can be contacted via e-mail at Wright-King@comcast.net.