Top hot rods roar in for Autorama

By Melissa Preddy

Among the array of vehicles on display at this year’s Autorama, a number will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ridler Award, which many consider the hot-rod culture’s top honor for those who design and execute custom vehicles.

It’s named after Don Ridler, the Hot Rod Association’s first professional promoter, who began producing the Autorama shows in the 1950s.

To commemorate the 50-year milestone, a number of prior-year winners are making their way “home” to Cobo Center and to “Ridler’s Row” to relive the glory of being crowned No. 1.

With names like “More Aggravation,” “Cranberry Delivery” and “Devilfish,” they’ll represent some of the most acclaimed custom jobs of hot-rod history. Among them will be Venturian, the ’56 Chevy that in 1965 took the second-ever Ridler Award for the custom job that transformed an ordinary black sedan into a candy-gold, one-of-a-kind roadster at the hands of owner Bob Massaron and the storied Alexander brothers, Mike and Larry, whose Detroit shop turned out so many hot-rodding champions.

Massaron, a self-taught mechanic who started fixing cars for pay as a teenager, picked up the Chevy in 1958 for $1,000. He connected with the Alexander shop, ended up working there, and over several years the team transformed the convertible with new quarter panels, a lift-off top, a custom dashboard, four bucket seats and several coats of translucent paint.

“A lot of it was ahead of its time,” said Massaron, who recalls the glow when the car took the Ridler honor in 1965. He’s especially proud of the hands-on craftsmanship he put into the Venturian customization; something that’s not always true for today’s hot-rod owners. “We did the work; we didn’t just write a check,” he said.

The award-winning Chevy went on the show circuit for about 10 years — he hooked up with a promoter who would book the Venturian as a featured vehicle all over the United States.

Then real life intervened and Massaron, who took up real estate sales as an occupation but kept a customizing business growing out of his Northville home, sold the car to finance the needs of a growing family. He never forgot his hot rod, however, and in 1999 managed to track it down.

Once again, he took title to the vehicle — it cost him $25,000 the second time around — and refurbished it in time for Autorama’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2002. And this year, it will be back at Cobo to join other past winners.

“It’s still a show car … but I can go out to the garage, start it up and drive it around a bit,” said Massaron. Another iconic Ridler Award winner nearly slipped away from the United States altogether.

The famous Dodge Deora cab-over pickup was a 1960s project, also by the Alexander Brothers, that transformed an ordinary truck into a futuristic hot rod with the driver’s seat right over the front wheels and the engine tucked down and behind the cab.

The sleek little truck’s design, credited to Harry Bentley Bradley, features a station-wagon style lift gate that gives driver and passenger access right through the front of the vehicle; the steering wheel lifts up and out of the way as riders crawl in.

“I always thought the car was neat,” said Tom Abrams, a Canton businessman who owned a die-cast model of the Deora many years ago. “It looks like a Jetsons’ car.”

Indeed, the Deora snared the 1967 Ridler Award, and according to lore was the basis for one of the original Hot Wheels models; the toy cars came with detachable surfboards as befitting a 1960s hot rod.

The model is traded briskly to this day on sites like eBay and featured in several YouTube videos. Abrams, a car collector, saw the Deora on the auction block in Las Vegas in 2007.

“I didn’t go there planning to purchase this car that day,” he said.

But Abrams nevertheless found himself in a bidding war with a European buyer and couldn’t abide the notion that one of Detroit’s most memorable designs (Chrysler even leased it to show it off as a sort of concept vehicle at shows) would leave U.S. soil, perhaps for good. So Abrams kept bidding, won (he won’t say how much the truck cost him) and eventually trailered Deora back to its Michigan birthplace. It’ll take its place among former Ridler winners at Cobo this weekend.

And Deora has a long life ahead of it as an attraction for auto enthusiasts, at shows and eventually on perpetual display. When the time is right, Abrams said, he’ll donate it to a museum so auto lovers will always know where to go to enjoy it. “This is one hot rod that is never going up for auction again,” he said.