Autorama is a hotbed of ideas for customizers

First-timers, some-timers and those who haven’t missed a show yet brought their custom cars, trucks and motorcycles to Detroit’s Cobo Center for the 64th Autorama this weekend.

Many exhibitors and customizers come to the show to look around, to get ideas while admiring the work of hobbyists and professionals. Many also come with an eye on a prize: to win an award or recognition in one of the multiple classes.

Al McKnight fit the latter description. The first-time exhibitor from Essexville, Mich. was pleased with the large corner display area allotted his 1964 Comet A/FX Caliente. McKnight searched long and hard for a’64 Comet performance coupe. He found that owner descriptions in phone conversations didn’t always match what they were selling. So when he drove to Henderson, Tenn. to check out a Comet, he arrived with cash but no trailer – a fact the seller immediately noted.

1964 Mercury Comet A/FX

Al McKnight of Essexville, Mich., described his 1964 Mercury Comet A/FX as ““a modern day Caliente.” He has turned the coupe into a show car that will see action at the Milan, Mich. dragway this spring. (Jenny King/Special to The Detroit News)

>> Browse a gallery of the designers and their cars

>> Browse photographers’ favorites from the 2016 Detroit Autorama

That was in August of 2007. Today the Tennessee car is what McKnight calls “a modern-day 1964 Comet Caliente,” and he had put the finishing touches on it just 48 hours before Autorama opened to the public Friday. The long labor of love involved turning a regular production car with good-size engine and special trim into a dragster which finally will be tested this spring on the trace at Milan, Mich.

McKnight went to Arkansas to get his aluminum Shelby 511 engine. Twin custom carburetors came from  Muskegon, he said. The Comet has its original dashboard. The wood steering wheel was restored by a specialist in Texas. McKnight fashioned a fuel tank that sits in the car’s trunk. He installed the interior and cut all the lines for the engine.

1969 Camaro

Gary Higginbotham brought his 1969 Camaro with Art Morrison C6 Corvette chassis and 427 LS engine to Detroit from Alpharetta, Ga. to enter the 2016 Ridler competition. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News)

Georgia-based friends Ron Strayhorn and Gary Higginbotham had planned to show two custom cars but decided their space was too tight to give each its due. Strayhorn, a GM retiree now settled in Alpharetta, Ga., north of Atlanta, was dusting Higginbotham’s 1969 Camaro shortly before the doors opened to the public on Friday. Strayhorn has several of his own special vehicles which he works on in his shop nearby other auto enterprises. The ’69 Camaro was a contender for the Ridler award presented annually to a car making its debut at Detroit Autorama.

 1956 Chevrolet 'Predator'

Minnesotan Dennis Heapy said his “”Predator,”” once a 1956 Chevrolet, combines trademarks from favorite custom builders from the past. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News)

New Autorama exhibitor Dennis Heapy fashioned a remarkable hand-built roadster from a 1956 Chevrolet two-door. Who could have guessed the Chevy was the basis for his aero two-seater?

Heapy, of Brainerd, Minn., completed the project two years ago and has shown “Predator” elsewhere. The car, with unique sheet metal painted a dazzling Toxic Orange (a Chrysler color, he said), is powered by a 350-inch V-8 with a 350 transmission. Heapy created a special open-design steering wheel featuring a 1956 DeSoto horn ring. He said he plans to raise the front end an inch or so and drive the car once winter is past.

1950s Schwinn Custom Cruiser

Bike collector Rick Legato of Rochester Hills did extensive work on this pure-1950s Schwinn Custom Cruiser. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News)

Bicycle collector and bike and motorcycle customizer Rick Legato of Rochester Hills was showing his unusual 1953 Schwinn Custom Cruiser alongside a 1929 Harley-Davidson he had worked on for owner Randy Hayward of Ferndale. Legato said he had owned the Schwinn Custom Cruiser for 15 years, invested about 18 months in updating it and completed that project three years ago. The machining specialist said this was his first time exhibiting at Autorama.

Michael Markin of Eau Claire, Wis. said he has been coming to Detroit’s Autorama for six years, “to learn.”  This year, he’s showing his first car.

It was a long slog to Detroit through a messy snow-and-rain storm a day before set-up for the custom car show. “We arrived around 10:30 Wednesday night,” Markin said Thursday evening, as his crew buffed and cleaned every inch of Markin’s 1938 Graham coupe.

Photos of the original car — a homely shark-nose Graham four-door sedan that Markin found on an Internet search — showed little resemblance to the two-door garnet-red car that was competing for Autorama’s Ridler award, given to the most spectacular custom car appearing in public for the first time.

The show runs Friday through Sunday, Feb. 28, at Cobo Center, where the judges began their rounds Thursday night. The top eight of the 68 vehicles competing for the Ridler prize undergo further scrutiny, and their owners or creators have a chance to explain designs, major and minor styling changes, car histories and powerplants.

Markin said automaker Graham, which had operations in Evansville, Ind., Stockton, Calif. and Detroit, built no coupes for 1938. So he designed his own. Only two pieces of the show car were unchanged; everything else was modified or created from scratch.

A nose job saved the new Graham from sporting the proboscis that marked the original vehicle.

The hard word that went into the project paid off: Markin’s Graham coupe was named one of the “Great 8” Ridler finalists.

Derick Samson was relaxing Thursday evening beside the 1952 Mercedes 170S his company, Samson Design of Marshall, Mo., conceived and built for owner Mark Gooden, also of Marshall.

“I first get an idea for the whole car,” Samson said, “but I create it by working on the details.”

An example: the small bullet-shaped taillights, custom made, painted a grayish brown instead of the rich chocolate exterior of the sedan. As tiny as they look, the “new” taillights were actually twice the size of the originals on the 1952 luxury car.

1952 Mercedes 170S

This stunning Mystic Brown 1952 Mercedes 170S was completed by Samson Design of Marshall, Mo. less than a week before the Feb. 26 opening day of Autorama 2016. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News)

When Samson Design determined a fuel tank hanging below the car would spoil the beauty of its underside, they moved the tank into the trunk and created a brown leather suitcase facade to cover it.

The California owner of a red 1933 Ford roadster was not coming at all; he asked his

Project manager Mark Trostle of American Speed Company in Plymouth, Mich., was overseeing two cars: a 1933 Ford a.k.a. Speed 33, and a 1964 Ford Fairlane.  The Fairlane, owned by Danny Shaffer of Bakersfield, Calif., was a three-and-a-half year project, but it’s not a Ridler contender, Trostle said. Built as a driver, its Roush-enhanced 5.0-liter Ford V-8 was rated at 600 horsepower.

1933 Ford

Jay Deahna’s 1933 Ford roadster, Speed 33, features a new custom steel body and a 350-inch Chevrolet V-8 with 4L70E transmission. Deahna, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., put the project in the hands of Mark Trostle and American Speed Company of Plymouth, Mich. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News)

The ’33 Ford, also intended to be a driver, has a LS 3 350-inch General Motors engine, Trostle said, plus custom features like drive-by-wire engine management and both front and rearview cameras. Its owner is Jay Deahna of Laguna Niguel, Calif. Trostle said the one-of-a-kind ’33 was completely designed on a computer and took less than two years to complete.

The 64th annual Detroit Autorama  is open from noon-10 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m.- 7 p.m. Sunday at Cobo Center, 1 Washington Blvd., Detroit. Tickets are $19, $6 for children.  A live concert featuring Danny “the Count” Koker of TV’s “Counting Cars” and his band Count’s 77 kicks off at 7 p.m. Saturday.