Autorama: Kiwis, Rat Fink, Black Ghost, and hot rods galore

Posted by Talbot Payne on February 24, 2023

ny that built Army Jeeps during World War II — Willys pre-war coupes were popular dragsters for their light weight and affordable sticker price) barely got completed in time to make this weekend’s show. “My friends thought I was crazy,” he smiles. “But it was always my dream to enter a car in the Ridler.”

Celebrating its 70th year, Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama Presented by O’Reilly Auto Parts has brought Haliday, 15 more Ridler entries, the Batmobile, Black Ghost, Rat Fink, Flavor Flav and The Fonz under one roof Friday through Sunday. All told, the mega-show has stuffed the convention center with more than 800 insane, slammed, chopped, channeled, dumped, and decked cars and motorcycles.

A 1970 Dodge Hemi Challenger R/T SE, better known by the name it earned while street racing in Detroit in the '70s: The Black Ghost, recently discovered to be owned and raced by Godfrey Qualls.

The show debuted in 1953 at the University of Detroit Field House as a fundraiser for the Motor City Dragway. Over the years, it moved to the Michigan State Fairgrounds and then the Detroit Artillery Armory before taking up permanent residence at the convention center in 1961.

“We are thrilled to be celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Detroit Autorama this year,” said Autorama President Peter Toundas, whose Championship Auto Shows Inc. produces the three-day extravaganza. “Detroit’s Autorama was the first and most-revered hot rod show in the country. It attracts national attention and spotlights the important historic role Detroit has played in the world of custom cars.”

The Ridler is hot rodding’s Oscar and has been awarded for 60 years to the most outstanding new custom car (though never to a Kiwi). The field will be pared to the BASF Great 8 over the weekend, with the winner taking home the coveted trophy, $10,000 and Ridler jacket. The bauble honors Don Ridler, an early Autorama promotor.

Last year’s winner was a ’31 Chevrolet coupe — nicknamed ShoBir — that was screwed together by Pennsylvania-based Pro Comp Customs and built from a $300 car shell into a chopped, twin-turbocharged, 8.3-liter V-8 beauty.

But you don’t have to spend mega-bucks on a Ridler entry to win a prize. Summit Racing Equipment Show Car Series will award trophies to other custom builds in numerous classes. Like the 4100 Pre-1935 Alternate Street Class that Milford’s Jim Moule has entered with his 1930 Ford Model A.

“A friend of mine found it in the Upper Peninsula with a tree growing through it, said Moule. “I put $18,000 into it and rebuilt it with Firebird fenders, rear taillights from an ’87 Cadillac, a 350-cube Chevy V-8, and my own hand-crafted wood interior.”

Jonathan Fowler of Brandenburg, Kentucky's 1951 Mercury.

Still fresh after 70 years, Autorama continues to innovate with new and outrageous displays that attract over 100,000 people to the three-day event. Other headliners for 2023’s mod-palooza include an homage to everyone’s favorite T-shirt hot rods, the Rat Fink cars. Five of legendary custom designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth most iconic Rat Finks will be on display, restored by Galpin Motors in Los Angeles: Mysterion, Orbitron, Tweedy Pie, Fink Surfboard and Big Daddy’s unique Honda Civic.

The long-lost Obitron was rediscovered by Galpin after someone spotted it outside a Mexican brothel where it was being used as a dumpster. You can’t make this stuff up.

The famous Black Ghost makes an appearance. The black 1970s Dodge Challenger became legend in Detroit for showing up for street races, blowing away everything on the lot, then disappearing into the night. Turned out it was driven by a cop, Godfrey Qualls, whose son Gregory still exhibits the car.

Check out some of George “The King of the Kustomizers” Barris’s Hollywood collaborations, including the ‘60s Batmobile of TV fame. The show also celebrates the Alexander Brothers, local builders whose futuristic customs (including a 1965 Ridler winner) gained international recognition. Exclusive to the 70th anniversary show is a Sunday sneak preview of “Detroit, The City of Hot Rods and Muscle Cars,” a new documentary from Emmy-winning filmmaker Keith Famie.

But wait, there’s more.

Complimenting the chromed cars will be a coiffed celebrity lineup led by Henry Winkler reprising his role as The Fonz from TV’s “Happy Days.” Hip-hop star Flavor Flav will be in the house Saturday following the Friday appearance of Dave Kindig from TV’s “Bitchin’ Rides.”

Additional car exhibits include: Cavalcade of Customs, a 10-car exhibit of specially-invited customs; a re-creation of Connie Kalitta’s 1964 “Bounty Hunter” dragster which won the 2023 Preservation Award; and some 200 car-body pinstripers will do demonstrations, with all proceeds going to Leader Dogs for the Blind. In Huntington’s basement will be the 18th annual “Autorama Extreme” — a show within a show featuring regular sets from rockabilly bands — which brings 200 1950s-inspired customs, rods and bikes.

Admission for Autorama is $25 for adults and $10 for kids 6-12 years. Children under 5 are free.

Autorama schedule

Friday, Feb. 24, Noon-10 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 25, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Sunday, Feb. 26, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Celebrity appearance schedule

Friday through Sunday: Henry Winkler, “The Fonz” from Happy Days

Friday: Dave Kindig, “Bitchin’ Rides” TV show, 6-9 p.m.

Saturday: Flavor Flav, 5-8 p.m.

Film screening

Sunday at 1 p.m: “Detroit, The City of Hot Rods and Muscle Cars.” The film will be introduced by “Counting Cars” TV host Danny Koker.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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