On January 31 and February 1, 1953, the University of Detroit Memorial Building hosted the first Detroit Autorama. The event, hosted by the one-year-old Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA), featured 40 cars. “Merge small local clubs into one coherent company” was their goal to collect funding to move drag racing indoors.
Detroit Car Clubs Road Kings, Shifters, Milwinders, Motor City Modified, and Spark Plugs, which organized the first event, joined the MHRA. Moreover, the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum hosted Autorama from 1954 through 1961 before transferring to Cobo Hall.
The second performance was moved to the Colosseum at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, where it ran from 1954 through 1960. The Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA) enlisted Don Ridler for the fourth event in 1956 to promote the show. Furthermore, Don Ridler promoted the show until 1 963. The Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA) created the Ridler Award the following year. The Ridler award commemorated Autorama’s first eleven years’ most influential person.
The inaugural event at the brand-new Cobo Hall was the ninth annual Detroit Autorama. A new-record 230 cars competed that year, filling the whole 10,000 sq ft (930 m2) of the lower-level basement of Cobo. The 1961 show’s last day drew approximately 35,000 people, breaking the attendance record. The first non-Motor City professionals at Cobo were George Barris, Darryl Starbird, Carl Casper, and “Big Daddy” Ed Roth. “Ford Custom Car Caravan” customizers Bill Cushenbery, Jack Florence, Dean Jeffries, and Gene Winfield attended the show.
When the Don Ridler Memorial Award was first presented as the competition’s top honor, the program was already in its twelfth year. Al Bergler of Macomb won the first Don Ridler Award in a competition slingshot dragster. (Bergler later rose to prominence in the NHRA as the Motown Shaker Top Fuel Funny Car’s driver.)
Following Bergler’s victory in 1964, the number of exhibitors and professional custom car builders vying for the show’s new top prize both increased during the following ten years. From 1965 to 1973, Larry and Mike Alexander, Jerry Pennington, or George Busti—all skilled builders—were either the owners or builders of all nine Ridler-winning entries.
1970s Ridler automobiles were unique. Jerry Pennington’s rear-engine Corvette (Scorpion) and hand-built custom street rod (Devilfish) were fashionable. In fact, they had shag carpeting, velvet seats, and sharp edges. 1974’s Autorama saw the first out-of-state Ridler Award winner, Don Campbell of Wimauma, Florida, and his ’27 Ford. Six Ford T-bucket Ridler victories—three ’23s (’76, ’78, ’79), two ’27s (’74, ’75), and one ’26 (’77)—ended the decade.
The 1980s Ford roadster fever continued with two ’34s (’81 & ’82), a ’28 (’80), a ’29 (’83), a ’33 (’85), and a ’35 (’84). At the 1986 Detroit Autorama, Dale Hunt’s late-model Pro Stock Pontiac Grand Am won the Ridler. Only two Pro Stock vehicles—Grand Hunt’s Am and Bob Rizzoli’s 1992 Mercedes 560 SEC—have won the Ridler.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Autorama became a national car show. The next generation of famous car owners and builders traveled to Cobo every winter to win the Ridler Award to promote their progress. They included Bobby Alloway and Boyd Coddington from California, George Poteet from Memphis, and others.
The departure of Michigan only hampered this burgeoning national focus. As cars from throughout the nation battled for the show’s top accolade, several Detroit and Michigan competitors lost pace. However, the majority of the cars were produced on much larger budgets. The Alexander Brothers produced regional cars for competition (including a Great-8 opponent in 2012) till this point. The final Michigan entry, Dave Emery’s ’32 Ford Roadster (Revolver) from Rochester Hills, earned the Ridler Award in 1997.
With the Millenium, Ridler and Great 8 cars got a fresh look. It introduced a new generation of competent automakers. Chip Foose’s first winner was Wes Rydell’s ’35 Chevy Grand Master in 2002. Foose won the following year with a 1934 Ford Stallion, becoming the third builder and first since Jerry Pennington. Foose’s 1936 Ford (Impression) for Littleton, Colorado’s Ken Reister returned in 2005. The impression made Foose the first builder to win three Ridler Awards in four years. In 2015, Foose’s 1965 Chevrolet Impala (Imposter) won his fourth Ridler.
Ross and Beth Myer hired “Rad Rides By Troy” owner/operator Troy Trepanier to build their 1936 Ford, “First Love,” the first modern Ridler-winning custom car. The 2010 and 2012 winners, Dwayne Peace and his 1955 T-bird from Torq’d Design Lab & Greening Auto Company and Rob & Deb Cizek and their 1940 Ford Coupe Checkered Past from Cal Customs, continued the trend. Rob & Deb Cizek won in 2013.
Roadster popularity is declining. Since 2008, only four roadsters or pre-1940 vehicles—Gold Ray’s Digger, the Cizeks’ Checkered Past, Doug Cooper’s ’32 Ford Duecenberg, and Billy Thomas’ Olds Cool—have won the Ridler. J.F. Launier of Osoyoos, British Columbia, won the Ridler as a single owner/builder entry in 2014.