POMONA, California — When Al Slonaker organized an Oakland-based car show in 1949, he just wanted to showcase all the new car models for returning WWII soldiers. Local car clubs took up some of the extra space, but then he saw all those young folks walk right past the new machines and straight to the hopped-up and chopped down hot rods and customs. The following year, Slonaker ditched the dealers and the Grand National Roadster Show was born.
Like all babies, it’s grown and moved away to a new home, but it continues to host one of the most coveted awards in custom car building—America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR). Fans of American car culture come from all over the world to show and to see the show.
John Buck brought the Roadster Show to the Pomona Fairplex in 2003. Under his care it has expanded from three buildings to nine, plus outside displays. “The show is kid and family friendly. We get pinstripers, cackle cars, bands, bikes, trucks, lowriders; all the representatives of American car culture are here.”
In the “Suede Palace,” you can pick up rockabilly accessories while admiring high-nosed “Gasser” race cars and paintjobs so ornate they’d make Michelangelo wish he’d had metalflake and a spraygun for the Sistine ceiling. In a building across the way, rare musclecars represent the highlights of the horsepower wars, with multiple carburetors hiding under flashy hood graphics, ready for a run down Woodward Ave. Other buildings house dry-lakes racers, etched and pinstriped cruisers, and a charming collection of micro-cars, three of which could fit in a lowrider Impala’s trunk.
The stars of the show are in Building 4, where the 15 hopeful AMBR winners hover around their roadsters, polishing and dusting until a brain surgeon would say, “Dude, it’s clean enough.” This is a big deal. People spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars—sometimes millions—to bring a car up to the level of AMBR competition. Judging takes days and can be controversial.
“This isn’t a question of restoration or historical accuracy,” former HOT ROD staffer—and former AMBR judge, Thom Taylor told us. “This is the Most Beautiful. It’s very subjective. Just being technically impressive isn’t enough.”
A stroll through the entrants is both technically and aesthetically impressive. Most of the cars are ’32 Fords—the quintessential roadster—but any pre-1937 American car with a removable roof, no sideglass, and a removable windshield is eligible. This year a lone 1936 Cadillac stands out amongst the Fords. It’s the color of the last gasp of light before nightfall, a gloaming blue with fenders like a distant mountain range. You expect to see the moon rise above them. “It’s easiest to win with a ’32,” Taylor told us. “It’s established. Judges know what to look for.”
Rick Dore has taken a risk bringing the Cad, but it isn’t unheard of for an unusual model to take top prize. In 2017, a Troy Ladd-built Packard packed up the trophy.
Near the stage, owner/builder Brian Cruz out of Texas dusts off the small block Chevy in an Easter-pastel blue ’32 Ford. Next to him is Scott Helliesen’s lipstick-red ’32, one side panel lifted like a bird’s wing offering a glimpse at the Ford flathead inside. Engines in the roadsters run the gamut from early flathead Fords to a modern 4.6-liter Northstar.
There are no rules governing the powerplants aside from one: the car must drive past the judges on the way into the show. Proof of functionality can be spotted in the heat discoloration on chromed headers, a light gold at the bends that won’t polish away. It’s a point of pride.
While nobody will spill the winner before the awards, everyone has a favorite. Before we even see it, we’ve already heard about Dana and Marge Elrod’s 1936 Ford.
“It looks so mean,” said Steve Strope, owner of Pure Vision Design, an LA-based custom shop. “It’s hard to make a car look intimidating when it’s up in the air on a plinth, but they did it.”
“We really wanted this car to scream ‘hot rod’,” Dana Elrod told us when we approached him. We’d say it doesn’t scream so much as growl with Clint Eastwood-worthy menace. Strope was right—the Elrod car, built by Nebraska customizer Dale Boesch, is downright mobster. The rear has been shortened, the front reworked, it’s lowered and leaned out and black as an eclipse. If you could see all the seams in the metalwork it would look like Frankenstein’s monster, but you can’t see them. Nary a ripple mars its glossy clearcoat. A 392 Hemi with intake stacks and cloth wires offers a pop of chrome and color. Boesch and the Elrods worked on the car for 11 years.
“I started with a decklid and two doors,” said Elrod. “Somewhere along the way we started thinking about this show.”
Displays around the cars are as varied as the engine choices. A billet-and-black ’32 Ford built by Alan Johnson sits on a simple grey carpet with a reflective Lexan sign pronouncing its key specs. Next to it, surrounded by stanchions made of exotic overhead cam heads is the dark blue ’34 Ford of Pete Aardema.
“If the piston matches the head you can use the head,” Aardema told us as if just anyone should have thought of topping a stroked Donovan big block Chevrolet with a Porsche 928 DOHC head. Aardema has made a living out of customized engine combos and his roadster didn’t have any problem meeting the run requirement. “It’s got 10,000 miles on it. Won four different slalom events. Easily.”
Competition for Aardema’s mileage can be found across the way, in the Martin Special display. Another dark blue Ford, David Martin’s 1931 highboy has bragging rights too. Built to drive, the roadster was entered by Martin in the Nevada Silver State Classic Challenge, running for an average of more than 100 mph over the course. That’s a lot of bugs in the teeth. Like the Elrod car, the Martin Special was a buzz in the crowd long before the judging.
One of the reasons that the AMBR contestants can have such active backstories is that unlike the Detroit-based Ridler award, which requires that the entrants be never before seen brand-new builds, AMBR rules only specify that the car has not been in a judged competition. This means that entrants can be old builds, restored builds, and rescued historically important cars.
LA car collector Bruce Meyer brought out the nickel-trimmed and appropriately named “Nickel Roadster,” which was originally built in 1993 but never formally judged. Dan Hostetter built his copper 1927 Ford based off drawings from 1955. The fiberglass and paint show the handwork more than the highly worked steel cars around it, but its creativity and joy-of-machine might sum up the original spirit of car customizing better than any of its less-wavy brethren.
If the AMBR trophy was given for pure spirit, though, no car would be more deserving than James Bobowski’s 1929 track-nosed “Eddie Dye Roadster.” Built nearly 70 years ago, the roadster was sold, disassembled, and nearly forgotten. Through hard work and persistence, the original rounded front clip was found and reunited, and all the missing details were replaced or recreated. It’s a great example of design and community.
We didn’t envy the judges the task of choosing a winner. Every one of the 15 contestants offered an interesting engine choice, a great nod to history, or an astounding example of metalwork and design, and man, those paintjobs. Cosmetics companies should come here to scout nail polish ideas.
“This is the highest quality across the board that you’ll see at any show,” said Illinois-based builder Troy Trepanier. He should know, his shop, Rad Rides By Troy, worked on the AMBR-winning car in 2014. “It’s California. It’s in the culture here to understand this stuff. They get it.” He smiles and leans back against the car he brought, not to enter, just to show. “We come to show ‘em we can build cars in the Midwest too.”
In the end, the Martin Special was named America’s Best Roadster for 2018. There may have been a few disappointed builders, but it was a solid choice, one that represents an ongoing change in contemporary hot rodding away from “trailer queens” built just for show and towards cars that really hit the road, just like the early hot-rodders would have wanted.