By the end of day one at the 2019 Grand National Roadster Show (GNRS) in Pomona, California, we had a pretty good idea of what the show’s famous AMBR award is not. It’s not America’s Roadster You’d Most Like to Drive Home. It’s not America’s Most Bad-Ass Roadster, or America’s Roadster You’d Most Like to Own, or America’s Most Well-Restored Roadster. Every time, after explaining at least one thing that the AMBR was not, the person delivering the explanation—be it a judge, car owner, or fellow wide-eyed spectator—would look around at the 14 cars in the running for the 2019 competition and say, “It’s America’s Most Beautiful Roadster.”
In one corner, a ’32 Ford the color of a Chesapeake Bay retriever, with a trim little fabric top pulled down over its windshield like a newsboy’s cap. Behind it, a wine-red ’33 Ford, with fenders curved and stretched like bias-cut silk. On the far side of the room, the lone non-Ford, a ’24 Buick Touring, bold and stately in red, black, chrome, and wood. They sat high on mirrored plinths, sparkling under the show lights and reflecting each other in paint so deep it should come with a life vest. But which was most beautiful?
What makes a roadster beautiful, and how is that decided? At this point in hot-rodding history, 70 years since Al Slonaker first organized the car show that became GNRS—and 69 years since the first AMBR award was handed to Bill Niekamp’s track nose ’29 Ford at the 1950 event—we might need to explain more than just the markers for roadster pulchritude. What is a roadster, and why are we still judging their beauty in 2019?
Although the definition of “roadster” has expanded in automotive circles to cover just about any small convertible, to an early hot-rodder it was a two-door, open-topped car with no side windows and a windscreen separate from the body. A four-door meeting the same criteria was a phaeton. When gearheads first started hopping up engines and stripping bodies in pursuit of speed, Ford models were the most popular to use, and when the competition went from dry lakes and dragstrips to the show field in 1950, the rules for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster were based off those roofless, windowless Fords. Today, you can enter any American make, or even a custom one-off, but it needs to trace back—at least in appearance—to those pre-1937 cars.
Hot-rodding started with performance-based competition. The earliest land-speed racers weren’t trying to make something pretty when they chopped and channeled. They just wanted to lower the car and go faster. When they hammered out belly pans and smoothed away trim pieces or moved suspension pickup points and fitted bigger wheels and tires, they were thinking not of the sweet stance, but of the improved top speed. That purpose has its own sort of beauty, and while it may not have been the point of the first customized cars, it wasn’t lost on the people who saw them. Soon every car cruise looked like a dry-lakes meet, even if most of the participants had never raced anywhere but the local back roads.
The first years of the AMBR award had this straight-off-the-lake-bed vibe, only nicer. “All the early car shows were just taking a car that Vic Edelbrock or Stu Hilborn might have raced and making it as perfect as you could,” says Thom Taylor, a designer and former AMBR judge. “Because race cars usually weren’t.”
As the hobby grew and trends changed, the AMBR award’s focus moved from engineering to aesthetics, and then to a points-based judging system that rewarded technical fit and finish. Although it was more objective, the downside of the points system was that it was easy to lose sight of the whole when the focus was only on the details. “You’d end up with a car winning because it had the most chromed bolts,” racer George Poteet says.
Poteet knows pretty cars and fast cars, too. He’s won numerous show awards and has exceeded 400 mph on Utah’s famed Bonneville Salt Flats nearly 40 times. He has a reputation at this point for picking shops that build winners, although when I ask how he chooses a builder, he just shrugs and says, “I look for a guy with better taste than me.”
His ’36 Ford was in the AMBR running, built by Eric Peratt of Pinkee’s Rod Shop. It sits behind us, a creamy gray-brown that Poteet says reminds him of the chocolate milk he and his sister would scrounge up three pennies to buy when they were kids. The Ford looks like it cost a lot more than three cents, but then again, these days so does chocolate milk. I ask Poteet what it cost to build a car of this quality, and he laughs. “More than my house, but when I told that to Eric, he said I obviously needed a bigger house.”
It’s hard not to think about the cost when strolling by the displays. The money spent on show cars these days is comical to Jim Govro, who bought his first ’32 roadster for $20—which he had to borrow. Nowadays you’d have to add three zeros to that. After selling the car in 1962, he found it again in 2012, and with help from friends, family, and a local shop, it’s up for AMBR almost 70 years after he first built it. If it was America’s Best Back Story Roadster, his yellow Tweety Bird would have it wrapped up—but add that to the list of what it isn’t.
“Everything evolves,” says Govro, gesturing to the other AMBR cars. “When I was a kid, it was mainly putting overhead-valve engines into flathead cars. There were no CNC machines. I never had one-off wheels. This is just a homebuilt car. But we aren’t here for trophies. It’s just great to be in here with the rich guys.” He gets choked up, and his son Jimi pats him on the shoulder. “We’ve won just by being here,” Jimi says. A magazine cover from 1958 shows a much younger Govro, in a cowboy hat and a big smile, behind the wheel of Tweety. He guesses my question before I ask it. “It feels the same,” he says. “I’m not the same—I got the furniture profile: my chest fallen into my drawers—but in the car, I feel 22 again.”
Across from Govro’s car is another ’32 Ford. This one is subtle, with a sleek black paint job, minimal chrome, steel wheels, and a flathead Ford behind louvered hood panels. For Cory and Ashley Taulbert—both in their early 30s and two of the youngest AMBR entrants—hot rodding’s early days appeal to them the most. “We lean more toward the traditional car,” Cory says. “It’s more attainable, more affordable.” Like the Govros, the Taulberts don’t expect to win this year. “We just wanted to be in this building with the AMBR cars. It’s prestigious. Mostly we did this for the road trip.” Last fall, they piled into the roadster and drove it from Michigan to Pomona, with stops along the way at such gearhead meccas as the Hot Rod Hill Climb in Colorado and the Bonneville Salt Flats. “Besides,” Ashley says, “We’ve already won this.” She’s not being philosophical. The 2016 AMBR winner was Darryl Hollenbeck’s similarly old-school ’32 Ford that Cory built.
Architect and car collector David Martin’s 1931 Ford “Martin Special” won the 2018 AMBR award. Martin moves past the cars with chrome and big fenders. “Street roadsters that can’t go around a corner. All skinny tires and bad kingpin alignment,” he notes. He likes the builds that are sleek and racy, and he approves of the Taulberts’ car: “It’s balanced. Stylistically totally consistent. No hiccups.” At Poteet’s car he points out the well-matched shades of leather, paint, and satin metal finishes. “I can imagine these guys out in the sun for days trying to match hides and grays.”
He stops by the Howerton and Moal entry, a lowered, dark blue ’32 Ford. “This is more the spirit, taking an 80-year-old body and applying modern tech.” He points to a nearby CAD drawing showing the car’s modified frame. “I like this one.” When it’s pointed out that it looks a lot like his own car, he laughs. “We all think what we like is what’s good for the hobby.” Steve Moal comes over to say hi. We mention we’ve heard his car might be one of the favorites, and he smiles. “When I come to the show, I’ve done my job, and I have to trust that the judges do theirs,” he allows.
“Oh, it was pretty much down to two on load-in night,” says Bobby Alloway, owner of Alloway’s Hot Rod Shop and a longtime AMBR judge. Alloway and fellow judge Scott Sullivan (also a famous hot-rod builder) have taken a break from examining the cars to talk about the judging process. Remember the old points-based system? GNRS promoter John Buck and several AMBR judges did away with it in 2011; now a nine-person panel of builders and customizers, like Alloway and Sullivan, chooses the winner. Under the new rules, cars must drive into the building under their own power, and as they do, the judges scrutinize them.
“When they are moving, you can see how someone fits in the car,” Alloway says. He moves his hands to illustrate the idea of a driver sitting comically high, or uncomfortably squashed in a car whose proportions are wrong. Once the cars are in place for the show, raised up with doors open like the wings of flagpole eagles, it can be hard to get an idea of how they’d look on the ground. On that first evening, the judges see them in motion. “The audience doesn’t see what we see,” Alloway says as Sullivan nods. “We get up close.” As the cars grumble and whine, the judges hear the engines. There is a different feel to a flathead, a hemi, a Chevy small-block with supercharger. That, too, goes into their notes.
They have from Thursday night until Saturday night to mull it over, and that evening they meet in a private room to hash it out. “They warned me it was going to be a whole lot of arguing,” Greg Stokes says on Sunday. “But by the end of the night it was like, that’s it. That’s the one.” Stokes, a hot-rod builder from New Zealand, is judging the AMBR for the first time, and he’s giddy about what an honor it is to have a voice in deciding the winner. “They’ve been doing this award since 1950,” he says. “The heritage it has. The history. The evolution from Niekamp to [George] Barris to what we have now, it’s all connected.”
On Sunday night the wait is over. The Grand National Roadster Show highlights nearly 1,500 cars, from lowriders to rat rods, and there are awards for every category. Finally, Buck calls Poteet to the stage and hands him the $10,000 check for winning the AMBR. The crowd cheers. Everyone agrees the ’36 deserves the prize.
Cars fire up all over the fairgrounds, a marching-band warmup of lopey cams and lake pipes. Martin walks up and grabs my arm. “C’mon, I’ll show you what this is really all about,” he says. He opens the door on the Martin Special, and static sculpture turns to wind against my face, the smell of gasoline and the pop of the engine filling the open cockpit as we fly home. Beautiful.