WHEN I bumped into Gene Winfield he mentioned that he was at the show with Jade Idol II and that I had to go and check out the tail-lights.
So I did. How the hell he did that I have no idea, and I didn’t manage to catch up with him again to ask. Built as a tribute to the original Jade Idol – and to Gene himself – by Bob Fryz, it’s based on a ’57 Ford, not a ’56 Mercury like the original. It incorporates all of the same custom touches, and of course, that amazing signature fade job that Gene is renowned for.
I’VE been fortunate over the past few years to have ticked quite a few things off my automotive bucket list: Bonneville, Pendine Sands, SEMA, and most recently, the Detroit Autorama. Apart from being recognised as one of the best car shows in the world, it’s also the event where the highly coveted Ridler Award is handed out. And if you missed our social media onslaught in late February, you may not be aware that for the very first time a car was entered from Australia. Making it even more special was the fact it was a classic Aussie muscle car, the highly modified yet instantly identifiable XB Falcon coupe of Perth’s Chris Bitmead.
Dubbed XBOSS – XB Falcon plus BOSS 290 engine, get it? – it was indeed the boss of many people’s lives, taking over eight years to complete using some of the finest craftsmen in the land. But this was no chequebook build; even though it’s quite obvious plenty of money was spent, I have no doubt that Chris was more hands-on than any of the other owners of Ridler contenders.
Just getting to the show was a mission in itself. Consider this: You just spent a truckload of money and eight years of your life building a car – pretty much in secret, because if you’re going for the Ridler Award no one is allowed to see the car before it gets shown in Detroit. Then three months out from the show you shove it in a custom-built shipping container, along with the display, lighting, spare paint and parts and a massive toolbox, then stick it on a boat and cross your fingers for the next two months as it makes its way across the Pacific. When the car left Perth it was about 40 degrees, and the next time it saw daylight the temperature was hovering around freezing, on a good day.
A couple of weeks after it arrived, Chris, along with Mark Allen, Brodie Mitchell and Greg Maskell, headed across to the US to do the final
preparation on the car. They gave themselves around three weeks, figuring on a week or so to finish the car off and then some time to look around and have a bit of a holiday. Yeah, that didn’t happen. The thing with cars of this level is, the more you look, the more you can find, and when it comes to competing for a prize like the Ridler, the only way the judges can separate the cars is to look for things that are wrong. Let’s just say the guys used up all the time they had getting the car ready for the show.
All this preparation was being done at American Speed Company (ASC) in Plymouth, and we flew in a few days prior to the show to check out the car getting ready. Our first sight as we walked in was of Mark and Greg feverishly sanding and polishing a spot on the car where it had been damaged the day before, and with the show opening in just three days, many other people would have chucked in the towel. “But that’s cars,” as Greg put it, and they just knuckled down and got the job done. A big thank you has to go to the guys from the PPG Training Centre who helped out immensely during the lead-up to the show.
As it turns out, a quick chamois and some ArmorAll on the tyres doesn’t quite cut the mustard if you’re going for the Ridler; the car not only has to be built to perfection, it has to be spotless as well. I mentioned earlier that Chris was hands-on with the build, and we saw that first-hand. He wasn’t standing around with his arms crossed directing people; he was in, on and under the car making sure everything was just right.
The other thing about Chris – and I’ve known him for around 10 years now – is that it’s not about the ego. He even got us involved, handing us a torch, spray detailer and polishing cloth and instructing us to let him
I LOVE those crazy show rods of the 60s, and when this rolled in I just had to go and take a closer look. Built by Dennis Heapy, it actually started out as a ’56 Chevy two-door sedan. He’s used parts from a ’51 Mercury, ’58 Chev rear quarters, ’71 Buick Riviera, ’59 Chev, ’57 Ford, ’72 Plymouth and of course, a ’59 Cadillac. Yet somehow, it all works. h 6 s
know if we spotted anything wrong: “No egos here, if you see something, say something. If you can spot it, the judges definitely will!”
In the end, while XBOSS didn’t come away with the big prize, it was selected as a Pirelli Great Eight finalist, and although they don’t give out any placings it was pretty clear that the XB was not far behind the winner (see breakout, p78). One thing we all now know for a fact is that the Aussies can build a car as good as anyone. If crowd reaction was anything to go by, the Falcon was the big winner, with people standing six-deep around it for the entire show. Ridler contenders aren’t eligible for any other awards, but Chris didn’t leave empty-handed, receiving the CASI Cup award for best car at the show, as judged by the show management, Championship Auto Show Incorporated.
While it was pretty cool hanging out with the XBOSS crew and dozens of other Aussies that had made the trek across the Pacific, we still had another 750 cars to check out – and only five days to do it. Sounds easy, but when the main floor measures 625,000 square feet – the size of 13 American football fields – and there are around 550 vehicles on display, there’s a fair bit of ground to cover. To top it off, there is another show downstairs – Autorama Extreme – with another couple hundred old-school hot rods and customs.
There is so much to see and so many people to talk to that I don’t think it’s possible to see everything. The most annoying part was looking through Chris Thorogood’s photos and thinking: “How the hell did I not see that?”
A lot has been said about the decline of the once-great city of Detroit. These days, the town that put the world on wheels and brought us the Motown sound is more renowned for being the world’s murder capital and home of some pawn shop that has a TV show. But while we did see some places
TOP Fuelers of the mid-60s were just a beautiful sight to behold, and they don’t get much nicer than The Grunt, which was entered in the Autorama 50 years ago. Driven by Larry Posluszny, with a chassis by Marty Posluszny and draped in a body by Al Bergler – who won the very first Ridler Award – it was as handsome as it was fast, running 8.01 and 203mph back in the day.
that looked a bit sketchy on the outskirts of town, Detroit is working very hard to clean things up and breathe some life back into the city.
The downtown district is a prime example. A ton of money was spent on upgrading the Cobo Center, where the Autorama was held, and we strolled around the riverfront and Greek Town with no problems at all.
There’s no denying that the US auto industry has suffered, and there are many and varied reasons for that, but that doesn’t mean it’s dying. There is still plenty going on in terms of research and development and there are still many clever people in Detroit making modern cars more efficient and reliable. There’s also a bunch that are hot rodding the shit out of them – and that’s what makes Detroit such a special place.
It really is the birthplace of the cars we know and love, and while the Aussie classics we revere may not have been born in the USA, their bloodline can definitely be traced back to the banks of the Detroit River. Just driving around is a constant reminder, with road signs pointing out so many places that are part of our automotive vernacular: Dearborn, Windsor, Cleveland, Plymouth, Fairlane, Pontiac, Rochester – all of them just a stone’s throw from Detroit, the Motor City. s
THE winner of the 2016 Ridler Award was the 1939 ‘Olds Cool’ Oldsmobile convertible of Billy and Debbie Thomas. The car was built by Customs & Hot Rods of Andice in Texas, with the body mostly fabbed from scratch; apparently the only parts that are vintage ’39 Olds items are the top of the decklid, the tops of the quarters and the headlight buckets! The chassis is from Art Morrison, although heavily modified, and the whole deal is powered by a 455ci Oldsmobile running EFI and a custom intake. Legendary painter Charley Hutton applied the stunning custom PPG Kona Brown hue. d Oldsmob
A: JOE HORISH 1961 Chevrolet bubble-top wagon, ‘Double Bubble’ B: GREG MALVASO 1940 Willys, ‘Full Throttle’ C: MICHAEL & PATRICIA MARKIN 1938 Graham, ‘Shark’ D: BILLY THOMAS 1939 Oldsmobile convertible, ‘Olds Cool’ E: CHRIS & COLLEEN BITMEAD 1976 XB Falcon coupe, ‘XBOSS’ F: MARK GOODEN 1952 Mercedes-Benz, ‘Mercedes’ G: DAN WATHOR 1937 Ford coupe, ‘Ford Hemi’ H: RICHARD BROYLES 1941 Ford pick-up, ‘Mirage’