It all started in 1949 near the Circle Diner in Oakland, California, when Al and Mary Slonaker were driving by and saw a bunch of hot-rodders hanging around. The Slonakers stopped to ask the hot-rodders if they would show their cars at the Oakland Exposition building.
They did and the show was so popular that the next year they named it the Grand National Roadster Show because, as AutoWeek put it, “ “hot rod” was about the same back then as “hooligan punk” is considered now.
The hot-rod phenomenon began in the 1940s when soldiers returned from World War II with ambitions to begin their post-war lives. The vets still had memories of working on fighter planes and jeeps, so hot rodding old cars became a hobby, an outlet for their vast mechanical knowledge.
The war was over. There was prosperity and a youth culture in which ducktail hairdos, pork-chop side burns and V-neck T shirts were as important as the fantasy cars that were being built and driven and raced.
Thanks to Al and Mary Slonaker, the Grand National Roadster Show, now in its 71st year, serves as a platform for the creativity and passionate if hard work that these talented automotive enthusiasts possess. The event is the world’s longest continually running indoor car show and lately has been produced at the Fairplex in Pomona, California, appropriately located adjacent to the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum dedicated to the sport of hot rodding.
From January 24-26, over 490 world-class roadsters, hot rods, muscle cars and customs were showcased in 8 exhibit halls in front of more than 50,000 spectators.
Since I got my start in drag racing photography, shooting for Hot Rod Magazine and Car Craft in the mid-‘70s (“Age is a state of mind,” said father Al Koby), I was particularly excited and nostalgic to enter building #9, “Drag Racing Then and Now.” Showcased there were drag cars from the early days to the present from Lions, OCIR, Irwindale and Pomona with Dragsters, Funny Cars, Pro Stocks, Fuel Altered, Pro Mods, Super Gas, Wheel Stander’s and the 1977 NHRA Championship winning Top Fuel dragster of Shirley Muldowney (the first women to nab the NHRA professional crown).
To be eligible for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster, a car must have a removable top, no roll-up windows, a removable windshield, and be based on a 1936 or earlier body style and, of course, have to move under their own power.
Last year, when I entered building 4, I said it was like entering a museum. This year, as I entered the same building, I thought that the creators and builders of these incredible works of art must have “sold their souls” as budgets do not seem a consideration. The judges scrutinize the machinery for body fit and finish, paint, engine, interior, chassis/undercarriage and overall design and flow.
This year there were 10 contenders for the prestigious AMBR Award, all vying to have their name inscribed on the 9 1/2- foot perpetual trophy and to pocket the $12,500 prize. S
Among the competitors for the AMBR Award included a stunning 1932 Ford Highboy Roadster by Gary Mower, a striking 1915 Model T built by Walter Sigsbey, Gary DeVine’s 1932 Ford Roadstter Pickup with an oirginal Deuce grille, and a 1932 Ford Roadster by the late Ken Katshio from Japan finished in “Boyd Red.” A number of friends had made sure Katshio’s roadster was completed and made it to Pomona.
1960 Cadillac Coupe de Ville 1955 Ford Thunderbird Moon Rocket 1936 Auburn ‘The Phantom’ 1975 AMC Gremlin The AMBR trophy ‘Clownin’ Around’ ’55 Chevy Getting an early start Ken Katashio’s ’32 Ford ‘Mooney Eyes’ Funny Car World’s only Buick-powered Funny Car Hemi Under Glass ’54 Chevrolet Bel Air Rick Dore-built custom 1950 Jaguar Mk 5 1952 Chevy pickup The first Sidewinder dragster ‘Rat Trap’ Fuel Altered
Winning AMBR honors for the best “open” hot rod in the country was Monte Belsham, from Canada, for his black and orange and red-flamed 1932 Ford Roadster ’32 Kugel Muroc No. 4 powered by an LS1 with Hillborn injection and a 41.60-E transmission.
The Al Slonaker Memorial Award, that also had a matching $12,500 prize, went to Ron and Vicki Emsberger for their attractive Ferrari-red 1936 Willys Model 77 housing a 498cid Arias V6 Hemi mated to a Tremel TKO 5-Speed.
John Buck, producer of the show, said, “Monte Belsham’s ‘32 Ford Roadster and Ron and Vicki Emsberger’s ‘36 Willys fit the bill as some of the all-time greats in their respective classes.”
And, as a tribute to Nicole Meguiar, late daughter of long-time car-care products manufacturer and enthusiast Barry Meguiar, the annual pinstripe’s auction raised $50,000 for Teen Challenge, Nicole’s charity.