If you’ve been wondering which year you want to get off the couch and go see the Grand National Roadster Show at the Fairplex in Pomona, Calif., your question has been answered — this is the year.
“Maurice, man, you definitely gotta make it, this is definitely a bucket-list show,” said one guy walking past me talking into a cell phone.
He ain’t kidding, Maurice. The Grand National Roadster Show, called simply “Oakland” by the cognoscenti after the city that hosted it for its first 55 years, is the pinnacle of hot rodding glory. Yes, there’s the Detroit Autorama, where they hand out The Ridler Award, but that award can go to just about anything with wheels. The Grand National Roadster Show is a celebration of that most American of transportation icons, the roadster. And in the premier class of competition for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster (the AMBR) there is none finer. While technically the AMBR competition is open to any 1936-or-earlier two-seater with a removeable roof and removeable windshield, we all really know this is about ’32 Fords.
For rodders of a certain age — and they’re all of a certain age, who’re we kidding — the ’32 is their Mona Lisa, their Michelangelo’s David, their Faberge egg. Except that you can construct your own using your own vision of beauty.
Despite those narrow confines, there is remarkable room for self-expression.
Consider this year’s competition. In every other year since 1949 when the show started, the AMBR category has been limited to 12 entries. Some years they had to call in a few favors to get 12 (cough -– fiberglass kit cars -– cough). But not this year. For the 2018 running there were so many solid entries and so many guys who wanted to enter good cars that the competition was opened up for 16 cars. And it would have been 16 but the gauges for one guy’s car didn’t arrive in time and he withdrew (or maybe he heard how solid the field was and decided to wait a year, who knows?).
So now there are 15 cars and not a weak link in the bunch.
Bruce Meyer’s The Nickel Roadster
Let’s start with the Ayala Brother’s roadster, first built in 1951 for Eddie Dye. Gil and Al Ayala had a shop in East L.A. and built this beautiful car there.
“It was on the cover of Hop Up Magazine in 1952,” said automotive journalist, former AMBR judge, current Pebble judge and sometime Autoweek contributor Ken Gross. “It was quite a well-known car.”
But like so many works of art that people didn’t realize were works of art at the time, the car was sold off in pieces over the years. Gross pointed to the nose of the car, a complex shape formed by Whitey Clayton. That, the hood and the belly panels were sold at a swap meet and put on another car.
“The Dye car was given a 1932 grille, Model A windshield and gold paint,” wrote Pat Ganahl in the book “Lost Hot Rods II.”
In that form it was eventually purchased by Pebble Beach collector and restorer Don Orosco, Ganahl said. Now all the original parts have found their way back onto the original car, and it is owned and entered here by Jim Bobowski. Gross pointed out all the things that make it such a highly regarded rod: its very low ride height, which required a radically altered frame, suspension parts turned upside down to accommodate that ride height, even inboard-mounted shocks. If you look closely you’ll see that there are no doors, either. You enter Dukes-stlye over the side. This could win it all Sunday night, I am boldly predicting right here and now.
Unless Bruce Meyer’s Nickel Roadster wins. In case you live in Antarctica and somehow don’t know him, Bruce Meyer is the linchpin of the Southern California car scene. It seems like nothing happens around here unless Meyer is involved. And he’s involved in a lot of stuff. Thus, a lot of stuff happens.
Despite having a personal car collection that includes Bentleys, Ferraris and a Duesenberg or two, he has been a hot rodder all his life. His collection includes significant rods like the McGee roadster that’s on a U.S. postage stamp, the iconic Doane Spencer Deuce and the original So Cal Speed Shop belly tank. The Hot Rod Preservation Award was established at the Roadster Show by him, he was instrumental, along with Ken Gross, in bringing hot rods onto the lawn at Pebble Beach and he… okay, okay, enough about his glorious resume! While he’s shown cars at the GNRS, this is the first time he’s entered the AMBR competition.
The Nickel Roadster was inspired by the Doane Spencer Roadster, Meyer said. Original owner Bob Morris had tried to buy the Doane Spencer hot rod but couldn’t. So he set out more than two decades ago to emulate it in a new rod. That became The Nickel Roadster. From Morris it went to hot rodder/comedian Tim Allen, and from there to Meyer. All of them put their own touches on it.
“There’s an old adage that states, ‘A hot rod is never really finished,” Meyer wrote in a booklet that accompanies the car on display in Pomona. Most recently Bruce Canepa went through the Gurney Weslake Ford 302 engine, for instance. There are details deep within every end of the car. Details the judges will certainly see.
Dan Hostetter’s roadster
Another entry with history is Dan Hostetter’s roadster. It started with a Joe Henning drawing in a 1955 issue of Rod & Custom.
“Everybody fell in love with it,” said Hostetter, of the drawing.
But if you went directly from the drawing to a build you’d have found that it sat “one and a half people and couldn’t turn.” So in 2010 Hostetter set out to build it and make it all work. He widened the body enough for two and made it steer by allowing the front fenders to open as the wheels turn. After almost eight years of work, he finished it three weeks ago. It has that 1960s-to-1970s look to it, when rodders were deciding whether to evolve the plain old ’32 high boy or stick with the original. Is he thinking of the AMBR?
“Just getting here, I’ve already won,” he said with a smile about two blocks wide.
We like this guy. You’ll like him, too, if you come to the show. Heck, you’ll like all the cars, and motorcycles.
The show opens to the public Friday, today, at 12:00 PST and runs through Sunday night. There is a lot more than the AMBR competition, of course. There are about 500 cars officially entered in the show, included about 100 of the most perfect muscle cars you’ll ever see all over in Building 9. The Suede Palace is stuffed with rods, roadsters, rat rods and ribaldry. It’s also the only place that plays live music, which it’ll be doing all weekend. On Saturday and Sunday from 400 to 800 more cars flood the grounds and park all over the place.
The awards start being handed out Sunday at 4:00 p.m., with the AMBR coming at maybe 7:00 or 7:30. If you buy a ticket to the show, for five bucks more you can get into the NHRA Motorsport Museum next door, which may be the best five bucks you’ll spend all year.