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What is beauty? You guys go ahead and argue that all you want, but the judges at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California, have spoken: America’s Most Beautiful Roadster is Bruce Wanta’s Mulholland Speedster, a smooth, flowing 1936 Packard-based creation of Troy Ladd’s Hollywood Hot Rods.

Ladd and crew have been working on the car for six years, ever since designer Eric Black first penned an exquisite drawing of it in 2010.

“Bruce (Wanta, the owner) was originally thinking late-‘30s Ford with a Packard influence,” Black said. “We kept adding Packard influence (to the drawings) until finally we said, ‘Why don’t we just go with a Packard?”

So they started with a 1936 Packard 1401 Coupe. But the design was refined and then re-refined so many times that the finished product is about three-fourths the original size of the Packard. We think the finished product is fully deserving of the win.

Mulholland Speedster

The Mulholland Speedster may set the custom car world on its ear.

The AMBR is given out every year at the culmination of the Grand National Roadster Show, one of the pinnacles of the hot-rodding art form. And yes, it is an art form, with designers, sculptors and patrons of the art paying big bucks — often over a million dollars — to create what they hope will be seen by judges and others as something beautiful. 

Eric Black's drawing of the Mulholland Speedster

Eric Black’s drawing of the Mulholland Speedster

This year’s winner was quite a departure from the traditional ’32 Ford Hi Boy roadsters and ’29 Track roadsters that have won the award so many times in the show’s 68-year history. The biggest difference is not just that it was based on a Packard, though that is certainly a first for the show. The bigger difference is that the Mulholland Speedster represents a potential trend in the larger automotive world: the return of the coach-built automobile, where a custom shop takes a manufacturer’s chassis and drivetrain and puts its own body on top in the manner of Figoni et Falaschi, Bohman & Schwarz, Chapron, Franay and any number of classic builders.

“Originally, we based a lot of the ideas on a Delahaye and the LeBaron-bodied cars and things like that,” Ladd told us a year ago when we visited the shop. “We kind of mixed and matched. We picked pieces of things we liked and started to design a car from scratch. Two-thirds of the way through the process, we realized we unknowingly built something very Packard-ish. So then we embraced that idea, but most of it’s coach-built.”

The win is a nice touch, but there are even more plans for this car.

“We’re realizing that this is not a hot rod, it’s not a concours restoration. What is it? Maybe it’s something I need to grab onto and see if I can promote the idea. There are other people with the money to commission one of these that maybe don’t know they want this yet. Why can’t we push this idea of a kind of a couture-built car? We’ll design it for you; there’s only one in the world. You get to be a part of the process. We can sit with the designer. We’ll draw in front of you; ‘Do you like this?’ So we’re wondering if there’s a way to promote this concept.”

Ladd and Wanta have considered how to show the car at the Pebble Beach festivities. They’re pretty sure they can get into The Quail, but they’re also looking into parking it on the Concept Lawn at Pebble. We hope that works out. And we hope Ladd and other modern shops like Moal and Rick Dore can all revive the coach-built tradition.

But for now, the Hollywood Hot Rod boys are savoring the AMBR.

“I’m as happy as I could possibly be,” said Wanta.