Name three things Spring is known for?
Answer: Strong winds, your local ‘White Sale’, and Blackie Gejeian’s Annual Fresno Autorama ____ the 47th to be exact. That’s right, that grizzled grape grower from Central California has once again put together what is generally considered to be the finest rod & custom show in North America.
What makes the Fresno Autorama so special? Well, like a royal wedding, it’s invitation only with Blackie himself hand picking about 165 cars from the major shows across the nation to assemble what he calls ‘the best of the best’. And one can’t argue with that claim with this year’s show fielding three past Foose Ridler winners
I’ve entered a lot of car shows but, never one in California. At last years Detroit Autorama, California’s old school hot rodder and promoter, Blackie Gejeian honored me by inviting my ’39 Ford to this invitation-only event. Blackie goes around the country and hand picks 165 cars to the annual show, which he heralds as, “the Best of the Best”. It must have been one of Blackie’s off-days, I’m not sure how I slipped in. As it turned out it was the only car there representing Michigan.
I wasn’t even sure there would be a show since Blackie had been hospitalized with a broken back and internal injuries from an accident at SEMA and at one time, was near death. But, he’s a tough ole’ bird and he was determined that the show would go on.
After weeks of trying to arrange transportation, I finally talked and bribed my friend Dan Pichla into hauling my car out to Fresno with his RV. The bribe was in the form of going along with him bringing his wife and two little boys along making it a family vacation for them. It turned out to be a fun multiplier, they were great traveling companions.
Dan is a local builder-fabricator and races an A-Alterred and his skills were reflected in his deft handling of the caravan we took to California. I refer to it as a caravan because what else do you call a 40’ RV toting a 26’ trailer. Dan piloted this rig like a Nascar driver in a cross-country race with golf carts. We could pass everything except a gas station and we made it to California in three days including picking up the car.
We followed much of old Route 66 and the scenery was fantastic. You could see old, closed up, 50’s gas stations in the middle of nowhere. Their weathered facades told the story of businesses bypassed by the freeway. At sunset the distant mountains exploded in a surreal display of red rims and shadowy canyons. Periodic checks showed that my car was riding it out in fine fashion.
After experiencing a clogged fuel filter in Kansas, a tornado with baseball-size hail in Missouri, prairie fires in the Texas panhandle, and a shredded trailer tire in New Mexico we arrived in at the Fresno Convention Center in the late afternoon we unloaded. I collected my displayer’s package and caught up with Blackie buzzing around the convention center on a scooter overseeing every detail. He said he had placed me in one of the only four 20’x20’ spaces on a corner of the main aisle. I began to feel special until I saw what was around me.
I was assigned a spot right across from three past Ridler winners including Ken Reister’s ’36 Ford inspired ‘Impression’, flanked by Bob Wes’s ’35 Chevy, ‘Grand Master and Ron and Karen Whitesides’ ’34 Ford, ‘Stallion . Talk about feeling outclassed! I felt like a pair of faded levis in a room full tuxedos. I’ve attended a lot of car shows but I’ve never seen so many outstanding cars at one setting. There were absolutely no fillers here. Even the venders were subject to the ‘invitation only’ imperative.
Now at Fesno there are not as many cars fielded as there are at Detroit Autorama. But unlike Detroit, this is a show where you don’t wear out a pair of shoes or need a hip replacement in order to see everything. It is compact and easy to get to all displays. No sooner had we unloaded when someone announced, “Hey, they’re bringing in Jay Leno’s car.”
It turned out it wasn’t Jay’s car, but it was similar to the one Randy Grubb built for him. Twenty-two feet long and powered by a 1950 cu inch Patton tank engine, this thing is quite an engineering feat along with being beautiful. I spent some time talking with Randy and there is quite a story behind the one he built for Jay that I’ll have to save for another time.
An aisle away stood the all copper ’39 Ford built by Kirkland Motors in Provo Utah. This thing’s a real eye magnet. Its gleaming copper body just cries out to be to be touched. The nose is tipped with acid-etched flames which makes them a slightly off-colored. Beautiful! Powered by a mid-engine Ford GT-40, every panel of this car was hand fabricated.
Aisle after aisle, row after row; just as you see one great car that you think can’t be topped, there is another next to it. Next was a jet powered Volkswagon. Along with the J-2 burner sticking out its tail, this car still has its front-mounted engine and unbelievable as it seems, is street legal.
The folks at Advanced Chrome brought their ’32 roadster. It was positioned just inside the main entrance sporting a Norm Grabowski-carved skull shift knob. Its outstanding feature is ….. well, what would expect from a company which specializes in chroming; a perfectly chromed under carriage that was so bright their display included a bucket of free sunglasses to protect spectators.
A highlight of the show for me was the two hours I spent with Chip Foose. Chip was there to be honored as Builder of the Year …… again. I think he holds the record. I had the opportunity to chat with him as he autographed photos and anything else fans would thrust in front of him. And yes, he is as nice as he appears on TV. No,….. he’s nicer! He doesn’t display the ego his talent and fame might suggest and you won’t find a celebrity more accommodating or giving to fans.
The last night was the usual mad rush to packup and get on the road. My show spot was near the only exit door; a feature for which I was grateful.
The return trip was uneventful, save everyone coming down with the stomach flu on the last day. Let me tell you, there is nothing like rocketing down the highway captive in an RV when everyone is, well ….. doing what people do when they have the flu!
Between passing the bucket, we passed the time with talk of the adventure and all we had seen. It was a lot of work and I returned with a wallet somewhat lighter than when I set out. Was it worth it? Hey, does a funny car shred tires! I figure that I’ll never be able to afford a car as nice as The Coupster again, let alone attract the attention of the likes of Blackie Gejeian. But, I’ll carry the memories forever.
Think a good thought and remember to put off put’n off.!