72nd Sacramento Autorama

A Cavalcade of Customs

By John Drummond   –   Photography by the Author

When the first Sacramento Autorama was organized in 1951, the average new car cost just $1,500, I Love Lucy was making its series-debut on CBS, and the U.S. government was about to test the first nuclear bombs in Nevada. With the postwar boom in full swing, the custom car scene was also hitting its early apex.

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Cesar Ruiz commissioned East Bay Speed & Custom to build a traditionally styled, skirted ’36 Ford roadster, offering a glimpse of Harry Westergard’s legendary styling. It proudly took home the Dick Bertolucci Memorial Award and the title of World’s Most Beautiful Custom.

Some seven decades later, the 72nd O’Reilly Auto Parts Sacramento Autorama is still going strong, giving car customizers around the globe a place to gather to celebrate the art of sculpting candy-colored masterpieces. Each car has its own unique story of what it took to build and where it came from.

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Brian Omatsu’s purple-hued, panel-painted ’51 Merc coupe brings up shades of Watson’s customs from a bygone era. Of all the Custom d’Elegance competitors it was fitting it won Outstanding Paint.

More than 500 cars were on the scene at Cal Expo in Sacramento competing for over 400 awards and thousands in prize money. The competition was stiff and the diversity of the machines on the grounds was deep and rich. In all, eight or nine buildings housed cars and special exhibits. With early customs being the core focus of the Autorama, six heavy hitters lined up for the Custom d’Elegance award presented by ARP. They came from as far away as Sweden.

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The ’56 Chevys are not traditionally customized to this extent, yet when they are, fans take notice. Show judges awarded the prestigious Sam Barris Memorial award to Jesse Orzoro and his Candy Gold Tri-Five sled. It’s just as nice on the inside, bagging Outstanding Interior.

Outdoor, the Autorama Drive-In gave locals a chance to shine up their hot rods, cruisers, trick trucks, and classics and drive them into the spacious grounds. That’s where we come in.

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The man who traveled the furthest, Sweden’s Robert Cserhalmi. His traditionally styled ’48 Chevy Fleetline was handcrafted by Sweden’s Old Iron Kustoms. The mod list is extensive, highlighted by a radical chop, reshaped wheel openings all around, and the hood was made into one piece. The car took home John D’Agostino Award of Excellence (a beautiful crystal cup), Outstanding Engine, as well as Outstanding Display and Undercarriage.

Our aim is to not only cover the Autorama but we put our name on several awards to promote and honor those builders who like to build ’em and drive ’em. Nearly every award we selected was 100 percent owner built in their garage. That’s why Modern Rodding, All Chevy Performance, and Classic Truck Performance devotes so much energy to being the official sponsor of the Drive-In.

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Jeff Smith displayed his radically chopped ’50 Merc without a fancy display. He prefers to let his ghost-flamed radical custom take the spotlight. The sled cruised off with the Outstanding Engineering Award. It rides on a modified ’79 El Camino chassis.

With several acres of hot rods, hundreds of vendors scattered throughout the show halls, and special exhibits it was a springtime scene. John Buck and his Rod Shows staff, along with all the core event sponsors, are passionate about keeping the Autorama alive—and it shows.

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When Jeff Hess debuted his ’56 Olds in 2022 the radical sled drove off with the 2022 Custom d’Elegance trophy. It won the ARP West Coast Challenge Series and the cash and prizes that come with it. Bathed in Way Past Midnight Blue, Hess’s OLDSSLED features include a 354ci Chrysler Hemi, ’54 Corvette grille, ’56 Packard taillights, a Continental Kit, and hundreds of other tweaks and twerks.

We’re sure the founders of the Autorama would be delighted at the direction of the event. Rod Shows has preserved the heritage, legacy, glitz, and glitter established by H.A. Bagdasarian back in 1951.

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The name Jerry Logan has been emblazoned on award-winner lists for decades. The pride of Toledo, WA, Logan arrived in Sacramento with this radically chopped, channeled, and Z’d ’34 Ford pickup finished in gunmetal. Check out the polished engine sporting those wild Borla stacks. Logan’s superior pickup was awarded 1st Runner Up in the ARP West Coast Challenge.

Custom d’Elegance

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With international bragging rights, a $5,000 winner’s check, jacket, and a legendary trophy that has spanned 72 years, the Custom d’Elegance presented by ARP had a healthy contingent of West Coast cars, along with participants from as far away as Sweden and Delaware. Customizer and metalshaping whiz Cody Walls of Traditional MetalCraft in Milton, Delaware, saw his radical and refined ’49 Buick Sedanette take home the crown as best custom at the event. Walls’ Buick featured an aggressive chop, re-shaped wheelwells, headlight delete, pancaked lid, a 2-inch beltline section, tucked numbers, and is bathed in brilliant gold.

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Fresh out of the Roadster Shop came Brent Scheider’s ’70 Chevelle Pro-Touring. Riding on a Roadster Shop SPEC chassis, the Chevelle makes 700 crank horsepower thanks to a 454ci Texas Speed LSX. The muscle car was 2nd Runner-Up in the ARP West Coast Challenge.

ARP West Coast Challenge Series

The brainchild of ARP’s Bob Florine was the ARP West Coast Challenge Series, a specialty competition held for the first time this year. In all, 12 vehicles participated in three out of four points-earning events for a shot as the title of “Best in the West.” Not only that, but there was also a total purse of $22,500 up for grabs with the winner’s share being a whopping $12,500. There are also the very slick looking competition flags given to all the contenders as well as jackets and a special award at the end of the tour.

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Ray Poletti’s ’40 Lincoln Zephyr took home the Bagdasarian Memorial “World’s Most Beautiful Custom.” It was a West Coast Challenge entrant, logging show miles this season. It features a “gentleman’s stance” in that it’s a reasonable ride height when summer cruising commences.

There were opportunities throughout the spring to win $5,000 at each of the other events and then go on to win the $12,500 at the West Coast Challenge for a potential cash total of $40,000! When the tallies were counted, it was Jeff Hess and his ’56 Olds 88 custom taking away the crown and the cash. Powered by a 354ci Chrysler Hemi, Hess’ sleek custom was a radically modified build that you might remember took home the Custom d’Elegance award at last year’s Autorama.

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Mind-boggling doesn’t begin to describe the engineering of Scott Cooper’s ’26 Ford Tall T. The 100 percent plated and polished blown 427ci SOHC Ford hemi is tilted to 40 degrees.

Bill Ganahl: Builder of the Year

English-major-turned-craftsman Bill Ganahl was honored as the Builder of the Year in Sacramento. Humbly going about his business crafting award-winning legacy hot rods, customs, and historic race car restorations, Ganahl and his talented crew at South City Rod & Custom have steadily been turning out upper echelon machines over the last decade. His impressive display featured Coby Gewertz’s radical “Saint Christopher” ’34 Ford coupe, Greg Tidwell’s tasty ’40 Ford pickup, Gary and Cindy Giovanni’s ’56 Chevy pickup, Josh Radtich’s fresh ’62 Cadillac De Ville, and Tony Jurado’s ’40 Ford convertible. The diverse lineup showed off the depth and ability of Ganahl and his craftsmen, which has also landed Ganahl in the Grand National Roadster Show Hall of Fame. A well-deserved honor for sure.

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The South City Rod & Custom display was the main attraction in Building C honoring Bill Ganahl, a second generation and Hall of Fame hot rod craftsman.

Drive-In Outdoor Show

The cool thing about a warm weather town like Sacramento is it breeds plenty of boulevard car culture. For the Autorama they lined up early Saturday morning, having driven to Cal Expo from around the Capital City and its Suburbs. By high noon well over 200 pre-’73 machines had the hoods up and tops down, so to speak. All of us here at In The Garage Media drive our stuff, therefore, it’s a pleasure for Modern Rodding, Classic Truck Performance, and All Chevy Performance to sponsor the Drive-In. We selected nine awards (Saturday and Sunday) from the Drive-In this year in hopes it will continue to grow and give car guys and gals a fun, fantastic destination.

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When the crowd gathered around Coby Gewertz’s hemi-powered, drag-styled ’34 Ford coupe, many said the colors looked like Burger King. So, Bill Ganahl found a local BK, grabbed 25 King’s Crown hats, and passed them out. Love it or hate it, Gewertz’s “Saint Christopher” is a chopped coupe that will make its mark for years to come.

Traditional Rod & Custom Showcase

The Traditional Rod & Custom Showcase is the sister of the Suede Palace at the GNRS. For those who don’t like shiny stuff, this is the place to exhibit. Homebuilt, no-frills rods and customs blanketed the building.

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Fresh out of South City Rod & Custom, Greg and Penni Tidwell’s prewar ’40 Ford pickup blends superior build quality with custom traits, like Caddy caps, patterned and pleated bench seat, and a Tri-power Smeding Performance small-block Chevy.

Well, that wraps up another year for the Sacramento Autorama. Once again it proves to be the “home” for some of the best customs built and always a showcase for what’s going on in hot rodding. MR

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