ROTUNDA CUSTOMS 1955 SHOW
In 1955 and 1956 the Ford Motor Company hosted a small Custom Car and Hot Rod show in the beautiful Art-Deco Rotunda visitors center in Dearborn, Michigan.
The Rotunda visitors center was across the Ford World Headquarters. It was a circular Art Deco building ten stories high resembling a stack of internally-meshed gears, each decreasing in size towards the top where a geodesic dome rested. Two wings flanked out from the sides anchoring the steel-framed dome in place. The building acted as a visitor-center and exposition hall from 1934 till 1962 when it was destroyed in a fire.
The Rotunda building was originally designed and built in Chicago for the 1933 World Fair, “Century of Progress Exposition”. Architect, Albert Kahn – who was known for his functional yet elegant architectural designs in Detroit – designed the building for Henry Ford. The Ford Pavilion and the Ford Exposition Building, as it was called then, was 900 feet long with a 12-story glass rotunda at its center.
Nine thousand floodlights, hidden around the circular exterior, bathed the building in a rainbow of colors. From the center of the building, beams of light were projected into the sky that, on a clear night, could be seen for 20 miles.
During the two years the fair ran, the Ford Pavilion was visited by over 12 million visitors. After the fair ended, the Rotunda was disassembled and moved to Dearborn, Michigan, and erected directly across from Ford Motor Company’s Central Office Building to serve as a visitor center and starting point for the company’s popular Rouge Plant tours. The building was then renamed Ford Rotunda.
The rebuilding of the building in Dearborn Michigan nearing its completion. The inset aerial view shows how the building looked in 1933-34 at the Chicago World Fair. The large section on the left was not rebuild and the smaller section on the right was duplicated when the building was rebuilt in 1935.
The Rotunda immediately became a huge attraction, drawing not only common people but many movie stars, celebrities, business leaders, and heads of state who came to see the company’s latest cars and the elaborate shows Ford organized. The building was used to display state of the art Ford designs, and innovating automotive ideas. The round exposition space was very attractive, Art-Deco styled with a modern twist. The biggest draw was the annual Christmas displays during the holidays. New attractions were added each year. It was while preparing Ford Rotunda for the 1962 Christmas Display, a workman accidently overturned a firepot on the building’s highly inflammable tar roof setting the entire building on fire. In less than an hour, Ford Rotunda had burned to the ground. The company decided not to spend any more money, and razed the building’s remains instead. The ground where the Rotunda was stayed vacant for many years, until 2000 when the Michigan Technical Education Center was opened.
The 1955 Custom Car and Hot Rod show
In 1954 J.G. Mullaly, Ford Motor Company’s special events manager came up with the idea of paying some special attention to the youth with a display of FoMoCo based Custom Cars and Hot Rods at the Rotunda. In the last almost two decades Ford was still the most popular choice among the young and slowly getting older Custom Car and Hot Rod enthusiasts. But with the growing popularity of the GM overhead valve engines Ford realized it needed to pay some extra attention to keep the focus on Ford products here. It is really wonderful that the FoMoCo realized the Custom Car and Hot Rod were really important. They must have realized that if the young guys build their cars based on their own products, they more than likely would buy the same brand family car when they grew up and started a family in the years to follow. Ford of course had always been part of the hobby with Edsel creating some state of the art customized cars in the 1930’s and 40’s. But having an all Custom Car and Hot Rod display at the Rotunda was something special. This way these cars would be seen by a lot wider audience, then when a regular show would be organized at an more “common” facility.
Mullaly contacted the Michigan Hot Rod Association (MHRA) to help him organize this event that pas now planned to take place in the winter of 1955. The MHRA made a list of possible candidates based on the criteria given from Mullaly and the FoMoCo. In the weeks before the show would take place a gathering of Custom Cars and Hot Rods would gather for “audition day”. The Rotunda building was a relatively small building to organize an car show. Much smaller than the large hall’s, like armories and city exposition building. So the number of cars had to be limited to 13 Custom Cars and 5 Hot Rods. Mullaly wanted to personally pick the most suitable cars for the event, hence the outdoor audition was organized.
The cars picked to be in the event was a great mix of mildly restyled cars to full customs. All based on the more recent models Ford and mercury from 1950 and up. This would allow the visitors to see how “little” needed to be done to make your Ford looks different, better than all other cars in the street, or what needed to be done to go all the way for the full custom look. The Ford PR department did a lot of work to promote this special show and also made sure the professional photos used in this article were taken and shared with the magazines back in 1955.
The event was held in March 15-27, 1955 and 63,000 visitors would see the Custom Car and Hot Rod exhibit. 18 special cars were on display for 13 days. The cars were are detailed to perfection for this special exhibition. The audience would see these cars in this very special, inspiring building with other displays showing the state of the art Ford products. All in all the show was a very big success and a new show was already planned for the next year. More about that in part two of the Rotunda Custom Show.
Bill Pagett’s beautifully restyled 1950 Ford Coupe must have been really wonderful inside with its rich burgundy wine with metallic lilac paint. The turned around and modified 1955 Pontiac side trim separates the two colors and adds even more class to the car. The car has really great details as the split Dodge grille, frenched and hooded headlights, rounded corners, scooped skirts and custom bumpers. These photos show how well the wonderful Rotunda interior works with the Custom Cars.
The famous Clarkaiser Custom Shop from Detroit restyled Ron Freshman’s 1952Ford Business Coupe. They chopped the top, fitted a 1949 Cadillac grille, molded in the stock headlights and restyled the rear quarter scoops before they painted the car in Matador Gold Metallic.
Ford invited Pete McDonald’s 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria to show the audience how great these cars looked with only a minimum amount of work. See how the Art Deco and modern styled building works perfect with these Custom Cars.
Oliver Hine’s 1933 Ford is an really wonderful restyled 5-window coupe with reshaped and fitted Brewser grille. It was displayed next to Ford’s FX-Atmos future experimental car they debuted at the 1954 Chicago Auto Show, and was now on display at the Rotunda.
Unidentified Canadian Ford grilled 1951 Ford convertible on the left, and Mart Ribits 1934 Ford, the last one was placed among the Hot Rods, but I feel its more a Custom Restyled Car than a Hot Rod.
Ken Kurant used an 1953 Canadian Ford Meteor grille in his subtile restyled 1952 Ford Club Coupe. The car used a set of Calvenar wire wheel hubcaps, a very popular aftermarket product back then, especially on the east coats. The Nello Tacconelli 1952 Mercury on the right has a reworked hood with working scoop, hooded headlights and another very popular product of the time, bubble fender skirts.
Jack Elders beautiful restyled 1951 Ford convertible sports a raked and chopped windshield, chopped folding convertible top, hood scoop, bubble skirts, reshaped rear fenders with frenched taillights and a 1953 Meteor grille to name just a few changes. Some sources also mention some of the work was done at the Clarkaiser shop.
Ron Sobran’s 1951 Mercury was a custom that had been around for a few years when it was displayed at the Rotunda in 1955. The car has some unique styling with the raked, but not chopped windshield and rear window that appears to be sunken, or perhaps reshaped in plexiglass? The stock grille was narrowed and the grille ends cut and brought in closer to make a floating type grille. The Merc also sported a set of popular bubble skirts and wire wheel hubcaps. I have never been able to find out who restyled the car.
The rear quarter view taken at the audition day shows the skirts really well. It also shows the sunken or reshaped rear window, the extended rear fender using 1954 mercury rear fenders and taillights, and the addition of an 1951 Lincoln rear bumper.
Two project Shoebox Fords at the audition day that did not make the final cut.The sedan on the left sports an very interesting whale like grille, while the coupe on the right shows a really nice stance.
Two more customs that did not make it in the final cut. The first one, a 1952 Chevy fleetline for the obvious reason it was not a Ford-Mercury. The 1953 Ford on the right is a really nicely done mild custom with some nice subtile touches, but for unknown reasons it was not enough to make it inside.
Custom Cars Exhibited at the 1955 Rotunda Custom Car Show
- Oliver Hine 1933 Ford 5-Window Coupe
- Marty Ribits 1934 Ford
- Bill Pagett 1950 Ford Coupe
- Gordon Sutton 1950 Ford Convertible
- Jack Elders 1951 Ford Convertible
- Ron Sobran 1951 Mercury
- Ron Freshman 1952 Ford
- Ken Kurant 1952 Ford Club Coupe
- Nello Tacconelli 1952 Mercury Hard-Top
- Ron Deneau 1953 Ford Customline
- Dick Jackson 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria
- Pete McDonald 1953 Ford Crestliner
- Frank and Charles Gilardone 1953 Ford Victoria
It must have been very special for the car owners to be part of this unique event. First to be invited by one of the big auto manufactures, and secondly to have your car displayed at and 13 day long event at the very famous and wonderful designed Rotunda building. In part two we will take a look at the car on display at the 1956 Rotunda show, the second and last custom car show at the Rotunda building.
More information and resources
(The Custom Car photos used in this article are part of the FoMoCo collection and can be ordered online in a wide selection of sizes and printed on different materials.)
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