CHILDHOOD LA CAR SHOWS
I saw my first car show in 1951, when I was 11 years old. It was the second or third in a series of shows produced by the Russetta Timing Association, and was held at the Los Angeles National Guard Armory. Of course this was more than 60 years ago, and my memories of many early shows have blurred together. I can’t recall which cars I saw in what show.
By Tony Miller
In 1952 I went to the Russetta Timing Association show again. The car that I remember most clearly from this 1952 Armory show was a Barris Kustom ’49 Cadillac that was being given away as a door prize. It was a gold convertible with a black padded top and a grille made from ’51 Ford truck parts. I remember that I fantasized about winning that car; however somebody else was the lucky winner and I never saw it again in any magazine or show. (check out the CCC-Article on this Give away Cadillac)
I started buying Hop Up magazine in the same year, and soon added Hot Rod, Motor Trend, and all the 75c Trend Books to my library. In ’53 Rod & Custom and Honk! magazines were introduced, and I collected those too. Many of the cars I saw in the magazines turned up in the shows that I attended, and vice versa.
I went to at least two more of the Armory shows, to the Petersen Motorama shows from 1951 through ’55 — Petersen changed the name to Motor Revue when GM appropriated the “Motorama” name — and the General Motors Motoramas from ’53 through ’56. Both the Petersen and the GM shows were held at the Pan Pacific Auditorium near Beverly & Fairfax in LA, near Gilmore stadium where midgets raced and baseball was played. These early enthusiast shows (Armory and Petersen) included every kinds of vehicle: not only hot rods and customs, but also sports cars, imports, antiques, Bonneville and circle track racers, Detroit concept cars, motorcycles and more.
Since I’m writing this for a Customs publication, I should probably focus there for a minute. In each of the shows I saw the newest stuff from Barris, Ayala, Cerny and Valley Custom every year, as well as a variety of handmade amateur customs like the Astra and Vale. Famous cars that got lots of magazine coverage were in these shows as well; Hirohata’s Merc, Ron Dunn’s Ford, Larry Ernst’s Chev and many, many more.
Many of the Detroit manufacturers, and some smaller ones, showed concepts and pre-production cars at the Petersen shows: Packard Caribbean, Buick XP300, Kaiser Darrin, Hudson Italia, Cunningham, Edwards, Woodill, even a preview of the ’55 Thunderbird.
Ina Mae Overman took these photos at the 1954 Motorama and it gives us a good look at the building, the way the cars were displayed and the tall curtains behind the displays. Special sections were decorated with white rocks and flower beds for an extra luxurious feel.
Because I was a beginner enthusiast, all the varieties of cars that I saw at those earliest shows made an equal impression on me. Barris’ Golden Sahara, Dick Flint’s roadster, a Glasspar fiberglass sports car, the Hill-Davis streamliner, and a Figoni & Falaschi-bodied Talbot were all new to me and equally exciting (this actually hasn’t changed very much after all these years).
Some of the cars that I remember most vividly were individual hot rods of both street and competition styles. Norm Grabowski’s and Tommy Ivo’s Ts were up on a pedestal together at one Armory show; I had never seen anything like them before, and I was blown away. Randy Chaddock’s flathead powered Bantam coupe was at one of the Petersen shows; that one stayed in my dreams for twenty years.
The Kenz-Leslie 777 Bonnevile , the Eddie Miller Pontiac Lakester, and the Glass Slipper dragster all made strong impressions on me.
At one of the Petersen shows around ’55, Von Dutch did a live pinstriping demonstration. He had a light-colored ’34 Ford 5-window which he striped in multiple colors for days — black, red, purple — until areas like the deck lid were completely filled with abstract pinstriping, and there was outlining around doors, lights, fenders, everywhere.
The GM Motoramas were something else again. At each year’s event, they would show the complete Chevrolet, Pontiac, Olds, Buick, Cadillac and GMC lines, and each division usually had several “Dream Cars” — they’re called Concept Cars now — that were specially built as Motorama exhibits.
Some of these were strikingly memorable for me: The Pontiac Bonneville Special and Club de Mer; Buick’s Wildcat III and Centurion; the group of three Corvette concepts including the Nomad wagon and the Corvair fastback coupe — Wow!
I attended most of these early shows between the ages of 11 and 15, so I wasn’t yet driving and didn’t have a car of my own. My imagination went crazy, and I dreamed of owning several customs, hot rods, classics and sports cars when I grew up.
Now it’s been 62 years since that first Armory show. I’m sure I have attended hundreds of car shows, indoor and out, in that time. I’ve owned 30-some cars myself, and have had many of them in car shows (usually outdoor), but very few of mine have been as radical, colorful, and exciting as the cars I saw in those earliest shows.
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