Some six decades have unspooled since Tom Wolfe first ran around southern California watching teens hammer junk cars into kandy-kolored, tangerine-flaked streamline babies. Today, those teens still gather every year to gawk, judge and award the title of America's Most Beautiful Roadster — the most prestigious prize a hot-rod builder can win — and wonder whether there's another generation of babies to come.
Launched in 1950, the AMBR award functions as a kind of mini-concours inside the larger Grand National Roadster Show, where more than 500 vehicles gathered last weekend in Pomona, Calif. Open by invitation only, AMBR contestants can only come from vehicles built in 1937 or before, and they have to be making their first appearance at a public show.
And just as the hot rod scene has aged and gone commercial over the years, so has AMBR, with some competitions dominated by high-dollar builds well beyond what most home hobbyists could hope to accomplish. This year, the homebuilt crowd took over; most owners displaying their cars had overseen every bolt and flange.
The typical contestant in the AMBR competition takes three to four years in building their machine. For many, that's barely enough time to get it right; Wes Rydell was still working on his 1935 Chevy Phaeton back in North Dakota a week before the event. But that only accounts for assembly time; understanding what makes a hot rod roll among the best in the nation takes decades more.
Take Paul Gommi's car, a black-on-black 1932 Ford Phaeton. Most AMBR finalists put up a handpainted sign with some pinstriping to thank their contributors and give a little information on their build. Gommi, a retired Chrysler engineer and ad man, brought a dozen tall posterboards covered in text that he laid around the car's display like the tablets of the law. And he needed them, because building the phaeton involved machinery from a score of different cars — a Packard scoop, a Pierce-Arrow headlamp — all made no later than 1951. The 21-pin Ford V-8 has a supercharger that Gommi lent a friend 40 years ago.
"It only took me three years to build this," Gommi says. "It took a lifetime of going to swap meets and wrecking yards and places collecting these parts."
In this field of experienced builders, the group of high-school students hanging around their creation stood out. Built by an after-school club based in Roseville, Mich., the 1934 Ford pickup dubbed "Madusa" was assembled in five-and-a-half months, under the oversight of teacher Paul Tregembo Jr. Tregembo, whose father taught the same auto-shop classes in Roseville, has built a regional program to teach metalworking, engine assembly and the other hot-rodder skills that were once staples of the public-school curriculum, and have now become rare even in the suburbs of Detroit.
"I wanted the public to be able to see what they could do," Tregembo said. "You're trying to inspire a bunch of them, too. The economy in Detroit has not been great for a number of years...There is something beyond what you see, (and) the talents you have will pay money, and down the road turn into something you can survive on."
Winning AMBR used to involve purely technical execution and enough colored chrome to make Liberace blush. But in the past couple of years the judging has been handed off to builders who use a more innate sense of overall beauty. Watching them work, they touch the cars as much as they look at them, using their fingers to find flaws in the welds and topcoats; simply bolting the pieces together correctly doesn't count for much. Says Bobby Alloway, a Tennessee hot-rodder who's won AMBR and a host of other top awards: "You can have the best paint, best tires and best engine — and lose because the whole thing doesn't go together."
This year, the judges picked Rydell's Chevy phaeton, a break from the traditional '30s Ford roadster, but one that offers much for a builder's eye, from the grille to the stock luggage rack. Rydell bought the car 30 years ago, and had Chip Foose draw him a design for a hot-rod over a decade ago, but only started building within the past three years. Despite the win, Rydell plans to keep the car as a driver — he built it with power steering and air conditioning so it could be easier to wheel around when the weather warms up enough in North Dakota.
Outside of Tregembo's crew, the crowd around AMBR had a lot of miles on their own odometers; for every person under the age of 25, there were five running life's drag race in a rented mobility scooter. And the Grand National show caters to the traditional with a group of cars that's 99 44/100ths American; I could find nary an Asian car, and only two Jaguars. Even the non-Big Three U.S. vehicles rarely make the floor, and the newest ride I saw was a 1985 Cadillac.
Yet you didn't have to search far for fresh eyes, from Tregembo's young team to other builders in the show like Troy Trepanier. There's enough demand for street rods that Ford recently started selling new steel bodies for 1932 Ford coupes, and the Big Bang of hot rods that Tom Wolfe witnessed may never stop resonating in our culture. "This took a long time," says Gommi of his creation, "but I've got enough parts to do one more."