Gearhead nirvana

Dig those custom cars and hot rods? This weekend’s Autorama at Cal Expo will butter your toast

Can the soul be captured within the curvature of sheet metal? Can gazing upon an inanimate object fabricated from steel and glass and rubber evoke powerful emotions?

If you’re from California, you might answer, “Hey, why not?” Detroit may be the place where cars are made, but California is where the automobile became a way of life.

Los Angeles, of course, usually gets credited as being the epicenter of car consciousness, maybe because wildly oversized personalities demand wildly outrageous automotive plumage from which they can demoralize other males and thus impress the females of the species.

But Sacramento has long been one of California car culture’s strongholds, too. It’s mostly flat like most of L.A., it’s spread out like a smaller version of L.A., and even though more people here follow the Giants than the Dodgers, the two cities share other affinities.

Take music: Sacramento was the first big town outside of L.A. to collectively flip over the Beach Boys, back in 1963. The Beach Boys even recorded a live album the following year at our very own Memorial Auditorium. Now why, in a landlocked burg like Sacramento, were people so smitten with a teen group that wrote and played songs about surfing?

Because the band’s other songs were about cars. Mike Love, the Wilson cousin who wrote the lyrics to many of the Beach Boys’ early hits, was obsessed with automotive arcana. Dig this snippet, from “Little Deuce Coupe”: “She’s ported and relieved and she’s stroked and bored / She’ll do a hundred and forty with the top end floored.” Love peppered his lyrics with serious gearhead references; anyone who mentions a 413—the cubic-inch displacement of one of the more obscure Chrysler big-block mills from the early ’60s—in a song is obviously a car nut.

And Sacramento teens were dialed in. Especially the ones with wheels.

Even today, drive around Sacramento for any length of time when the weather’s nice, and you’re quite likely to see a completely cherried-out roadster or custom car. And every February at Cal Expo, you can see a lot of them at once.

This is year 51 for the Sacramento Autorama, if you count its first two years, when the Thunderbolts—a local car club—staged an exhibition at a downtown Chevrolet dealership in 1950, then at a Buick showroom in 1952. The Thunderbolts’ Harold Bagdasarian took over promoting the Autorama in January 1953, in the same Memorial Auditorium where the Beach Boys would later record their live album. Two years later the Autorama moved to the old State Fairgrounds at Broadway and Stockton Boulevard, then to Cal Expo in 1970, where it’s been held every February since. Bagdasarian partnered with the late Don Tognotti, of Tognotti’s Speed Shop, in the late 1980s. Tognotti later bought Bagdasarian out, before selling the show to Dan Cyr Enterprises, which also produces the Grand National Roadster Show (formerly the Oakland Roadster Show) in San Mateo, the Portland Rod & Custom Show and the Seattle Roadster Show.

This year, there are over 300 vehicles—mostly cars, some trucks and motorcycles. Indeed, it seems like the only things missing this year are the ubiquitous neon yellow-on-black billboards with the comic-book lettering and illustration of a 1950s-vintage Batmobile lookalike, which used to pop up around these parts like mushrooms not long after the holiday season.

Those billboards are what originally roped me in. Bagdasarian started putting them up around Stockton and Lodi in the mid-’60s; as a 10-year-old avid model-car geek, the prospect of seeing so many street rods and custom cars under one roof became a must-see event. Somehow, I conned my parents into driving 40 miles in crummy weather up Highway 99 in our old beater VW to worship the latest creations of George and Sam Barris, the Van Nuys custom car builders to the stars who, at the time, were my idols. Until deep into my sullen teen years it was a yearly affair, too; once I remember crawling out of bed with a temperature of 102 degrees just because I didn’t want to miss out on seeing Don Garlits’ dragster.

Then, as today, the Dana Carvey grapefruit theory was used to pull in marks like me: If you put a grapefruit on TV every day for a week, then put it on display at the local mall, people will walk by, point and say, “That’s the grapefruit that was on TV.” And if you put a Batmobile or a Monkeemobile or Grandpa Munster’s rolling casket dragster on prime-time TV once a week, then put it on display at the State Fairgrounds, people will drive for miles—and pay good money to see it.

It’s a pretty ingenious hook, especially because a certain percentage of the people you pull in are going to get blown away by the other stuff in the show. Unbelievably spectacular paint finishes, imaginative customized bodies, exquisitely detailed brightwork (read: chrome) on running gear, wheels and engines—there’s an overwhelming amount of eye candy to absorb. And the engines themselves: topped by snarling blower scoops or stacks of what look like upright chrome horns poking out of the intake manifolds, with medusa-like chromed exhaust pipes emerging from beneath the valve covers and coiling together, snake-like, toward the back of the car—if the sight of this doesn’t get you all hot and bothered, then you might be better off at a home and garden show.

Add deities like Ed “Big Daddy” Roth making the rounds, airbrushing Rat Fink T-shirts, plus vendors pushing swag like chromed plastic Nazi helmets and “Moon equipped” eyeball stickers, and you’re talking about a real cool time.

And where else could you go, then later tell your buddies that you hung out with someone who claimed to be Evel Knievel’s wife? I was watching a crew line up Pontiacs from a local dealership (Mel Rapton) side by side so a motorcyclist could jump them, and talking to this woman who, if I recall correctly, was sporting a stellar example of a Pentecostal beehive hairdo. Later, Knievel hobbled out, scowled at me when I asked him for an autograph and joined her, which ended our conversation. Of course, if you’d broken most of the bones in your body, you wouldn’t be Mr. Happy either.

The best part was when one of Knievel’s apprentices tried to jump the Pontiacs. He balked on his approach a couple of times; a light drizzle was messing up his traction. Finally, on his money shot, he gave the assembled crowd of yahoos what it came for—an ugly finish. It may not have been a spectacular, emergency room-bound, bone-crunching wipeout, but the poor guy was in no shape to make another jump.

After that whole hippie VW Microbus thing hit, I kinda lost interest in the Autorama. Then, a few years ago, one of those cheesy billboards caught my eye and I wanted to see if the show was more than a good memory.

The good news was that the cars were still drop-dead gorgeous. While, to the casual observer, the infinite thematic variations on the 1934 Ford street rod or customized 1955–57 Chevrolet Bel-Air hardtop may have been run into the ground, to the connoisseur they’re like a 12-bar blues. It’s like being able to enjoy the subtle differences between, say, Sleepy John Estes, Sonny Terry and Blind Willie McTell.

My only real complaint, if there is one is that it’s pretty much all Fords and Chevys. While one recent year featured an entire room of customized postwar Oldsmobile “Rocket 88” coupes, there aren’t enough examples of wild-ass automotive weirdness: Not much along the lines of wigged-out riffing on Plymouth’s 1961 “plucked-chicken” Furys, or chopped and channeled Citroëns, or low-riding AMC Pacers. Call it a car show in the missionary position.

Which is to say that it’ll be a pretty conservative affair, geared more toward graying couples in matching black satin “Chevrolet, the Heartbeat of America” jackets gently rocking out to old Dion & the Belmonts sides than toward a younger, liquored-up and tattooed Nashville Pussy crowd. Here’s a press release, quoting Dan Cyr on musical guests Ronnie & the Classics: “This band is a lot of fun to listen to,” he bubbles. “They play that great old rock and roll music that appeals to all ages.”

Oh, and for the tykes, there’ll be clowns and face painting, plus the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard, the original Batmobile, the Back to the Future DeLorean and a modified VW New Beetle Pokemon Pikachu-mobile. Not to mention the Buick Blackhawk, a svelte showcar that indicates GM finally may be picking up a clue from Chrysler.

Gosh darn it, daddy-o, ice down the soft drinks. I’m so there. Et tu?