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Hot Rod History

Hot Rod Magazine

Grand National Roadster Show

The Grand National Roadster Show is the longest running indoor car show in the world! The first show that was held in 1950, was arranged by Al Sloakner.

It was not Al's first show, as he had promoted another show one year earlier in San Fransisco. But the show in San Fransisco was not a big success, so Al tried again the next year in Oakland, California. Al first promoted his show as the National Roadster Show, but in the beginning the show was also known as the Oakland Roadster Show. The show was later renamed the Grand National Roadster Show.

Since 2004 Grand National Roadster Show has been owned by John Buck who made the controversal decision to move the show to the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona, Cal.
There was an extra hall added 2006, dubbed the Suede Palace, which displayed some of the area's coolest primered, down 'n' dirty hardcore rods and customs, and also hosted Saturday's Pinstripers Reunion and the first-ever Grand National Saturday Drive-In. This "show within the show" allowed several hundred local custom and rod owners to participate in the Grand National event by displaying their street-driven rides outside between the show buildings.

Results of every Grand National Roadster Show

2006 2007 2008 2009
1990 1991 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999
1980 1981 1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989
1970 1971 1972 1973 1974 1975 1976 1977 1978 1979
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1965 1966 1967 1968 1969
1950 1951 1952 1953 1954 1955 1956 1957 1958 1959


1999 Grand National Roadster Show - Golden Oldie

The Grand National Roadster Show Turns 50
From the February, 1999 issue of Hot Rod
By Gray Baskerville
Photography by HRM Archives

Fifty years ago, Galard "Al" Slonaker, a veteran Bay Area car show promoter, assembled a collection of new cars and imports under the "International Car Show" banner and staged the forerunner of a hot-rod institution-the Grand National Roadster Show.

To broaden spectator appeal, Slonaker sifted in a handful of Bay Area track roadsters and hot rods. He even booked-in some SoCal heros, including a pair of George Barris-built customs as well as Stu Hilborn's lakester. "We didn't know rods from roller skates," remembered Mary Slonaker, Al's wife, "but people liked them so much that Al decided the next year to hold a hot-rod-only car show.

"Al was the idea man," added Mary, "as well as a realist. He knew using the term 'hot rod' was still a no-no, so he substituted 'roadster' and called his second venue the National Roadster Show." "That would change 12 years later," added Dain Gingerelli, who, with veteran automotive photographer Andy Southard Jr., has produced a work entitled Oakland Roadster Show: 50 Years of Rods and Customs.

The first all hot-rod show, held January 19-22, 1950, at the Exposition building in downtown Oakland, California, featured crowd-controlling ropes anchored by 55-gallon drums filled with water, calling cards from pigeons roosting in the rafters, and 100 cars on display-including Bill Niekamp's lakes-bred '29, which became the first America's Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) winner. Among the 27,625 attendees were Hot Rod's Bob Petersen, Bob Lindsay, Wally Parks, Tom Medley, Griff Borgeson, and Motor Trend's Walt Waron.

From 1951 to 1957, the National Roadster Show was dominated by highly detailed street-driven cars. Slonaker instituted a Custom d'Elegance award for the custom-car crowd as tail-dragging lead sleds were becoming an increasingly important part of the show. He developed new classes for street roadsters, coupes, sedans, customs (from mild to wild), lakes cars, speedway cars, antiques, and sports cars. By '53, Slonaker had instituted the People's Choice award, thus bringing spectators into the collective. He even opened up the show to controversies, such as the mysterious Tucker, and allowed motorcycles to mix with their four-wheel kin.

"Even though these cars were becoming more and more specialized," recalled Barris, "they still had to function under their own power. They had to have working accessories, although mufflers were optional. So the big thrill was when all the participants would fire up their engines at the end of the show and drive out of the arena."

During this six-year span, many of the people who would make a name for themselves in hot rodding began as spectators. Veteran fuel racer Rich Guasco remembers entering his '29 five or six times before he won the AMBR trophy in 1961. "After each show," recalled Guasco, "I would fix all the 'bolts-not-pointed-in-the-right-direction' boo-boos the judges would find. By '61, I had sort of worn out the judges." Art Himsl, the famed Bay Area painter, started as an onlooker and then began striping cars in '55 on setup day. Perhaps Blackie Gejeian, the leader of the Fresno, California, gang, set the tone for all subsequent Oakland shows in '53 when he chromed and detailed the entire undercarriage of his '26 T-bodied lakes modified. "When I heard they were having a car show in Oakland (in '49), I had to go. That first one really wow'd me, so I did another roadster. Three years later, I took it to Oakland and began putting my car on its side three or four times a day so the people could see the undercarriage," continued Gejeian, "but that wore me out." Later, he and Richard Peters removed a full-length mirror from a restroom and stuck it under Peters' new car.

Gejeian's influence had its effect. "The boys from Fresno-Blackie, Richard Peters, Charles Krikorian," remembered George Barris, "demanded that their cars be as nice underneath as they were on top." In 1957, Peters commissioned Barris to build the ultimate ragtop: a hybrid '27/'29 roadster pickup that would totally change the direction of the nine-year-old National Roadster Show. The Barris Ala Kart raised the bar out of sight.

The Ala Kart literally stood everyone on their collective heads. Guasco: "I had never seen a car like Richie's-so exceptional, so above the other cars." Gejeian: "It was so far ahead of its time that it totally changed the emphasis from hot rods to show rods. It was a styling exercise drawn up in a coffee shop. It mixed an airbag suspension with a totally chrome-plated undercarriage." Barris: "It started as a '29 roadster pickup with a back body section taken from a '27 T roadster. The grille shell, three-piece hood, and pickup bed were handformed from aluminum. All four Model A fenders were bobbed, V-pointed, and completely metal finished the same as the top side. Then we covered the Ala Kart with 40 coats of white diamond dust of pearl and projected scallops in 'kandy' cerise and gold leaf, augmented by Dean Jefferies' pinstriping." It was, as Grand National Roadster Show's Rick Perry said, "the first all-out attempt made at winning the AMBR trophy."

Until the appearance of Peters' Ala Kart, the National Roadster Show was populated by home-brewed, owner-built cars. Its advent hastened the demise of the hot rod and the emergence of the candy-coated, pearl-flaked, angle-haired show-mobile. According to Gingerelli, "Bay Area customizer Joe Bailon was among the first to experiment with various paint systems in an attempt to achieve the same tone and texture as found on the deep, translucent color that gave the candy-covered apple its name. Meanwhile, the paint companies were offering quality gold powders, toners, and metallic mixers, so when Bailon dumped some powder into a can of Sherman-Williams maroon toner, he stumbled on the candy color."

By the '60s, the Oakland Roadster Show was an institution. Its original 4-day schedule had risen to 10 days, and the Fresno connection continued. Krikorian gave Barris the go ahead to build another show winner. Barris responded with the "Emperor." The 11th annual show (1960) was also mistakenly called the 12th. That would be corrected 25 years later.

The '60s, and its excesses, became the "experimental" era in more ways than one. For instance, the 12th Annual National Roadster Show featured two experimental cars-Andrew DiDi's X-61 dream car and Barris' XPAK 400, a collaboration that rode on air rather than rubber tires. Perry remembers the XPAK 400 being positioned on the floor over a war surplus parachute. "They would start it," said Perry, "and the vehicle would rise off the ground blowing the parachute. It was great!"

In 1961, after three years of eye-peeling, Barris-built glitter bugs, Rich Guasco took home the sequoia-sized trophy with an ultra traditional '29 roadster. To add yet another form to the mix, Bob Tindle, of Portland, Oregon, displayed his flopper-style '32 sedan powered by a front-mounted blown Olds. The hinged body tilted up from the front, neatly predating the Funny Car-style by seven years.

For 17 years following, the various AMBR winners would reflect the experimental concept pioneered by Barris and Peters. Jerry Woodward would display his Vortex X-1970 in 1962. Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, whose monster Ts were the rage, was asked by Slonaker to clean up his grubby act. The head Rat Fink replied by appearing in tails and a top hat over his usual mufti-an old pair of Levis and a well-worn t-shirt. Although Barris won with his "Twister T," a relatively sedate '27 T ragtop, Oakland was becoming Grand National Roadster Show "biz" big time.

During this time, Slonaker created the Tournament of Fame and awarded the winner a trip for two to the Paris Auto Show. Bill Cushenberry and his "Silhouette," bubble-top experimental-formed from 20-gauge sheetmetal and powered by a Buick engine-won the initial prize. The show was also becoming further out, as LeRoi "Tex" Smith nailed down the 9-footer with his Steve Swaja-designed XR6 '27 T-bodied roadster. Even the AMBR trophy, which was awarded to the current show owner, Don Tognotti, and his '14 T in '64, reverted to Carl Casper's "Ghost," a fanciful apparition powered by a two-stage blown Poncho in '65. In '66, the AMBR trophy went to Don Lockey's Barris-built T.

In '67, Slonaker moved the event to the Oakland Coliseum. Bob Reisner entered his two-motor "Invader," which illustrated how far America's Most Beautiful Roadster had strayed. Undoubtedly, Oakland was becoming Hollyweird. These wackos-which ran the gamut from a Chrysler-powered commode to a Lancia-powered wheelbarrow-generated the term "odd rod" and further illustrated the excesses of the '60s. Reisner's Invader was a repeat winner in '68 when the twin-engine "Phantasee" shared honors with Joe Wilhelm's "Wild Dream." Art Himsl took home the gold in '69 with his buggy-like "Alien."

Augmented by steam- and electric-powered record-breakers, the odd-rod element continued into the early '70s... but the AMBR trophy went to a real hot rod, created from one of Andy Brizio's "Instant T" kits. Andy had been building and entering these 'glass-bodied, Dragmaster-chassied, blown, Chevy-powered Ts since 1966, but they lacked what Himsl called "the essential ingredient." So in '70, he made Brizio a deal he couldn't resist. "You can win if you leave that roadster with me," Himsl told Brizio. Brizio built a nice car, but he didn't like 'goofy' paint jobs. Himsl changed all that with one of his patented, eyeballs-out creations.

Eventually, the success of Brizio's T lead to a number of like-bodied AMBR winners-Lonnie Gilbertson's candy red '23 T ('71), Chuck Corsello's T-bucket ('73), Jim Vasser's tall '14 T tub ('74), Lonnie Gilbertson's '23 T ('75), Bob Sbarbaro's '26 T touring ('76), and Jim Molino's '23 "Candy Man" ('77). Only John Corno's Russ Meeks-engineered rear motor, rear opening '30 A roadster was decidedly "different."

The two biggest changes to affect Oakland in the '70s were Slonaker's failing health (which forced his retirement in '73) and the subsequent sale of the show to Harold "Baggy" Bagdarsarian, Darryl Starbird, and Bill Roach. Roach sold his share to Starbird the following year, and Baggy created the Al Slonaker Award for best in class. A strict disciplinarian, Baggy formulized the show-20-percent late models, 20-percent red cars, 20-percent customs, and so on, giving pace to the presentation. The third big change occurred in '78 when Phil Cool won the AMBR with his blown Deuce highboy, thus returning the "prize" to normalcy.

  1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
This overview taken in 1951 helps illustrate the high quality of roadsters and customs (upper left) that were attracted to the second-annual show. The T in the foreground was equipped with Alexander OHV heads
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Forty-four years after the show began, its direction had changed completely. Note the proliferation of customs, motorcycles, closed cars, and racers.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Bill Niekamp, of Long Beach, California, and his Caddy Blue '29 won the first America's Most Beautiful Roadster (AMBR) trophy (foreground). The lakes-bred rod, now owned by Jim Jacobs, will also join the celebration in '99.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
After a run that lasted from 1949 to 1972, Al and Mary Slonaker hung it up and left the Bay Area. For a couple who didn't know "roller skates from roadsters," the Slonakers did OK by creating the grandaddy of 'em all.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Richard Peters, of Fresno, California, had George Barris build a radical new car. Peters unveiled his monumental Ala Kart at the '58 National Roadster Show and blew the troops away.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
In cobwebs since the early '70s, the Ala Kart will be restored by Hershel "Junior" Conway (left) for its new owner, Richard Price (right).
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
After two consecutive AMBR wins, Peters retired the Ala Kart. His pal Charles Krikorian commissioned George Barris to create the "Emperor," a channeled '29, and took home the gold. In '63, Slonaker began the Ornament of Fame. In '64 Dean Jeffries won the prize with his stunning Mantaray (right).
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Rich Guasco finally broke through with his super-traditional '29 roadster and dethroned Barris. Guasco, always a roadster guy, eventually built the famed "Pure Hell" fuel altered.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Although Oakland was for roadsters, Bob Tindle's "Orange Crate" was hard to beat. The Portland, Oregon-based, '32 sedan, with its detailed blown Olds and "flopper" body, made the February 1962 cover of HRM.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Hot Rod's own LeRoi "Tex" Smith, bitten by the roadster-show bug in '63, teamed up with Barris, Gene Winfield, Tony Nancy, and automotive designer Steve Swaja (next to engine) to build the winning XR6.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Don Tognotti's '14 T-the oldest car ever to compete at Oakland-had enough chrome and character to get the AMBR trophy. Its handmade IRS and wheels were trendsetting.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Perhaps the final straw was a series of whimsical wonders such as the "Paddy Wagon," "My Mother the Car," "The Elegant Farmer," or Reisner's "Adam and Eve," a mind boggling mix of two tubs and a "turlet" powered by a two-stage blown Hemi.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
The AMBR winners became more outlandish, as exemplified by Carl Casper's 'glass-bodied "phantasee," aptly named "Casper's Ghost," or Bob Reisner's "Invader"-a Don Borth-bodied dragoon powered by two Pontiac V-8s.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
In '70, sano-T returned in the form of Andy Brizio's "Instant T," which was among the first of the kit cars. Although all of Brizio's roadster pickups were detail freaks, Art Himsl's psychedelic paint did the deed.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
The parade of Ts stopped in 1978 after Phil Cool (Redwood City, California) won with his blown big-block-powered Deuce.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Few craftsmen have influenced modern street rodding more than Little John Buttera. In 1980, John Corno entered one of "Lil's" creations with AMBR-winning results. Note Buttera's trademark milled-aluminum firewall, rocker covers, and knock-off wheels.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Brizio's T led to a series of similar winners that were interrupted in '72, when John Corno (left) and his lengthened '30 roadster stole the show. The back-opening body, hinged on a tube frame, covered a rear-mounted '68 Olds Tornado engine and transaxle.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Two years after Corno won his second gold, Boyd Coddington assembled a semiphantom '33 for Jamie Musselman and built the first of five AMBR winners. Musselman's roadster-currently being restored at Coddington's-will be at the golden oldie.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Perhaps the most sophisticated roadster ever to win the AMBR, Jim McNamara's Don Thelan-built black and candy purple '33 still sets the standard for taste and style.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
At the end of the '80s, Ermie Immerso won three consecutive AMBRs-starting with an Ardun-powered full-fendered '32 and ending with "Golden Star, a '25 T-bodied track roadster urged by a twin-cam Ford Indy engine.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
During a roast focusing on yours truly and Brizio, Brizio challenged the onlookers to begin driving their cars. Dennis Varni, who took home the gold in '92, responded with his wild chingo to Indy.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Winning the AMBR is all about attention to detail. When Joe MacPherson decided to try his hand at the AMBR game, he collared the talents of Steve Davis, Art and Mike Chrisman, Tony Nancy, and Junior Conway to field the most detailed AMBR champ of all time.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Custom-car presence at Oakland began in '49 when Barris brought two of his. John D'Agostino, one of the country's top custom builders, claims his "Golden Starfire," a '61 Olds with its '61 Merc grille, was one of his favorites.
1989 America's Most Beautiful Roadster
Legendary Tom Prufer entered his first car at Oakland in 1959. "I've had the most, not the best, just the most, and I'm coming back this year with a chopped, channeled, and sectioned '32 three-window." He entered a similar-bodied coupe in '93.



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