From its humble beginnings as a two day hot rod show in November of 1950, the Sacramento Autorama stands as the premier showcase of the radical custom and exotic show carc. The Sacramento area has evolved to be known as "The Custom Car Capitol of the World". Each year, thousands of spectators make the annual trek to California's capitol city to view the latest in chopped, channeled, sectioned and chromed cars as well as hot rods, pickups, motorcycles, muscle cars and street machines.
The Autorama was started by Sacramento businessman Harold "Baggy" Bagdasarian. In 1950, while serving as president of the Capitol City Auto Club Thunderbolts, he talked the members into having a show to settle friendly arguments over the outstanding merits of their personal customized cars. The Capitol Chevrolet Company dealership at 13th and K Streets in downtown Sacramento was the site of the first gathering, which attracted 22 entries and 500 spectators. "We took in $262 in two days at 74 cents a head," Baggy recalled. "We didn't charge 75 cents because we would have gotten involved in the Federal Amusement Tax." The first Best Custom Car trophy went to Leroy Semas for his 1937 Chevrolet coupe, and Burton Davis was the winner for Best Rod with his 1931 Ford Roadster.
Though income did not quite meet expenses in 1950, Bagdasarian persuaded the Thunderbolt members to try it again. The date was rescheduled for April 19 and 20, 1952, but the location changed to the Newton Cope Buick Company showroom at 15th and J Streets. There were 32 local car entries, along with a few cars from the San Francisco/Oakland Bay area. The spectator count grew to more than 1,000 and the Best Custom trophy was awarded to a beautiful 1941 Chevrolet built by the legendary Joe Bailon, then of San Leandro.
Following the second Autorama, the Thunderbolts were hesitant to continue due to expenses. But an optimistic Bagdasarian, encouraged by the increased attendance, was convinced that the event had the potential for being a real winner. Baggy promoted the show without the Thunderbolts' backing. It became apparent that a more suitable location was needed for expansion so he rented the Memorial Auditorium and teamed with the late John Gliebe, a motorsports publicist to increase public awareness.
The Third Autorama was a three-day show in late January 1953. This was the first time the name "Autorama" was used, since the exhibits expanded to include all types of hot rods, customs, motorcycles, race cars, boats and specialty vehicles. A theater area for the showing of various racing events, such as the Indianapolis 500 was introduced as well. The event drew 70 entries and nearly 8,000 spectators, including famed sportsman J.C. Agajanian, whose Number 98 Indianapolis car was one of the specialty entries.
The 1954 Sacramento Autorama and Motor Sports Review utilized both the main floor and basement of the Memorial Auditorium, and attendance of nearly 9,000. In 1955, the Autorama was shifted to the 33,000 square foot Merchandise Mart Building at the old California State Fairgrounds on Stockton Boulevard. By 1958, the large crowds and success made a five-day Autorama a reality. After the 1963 show saw nearly 30,000 attendees it was moved to the larger Women's Building on the fairgrounds for 1964. Vehicle entries were up to 150 and in 1966 the adjacent Governor's Hall was used to increase floor space.
In 1970, Bagdasarian moved the Autorama into three buildings at the Cal Expo. Entries increased to about 175 and two of the buildings were used for displays. The third was converted to a 1,500 seat movie theater. The Sacramento Autorama has expanded to more buildings to accommodate its present day exhibition of nearly 300 of the most spectacular vehicles in the world.
Bagdasarian carried on with the show through the 70's and 80's. In the late 80's he teamed with Sacramento's Don Tognotti, who produced the Sacramento Autorama until Feb 1999. the show is currently produced by John Buck Enterprises, Inc and the rodshows.com volunteers.
During its 59 years, spectators at the Autorama have enjoyed entries from the most notable custom car builders of all time. The exhibit halls have been flavored with works of art from George Barris and the Late Sam Barris, Joe Bailon, Dick Bertolucci, Andy and Roy Brizio, Boyd Coddington, Ed and Roy Cortopassi, Joe Cruces, Frank DeRosa, Sam and Chip Foose, Blackie Gejeian, Ermie Immerso, Tommy Ivo, Romeo Palamides, Bill Reasoner, Don Tognotti, Dennis Varni and Gene Winfield, just to name a few.
Creations such as Golden Sahara, Golden Sahara ll, Munster Koach, Batmobile, Platinum LeMans, Kopper Kart, Surf Woody, Green Voodoo, King T, Glass Slipper, Orange Twist, Golden Star, Mantaray, and the awesome Palamides jet-powered dragsters have been show-stoppers.
The Autorama has established several Special Awards in honor of the customizing industry's pioneers. When Sam Barris passed away in 1967, a memorial award was begun by his close friend Harold Bagdasarian - the "Sam Barris Memorial Award." This trophy is awarded each year for the best use of metal and paint on an all-metal car, because Sam Barris excelled in metal work.
In 1991, an award was created to perpetuate the name of the Autorama's founder. The "Harold Bagdasarian Award for the World's Most Beautiful Custom" is presented to a custom car from 1936 to the present that features a silhouette change, including chopped, channeled and/or sectioned bodywork.
Other premier prizes at the Autorama have included "The Joe Bailon Award", begun in 1992 and presented to the vehicle owner that has done his or her own bodywork and paint, along with "The Harry Bradley Design Achievement Award" (1996-1999). In 2000 "The Dick Bertolucci Award for Automotive Excellence” took over the Bradley award. This prestigious accolade will be awarded to the owner of a 1972 or older hot rod or custom car entry that meets Bertolucci's personal criteria for "assembly, fit, finish and detail."
Hundreds of dazzling vehicles and displays are the key ingredients of the famous Sacramento Autorama, which continues into a new century as one of the country's most popular car events. The tradition, which started out as a simple friendly competition among a few friends, carries on.
John Buck and the rodshows.com team are proud to be associated with the Autorama and look forward to anther 60 years of traditions.