Locals show off hot rods at the Autorama

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Ernest Conigliaro of St. Clair Shores brings his 1985 Ford Mustang GT to Autorama.

Harrison Township resident Frank Schwenck took three years to restore his 1971 Dodge Demon.

Photo provided by Frank Schwenck

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ST. CLAIR SHORES/HARRISON TOWNSHIP – Some were inspired by their childhood and others by the challenge of presenting a classic-looking vehicle with modern conveniences. But no matter where their inspiration came from, local hot-rod owners had the space to share their excitement when the Autorama burst into town in March.

“I completely tore the car apart and put it back together,” Ernest Conigliaro of St. Clair Shores said of his 1985 Ford Mustang GT.

He’s owned the vehicle for about seven years, but added a new engine, a 393 Windsor and a TKO 600 transmission for show, he said.

Conigliaro is part of the Detroit Foxbodys, a group that all owns Mustangs built between 1979 and 1993, which was considered a Fox Body. Along with their exhibit, the Makers Garage will also feature Michigan-made wheels and other custom parts.

“We all get together and go there. Finally, we all have all our cars running at the same time, which is rare. Usually two to three of them are in a garage, on candles,” he said.

He first became interested in Mustangs because his neighbor owned a 1968 Mustang Fastback.

“Since then it’s just been a money pit,” he joked. “We go to the drag strip a few times a year with it. We hope to reduce the times on it this year.

Although he has attended the Autorama several times in the past, this is the first time that Conigliaro has brought his car to the show. Although he did the work himself, he appreciates the advice and help of other owners like Steve Loef, a local drag racer.

“Since I was little, (I went) every year and begged everyone to sit in the cars. Now it will be fun to have kids who want to sit in our cars,” Conigliaro said.

He said he was happy to inspire the next generation of car enthusiasts.

“Now the kids are looking at you and wanting you to burn the tires or rev the engine, that’s about the best,” he said.

Meguiar’s Detroit Autorama was canceled in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but is returning to Detroit’s Huntington Place (the former Cobo Center) March 4-6.

“Detroit Autorama was the nation’s most revered premier hot rod custom car show,” Peter Toundas, president and owner of Championship Auto Shows Inc., the producer of Detroit Autorama, said in a press release. “It was heartbreaking to have to cancel the event last year. That’s why we’re so thrilled to be back…and we know hot rod/custom car enthusiasts can’t wait to see the best of the best.

Another local car enthusiast at Autorama was Arthur Drayton of St. Clair Shores, who took an old northern police car – a station wagon – and made some custom modifications to make it worthy of showing off at Autorama.

The 1994 purple Chevrolet station wagon now has a custom hood, custom rear wheel arches, fiberglass interior features and a Corvette engine.

He said he had the car for seven years, but it sat for about six of those years until he decided to modify it for the show.

“I do all the work myself,” he said. “It’s a special car. We always had it, but it sat more than we even rode it.

He said the vehicle isn’t a type you usually see at Autorama, which appealed to him.

“It’s a good place to show talent, and I just thought it would be a good flavor to add,” he said.

Harrison Township resident Frank Schwenck took three years to restore the orange and black 1971 Dodge Demon he brought to the show. The car now includes features that make it even better than when it rolled off the line, he said.

“People want an older car that has newer engines, newer transmissions, newer equipment,” he explained. “There are options in this car that weren’t even available” in 1971.

In addition to a 392 Hemi engine and six-speed transmission, the “restomod,” as Schwenck calls it, now has power windows, a rear-view camera, Bluetooth capabilities, and air conditioning, among other “creature characteristics”.

“It was a big part of my engineering to fit it, but there are other people involved to help me figure it out,” he said.

Bringing a car to Autorama is a “national validation of your work,” he said.

“You judge it to see where you stand with the group (of) other people who are your peers.”

This was the second time John Wenner of Harrison Township brought his red 2001 Ford Mustang Cobra to Autorama.

“I got it from my son. He had a baby, so I took him back, and of course his son says when I’m done to give him back to his dad,” said Wenner, who owns the car since 2013. “I’ve been having a lot of fun with it.”

He and his son worked hard on the car, which his son first acquired in 2004 with just 1,700 miles. It has been lowered and has special rims as well as modifications to the engine.

“It turns a lot of heads,” he said.

He took the car to the Autorama two years ago and was pleasantly surprised to take sixth place.

“To see others there who were nice too… I was very happy,” he said.

It did a lot of work before this year’s Autorama put it in show condition, he said.

“I drive it. It’s not a show car, but I really take care of it,” he said.

For more information on the Detroit Autorama, visit www.autorama.com.

Call editor Kristyne E. Demske at (586) 498-1041.

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