The 2016 Detroit Autorama, one of the largest and most important shows in American hot rodding, was held late February this year in the Cobo Center, just across the river from Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
But you didn’t need a set of binoculars if you were trying to spy “Ontario” licence plates from the show floor–dozens of cars right there in the hall were wearing them.
“There’re quite a few Canadian cars, though not as many as I’d like to see,” says Bill Darmon, owner of Xcentrick Auto Sports garage in Oldcastle, Ontario.
“Canadians, they do their cruises, their shows, but they’re always worried about crossing the border—it’s not as bad as they think.”
Darmon’s shop had brought five cars with them to the Autorama this year, including two Shelby Cobra replicas, a Mustang convertible and a ’34 Ford, and said they weren’t hassled at all coming into the U.S. Their reception at the show has been warm, too.
“I’ve been talking to guys from North Carolina, from Texas, from Tennessee, and all over, and it’s nice to be able to compare yourself to someone from, say, California, and get ideas.”
Perhaps just as importantly, Darmon’s coming over and exhibiting his cars at the Autorama demonstrates that the quality of Canadian hot rodding can match its American counterpart—and even occasionally beat it.
Prime real estate
One of the first cars you’ll see walking into the main hall is a bright red 1966 Nova with carbon-fibre trim. That’s Neil Blackie’s, of Grimsby, Ontario.
“I was fortunate that they gave me this spot. I’m mixed in with a lot of Ridler contenders,” he says, referring to the cars hoping to take home the Autorama’s Don Ridler Memorial Award, the most prestigious honour in hot rodding.
“I spoke with the show promoter, and he said, ‘Well, we like your car!’ I guess a bright red car attracts people.”
Blackie found the car in New Brunswick in 2005; it was a tired orange-red stocker with a no-name V8, and it only took a summer with it for him to ship it to Randy Colyn Restoration and Hot Rods to have it restomodded.
Colyn had finished a ’65 Acadian for Blackie previously, and he wanted something done in a similar style—until he landed a deal on an LS1 and decided to go full Pro Touring with the Nova post car.
(Post cars, unlike the more popular hardtops, have solid B-pillar pieces fixed to both the door and bodyside, like a sedan. “It’s a little different,” Blackie says.)
The 10-year build bowed at Motorama in Toronto in spring 2015, then went on to Buffalo, New York; and Montreal, a former hometown for Blackie. He never expected to show it in Detroit, though.
“Quite a few Canadians come to the show – I even know quite a few – but, yeah, people are asking questions and taking lots of pictures,” he says of the crowd reaction. “I just got invited to go to Chicago for a show next week there, in fact!”
Andy Gavula’s car was also not that far from the Ridler contenders up front, and also earned plenty of hat tips from Canadian showgoers—not because of where it was registered, however, but where it was built.
The Johnson City, New Yorker had the ’67 Plymouth GTX he bought new transformed by Peter Klutt’s Legendary Motorcar Company in Halton Hills, Ontario, just outside of Toronto.
“It came out perfectly,” Gavula says. “But I had to have some guidance [from Legendary].” The shop finished the build, dubbed “Gold Rush,” in four years, shoving a 572-cube Hemi underhood and fitting it with a hidden audio system and custom dash.
Show—but go, too
Well toward the back were Darmon’s five builds, including the ’34 Ford that perhaps should have earned a spot closer to the doors.
“We have a lot of people asking us why aren’t we up with the Ridler cars up front, because it’s close to that calibre, and that’s because we build these cars to drive.”
Darmon explained owner Tony Peressini is simply “not a show guy” – he doesn’t even own a trailer – and doesn’t care about awards. “He wants to just commute to work and back and go to cruises in a car that nobody else has.”
“Anybody that can afford a Ferrari has the risk of pulling up next to another Ferrari. That’s why this guy got rid of his Ferraris.”
Darmon – who started Xcentrick six years ago after leaving the Canadian Navy, and whose shop has grown so quickly it already has a nine-month waiting list – built the “Road Kill R” by wrapping a fibreglass replica ’34 Ford body around a ruined 2013 Camaro ZL1’s running gear.
The car not only has the ZL1’s LSA V8 – now tweaked to roughly 825 horsepower – but also its taillights and HID projector headlights; its OnStar system and backup camera and sensors; and its eight-way power seats and A/C.
At a scant 2,600 lbs, Darmon says Road Kill R will move down the quarter-mile somewhere in the eight-second range and then on up to a speed comparable to any modern supercar.
“Obviously coming to the States is a little more intimidating,” he says, referring to the high-quality builds parked throughout the Cobo Center. “There’s a lot more marketing and a lot more open money in the States.”
But he shouldn’t have worried; Road Kill R ended up taking first place in its class at Autorama, plus Best Engine.
Beating them at their own game
Over the past few years, in fact, Canadians taking home American trophies has almost become somewhat of a trend. Two years ago, the winner of the Ridler Award was a Buick Riviera built by JF Launier, who’s based in British Columbia.
And the winner of last year’s Ridler, featured heavily in the promotional materials for this year’s Autorama, was “Impostor,” an Impala built by California-based hot rodding icon Chip Foose, but owned by B.C. residents Don and Elma Voth.
(That car, incidentally, will be on display at the Motorama in Toronto this weekend, March 11 through 13.)
With a smaller but just as vibrant hot rod culture, Canadians have no competing on a level on par with that of the U.S. “Canada has a huge, huge hot rod industry, it’s just not as openly shown as it should be,” agrees Darmon. He understands, however, how this may come as a shock to some.
“This weekend I had a handful of people tell me, ‘I thought you guys just play hockey and live in igloos?’” he relates. “And I tell them we do, but obviously we like to get to our igloos really fast.”