By Howard Koby
When I attended my first Grand National Roadster Show a number of years ago, I first thought I made a wrong turn somewhere, because I was convinced I had entered an automotive museum or an art gallery.
The first show — in 1950 — was organized by Al Slonaker in Oakland, California — it was originally known as the Oakland Roadster Show.
The Grand National — now called the O’Reilly Auto Parts Grand National Roadster Show — is now in its 73rd year, and it is the longest-running indoor car show in the world. The show moved to Southern California’s Pomona Fairplex in 2004 — near the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum.
Each Grand National now attracts 1,000 exquisite show cars, muscle cars, customs, trucks, roadsters, and motorcycles to the Pomona Fairplex, and more than 600 awards are presented.
Back to the start
As the story goes, Al and Mary Slonaker were cruising by the Circle Diner in Oakland, California and spotted a bunch of hot-rodders hanging around and asked them if they would like to show their rides at the Oakland Exposition building. They jumped at the idea and brought their hot rods to the show.
It was such a success that next year the show was named the Grand National Roadster Show.
From the very start, each Grand National was fantastic exhibit of automotive ingenuity that served as a platform for all the creativity and passion that are a hallmark of hot rod and custom car builders.
Hot rodding sprang to life when young soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines returned from World War II with vast stores of mechanical knowledge earned while servicing aircraft and military vehicles of all types.
Those young veterans found joy in building amazing cars, and they created a movement that lasts to this day.
A traveling show
Southern California’s Pomona’s Fairplex is a Mecca for hot rodding and drag racing. Pomona’s sticky quarter-mile track is legendary in the drag racing world. When I was a contributing photographer for many Petersen car magazines back in the day, I used to plant myself in thee stands with my motorized Nikon camera to catch images of Top Fuel Dragsters and Funny Cars ripping across the finish line.
To this day, the ultimate goal for Grand National entrants is winning the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster Award for builders of 1937 and earlier production-based roadsters, roadster pickups, Phaetons, and touring cars.
During this year’s show, held on February 3-5, judging was based on personal expertise. Paint, fit and finish, engine, interior, chassis/undercarriage, craftsmanship, and overall design and flow are scrutinized by a team of expert judges.
“We’re excited about this year’s unique gathering of iconic builds, innovative newer vehicles and custom work that will shape the industry for years to come,” said John Buck, producer of the event.
While the competition for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster is the highlight of the show, eight exhibit halls were crammed with amazing builds.
The 17th Annual Granddaddy Drive-In was amazing, with hundreds of hot rods and customs on the scene each day.
The big awards for 2023
The winner of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster gets their name etched onto a 9.5-foot-tall perpetual trophy — winners also get a scaled-down version along with a check for $12,500 to take home. Most importantly, the 2023 winner joined the ranks of George Barris, Art Himsl, Boyd Coddington and Chip Foose. Nine finalists were vying for the big prize, and the the top prize went to Jack Chisenhall’s “The Champ Deuce,” an owner-built 1932 Ford Roadster high boy built in his San Antonio shop. This masterpiece is finished in a mirror-smooth black paint and powered by a 355-ci early Dodge Hemi and delivers 420 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. The engine has cast aluminum heads and machined one-off stack throttle body fuel injection.
The very prestigious Al Slonaker Memorial Award, which can go to any entrant except a roadster, went to a Jet Age-inspired 1960 Buick Invicta Custom owned by George and Angela Eliacostas. who also received a $12,500 check and had their names inscribed on the trophy.
One Slonaker contender that caught my eye was Cody Wall’s 1949 Buick Sedanette “E-Job,” which ended up winning the Triple Gun Award of Excellence Award.
I caught up with Walls after he won his big award.
“The inspiration to build this car was to create a show-stopping vehicle for my wife,” Walls said. “The car is based off the 1938 Buick Y-Job Concept that is considered the world’s first concept car. My wife actually drives the car to go shopping.”