America’s greatest hot rods, re-created in precision scale

Here’s how all this got started. I was watching the Cars.TV channel on cable when it segued into a 30-minute wrap of the most recent Grand National Roadster Show, as it’s now called. For 72 years (COVID claimed the 2021 edition), this show has presented the most prestigious award in hot rodding, the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award, most recently captured by the ultra-smooth, flamed 1932 Ford of Monte Belsham. In the world of hot rodding, which is indisputably a serious part of American automotive design heritage, the AMBR is it, the everything, the most-desired prize. At one time, winning it often meant that a plastics manufacturer might reproduce the car in scale as an assembly kit. And it one didn’t, a coterie of very skillful and practiced model builders would find the right mixture of leftover kit parts, paint and putty to make it themselves. There used to be a whole universe of magazines, suppliers and shows that supported modelers like these. To an extent, they still exist. The worlds of automotive styling, full-size rodding and scale automotive modeling are close cousins, so it’s fitting that there’s a field of honor for those who seriously build automobiles in miniature. Seeing the AMBR program on TV made me think of one such manifestation.

What you see above is the result of a museum effort to recreate the AMBR vibe, all of it, in 1/25th scale, including its longtime home. The guy in the T-shirt is Ken Hamilton, who constructed the scale replica behind him, an actual, proportionally accurate model of the Oakland Coliseum, which hosted the roadster show for decades before it moved to its current home at the Los Angeles County Fairplex in Pomona. We’ll get to the model, and how it happened, in a minute. Ken is an extremely serious and gifted scale modeler, and likely the only person in history to win both a Gold Award for excellence from the National Model Railroad Association and a class award at the GSL International Scale Vehicle Championship, widely considered the world’s most prestigious and competitive model car competition. Talent-wise, he’s got both feet in some very deep water. I found out that like me at the time, Ken lived in South Jersey, so I wrote a newspaper feature on the lighthearted car-themed dioramas he created, which I’d seen in Scale Auto Enthusiast. That story helped get me hired at Hemmings Motor News. Today, Ken lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where his work is curated and displayed at Lowcountry Artists Gallery, where as a resident artist, he creates 3D studies that make extensive use of traditional modeling and detailing skills that he possesses copiously.

The GSL Championship is organized in large part by Utah attorney Mark Gustavson, himself a top-level automotive modeler, through the institution he founded, the International Model Car Builders’ Museum, which like the contest is in Salt Lake City. Mark decided to salute the AMBR and its link to automotive modeling by commissioning a special exhibit for the museum: A 1/25th replica of the Oakland Coliseum with the winning cars as they existed to that date. An all-star lineup of modelers contributed the minutely detailed cars themselves, but thanks to his diorama excellence, Ken became the building contractor.

Let’s explain what was involved here. The model of the coliseum was constructed entirely from scratch, primarily from plywood, with fold-down sides and a slide-up rear door for photo access. The skylights and all interior lighting are fully functional, the latter originally illuminated, pre-LED, with grain-of-wheat incandescent bulbs. There are working colored-light wheels, just like the car shows used to have, powered by electric motors underneath the coliseum floor. See the interior roof bracing? It’s all scratchbuilt, using scaled-down plans of the actual building that Ken created, the structures made from hand-cut, -shaped and -glued lengths of styrene beams, tubes and sheets from Evergreen Scale Models, a company everybody in this world knows intimately, which donated materials to the Oakland Coliseum project.

Here’s the finished exhibit as it appears today on the museum’s website. How many of these landmark rods and customs can you name? If you like what you see, check out Ken’s subsequent work, which can be commissioned.

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