The Art Car Parade isn’t

…a parade of art cars, unless your definition of “art car” is broad enough to include such works as beaters festooned with plastic fruit and ersatz parade floats with mundane themes. Mine isn’t.

Maybe I’m misreading the title, but what’s missing from this annual Houston parade of the pointless and tacky is the “car” part. Notwithstanding a few I once owned, cars generally move under their own power, and should not require towing like a parade float (grounds for disqualification, in my view).

But that’s not my main gripe. This is: the application of the pretentious and grandiose label of “art car” to objects that mostly fall well short. “Goofy Car Parade” or Car-toon” would better meet truth-in-labeling guidelines.

Don’t get me wrong; the parade is great fun nonetheless, and a few diamonds in the stream of costume jewelry flowing by save it (barely). Anyway, part of the art car experience is watching authentic and would-be Art People leavening the crowd. People-watching is an area where the ACP delivers the goods, but if you came to see art cars, at least in some higher sense of the idea, you’re out of luck.

You’re out of luck at the ACP, at least. But if looking at art cars is your ambition, then I have good news: every year, starting on Thanksgiving Day, Autorama displays a stunning collection of custom cars, hot rods, race cars, classics, antiques, and other wheeled vehicles that far eclipses the Art Car Parade in every aspect, including sheer quantity.

What you see at Autorama are art cars that rate the label. Some are simply spectacular. These cars are examples of automotive-based creativity, style, and craftsmanship done at the world-class level, and some have to be seen to be believed. An element of humor is often present that’s as least as funny—and not nearly as slapstick—as anything I’ve ever seen at the ACP. Eyewitnesses will testify I have nothing against lowbrow humor, but that’s mostly where ACP’s wit dwells.

Another difference is this: almost all of Autorama’s cars can move under their own power. Boy, do they ever—no matter what else gets done, at the top of the to-do list for most of these projects is Make It Go Faster.

So… If these are art cars, then who are the artists? Good question. The custom car and hot rod world is dominated by some real celebrities. George Barris, Gene Winfield, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth arguably are the three giants of what could be called the High Classical Period of custom cars. Tom Wolfe once called Roth the Salvador Dali of custom cars. If that’s the case, then George Barris is the Da Vinci, and Gene Winfield is the Michaelangelo.

Over years of attending Autorama I managed to meet all three. When I was a high school car junkie drooling over the magazines—Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, and Car Craft—I never imagined I would someday meet the guys celebrated in these pages. I later became a foreign car snob and eschewed the “dirty tee-shirt crowd,” as we called the hot rodders. This attitude was inflamed on a monthly basis by a new set of magazines: Road & Track, Car and Driver, and Sports Car Graphic. But I retained respect and admiration for what Barris, Winfield, and Roth—and many others—accomplished. It’s still a blast to see it now.

You may not know the artists, but it’s possible you know the art. Southern California-based Barris and Winfield created many cars for movies and television, including the Batmobile, Jed Clampett’s jalopy, the Back-to-the-Future De Lorean, and many more.

The custom car and hot rod “scene” has been a part of American life for many decades. Art cars as conceived by the Houston parade have a lot of catching up to do, and at the rate they’re going it’s not going to happen. At least not until art cars produce giants like the “Kings of the Kustomizers,” as they were called. Otherwise, they should be called what they are, not what they aren’t.

As the role of cars evolves and impressionable teenagers continue to retreat inside digital devices, it’s easy to imagine this world waning. But I wonder. At Autorama this year, Gene Winfield, in his 80s, could be seen performing a demonstration in his booth. As the Master effortlessly created a perfectly curved lip on a piece of sheet metal and fitted it precisely to a custom car in progress, a new generation of students watched in rapt attention.

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