At Houston’s AutoRama, kitschy cars and colorful characters thrive

November 25, 2018

The aroma of engine fumes and artificially buttered popcorn wafts through the George R. Brown Convention Center on a Saturday afternoon, spectators gawking at the gleaming rows of old, new, restored or distressed cars and hot rods.

It’s Houston’s 59th annual AutoRama, a nationwide convention that serves as a tribute to the craftsmanship, creativity and ingenuity of motorheads across the state and fully embraces the variety and kitschiness of car culture. It’s one of the only places in America where souped-up Corvettes, hood open displaying its muscular engine in full glory, share real estate with a 1936 Chevrolet school bus.

The AutoRama also reflects the diversity of its host city, rife with characters from different backgrounds eager to share the stories of how they acquired their vehicles.

There’s Tim Sailaka, 69, who runs an airport and flight school in Danbury, waxing down his red 1963 split-window Corvette with a terry cloth. Sailaka is a Corvette connoisseur — he calls the classic sports car “a work of art” — who stumbled upon this particular model when he overheard two kids talking about an old corvette that sat in the shed of a car paint store in Freeport. Sailaka made an offer to the owner to salvage it and trailered it home himself, much to the chagrin of his wife, who took one look at the dismantled old car and rolled her eyes.

“She said, ‘Oh, you got took,’” Sailaka said. “And then it wins these big shows, so now I lean over to her and say, ‘No, you got took.’”

Nearby, Adolfo Ortega, 18, dusts off a vibrant, candy magenta 2001 Chevy Silverado pickup truck with Day-Glo rainbow decals streaking along the side and chrome rims that sparkle under the white lights of the convention center. Ortega and his father bought the truck from his boss, and with the help of Pistolera Paint and Art Supplies, put a ton of work into customizing it to look similar to the lowriders he grew up admiring as a young boy in California.

“I started off with lowriders when I was five, just intrigued,” Ortega said. “I loved the chrome on it, everything that’s chrome is supposed to be there. It’s not overdone, not too little. It’s a truck look with a low rider style so it’s Texas meets California.”

Ortega gestures over to a group of true lowrider coupes in the back of the convention center to make his point. A car club called Latin Kustoms has its own showcase, complete with a lime green Chevy coupe —- with the words “Greengo Money” painted on the trunk — tilted on its wire-spoke wheels to illustrate the bouncing effect it gets from the custom hydraulic systems installed.

Robert Ramos, 37, a member of the Latin Kustoms club from Pasadena, explains how they are able to get the vertical bounce that lowriders are famous for without destroying cars not engineered for such activity.

“First, you gotta have some good coils, the coils give the car that bounce and you gotta have the right power to push those coils, so you’ve got to have a good hydraulic system to be able to push that car,” Ramos said. “Pumps and coils they gotta work together. You can have a good pump and bad coils and you’re not going anywhere.”

Unlike many motorheads who restore cars primarily to showcase them at auto shows, Ramos, who bought a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and restored it in the lowrider oeuvre — charcoal gray paint job, candy apple red interior, LS2 engine — enjoys putting rubber to the road as often as possible.

“I try to enjoy it, we got a lot of money in that car, my kids love it, family loves it,” he said. “We’ll pull it out on a Sunday and take it for a cruise.”

In the middle of the convention center, Ruben Garcia, 70, holds court among a flank of three vintage 1932 Ford coupes, wearing a newsboy cap, bowtie, vest, and slacks, very much looking the part of the era his three cars belong to.

A native of Monterrey, Mexico, Garcia grew up adoring old cars and working in body shops for free as a young boy. Garcia immigrated to the United States in 1978 “with blue jeans full of holes,” and gained enough skills as a construction worker to start his own business. Over time, he was able to afford to indulge his hobby. Garcia built the three Fords from scratch, going to swap meets all over the country to buy parts and surfing eBay for old engines. Garcia added some modern flourishes: each car has a different engine than its original. His cobalt blue 1932 Ford Roadster, for instance, has a Chevrolet engine.

“It’s an engine CC430, you can buy from Chevrolet,” Garcia said. “Pretty good size. The funny thing is most of the people see a nice Ford and ask why you put a Chevrolet engine for some reason.”

That threading of the needle between true vintage models with more modern accessories is a draw for spectators.

“I like the fact that they’re old cars that look brand new, and all the detail that goes into building such a beautiful car,” said Christopher Williams, who quizzed Garcia about whether he could help him restore his 1969 Camaro.

But Garcia insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is not a professional. A resident of Spring, he has a small shop on Parker Road in Houston where he works on his cars. He pulls out his cell phone to show a photo of a 1934 Ford five-window coupe that he hopes will be his next restoration project if he can muster the energy.

“It’s been sitting in my shop for 25 years, I bought it 25 years ago and probably never going to put it together because I got so much junk,” he said. “I’m 70 years old. I’m gonna enjoy what I got.”


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