Flathead Ford V-8s don’t attract many “likes” on Facebook.
And hardly anyone ever tweets about flamed paint or ancient Fenton custom wheels.
Nonetheless, the old-school AutoRama cruises noisily along, offering a celebration of hot rods, customs, muscle cars and trucks — most of them from the last century.
“Digital is not relevant to shows like this,” said Dale Minnix, show director at Michigan-based Championship Auto Shows Inc., which stages 15 shows nationwide.
“You have to be there to see and get close to these cars to really appreciate them,” Minnix said.
Some people had expected custom-car shows to fade along with aging baby boomers, their primary participants.
“About 60 percent of our die-hard demographic is getting older,” said Pete Toundas, president of privately held Championship Auto Shows.
And while attendance today is not as great as in the ‘80s — a peak for many car shows — the 15 AutoRama and World of Wheels events last year attracted 732,000 people, officials said.
That’s an average of 48,800 per show, more than enough to keep AutoRama’s profile fairly high in the automotive world.
“They are a big part of our business, and my feeling is they will go on for another 53 years,” said Peter MacGillivray, vice president of communications and events at the giant California-based Specialty Equipment Market Association.
The shows have faced plenty of challenges over the last decade.
About 10 years ago, Toundas and other officials began to worry about what they would do as boomers aged.
“We were asking how this $50 billion (specialty-car) industry was going to reinvent itself,” Toundas recalled.
When the national economy collapsed in 2008, Championship dropped three of its shows, leading to more speculation about the future.
“We did not feel the economics for the shows were coming back,” Toundas said.
Then, last August, the CEO of Championship Auto Shows, Bob Larivee Jr., 61, died in Michigan of a heart attack. Larivee is the son of AutoRama founder Robert Larivee Sr.
All of that seemed to cloud the shows’ future.
But Toundas said Championship has recovered from each setback and is slowly growing again, with revenue increasing 3 percent to 4 percent a year.
Even better, Toundas said, Championship Auto Shows plans to expand its schedule.
In the short term, the company wants to add three or four shows, he said.
“We want to expand to 20 to 25 shows a year ultimately,” he said.
Although he won’t disclose annual revenue or profit, Toundas said Championship makes money.
“The only thing I can tell you is we have close to 30 full-time employees, and we work out of a 50,000-square-foot building,” Toundas said.
Some of the renewal also stems from a growing number of 20- and 30-somethings who are discovering hot-rodding and bringing new blood to a 70-year-old pastime.
In addition, the shows have broadened their formats, adding unusual entertainment like a “Bigfoot” monster-truck car crush; a “street-bike stunt show”; and appearances and autograph signings by cable-television entertainers.
“That’s how you start to reinvent yourself,” Toundas said. “You try to attract more people _ some of them non-car people _ and you broaden your base.”
Old-school car shows are still a major part of the huge specialty-car and aftermarket-parts business.
People see wild, heavily modified vehicles at the shows and start thinking about what they could do to their own cars.
“In any kind of sales, you’ve got to have excitement if you’re going to get any business,” said MacGillivray. “Car shows get people excited.”
Gene Mullenberg of the Lone Star Cougar Club says AutoRama attracts more young participants than any other show the club attends, which is important in looking for new members.
“It’s been good for us,” said Mullenberg, whose Texas club helps get cars moved in and handles other show chores.
Likewise, the North Texas Mustang Club likes getting its name in front of thousands of AutoRama attendees.
“In fact, I would probably say we have gotten more (new members) from AutoRama and the Dallas dealers show in the spring than we did at the old Fort Worth (Texas) hot-rod show,” said Craig Grant, a past president of the club and chairman of the all-Ford show in the summer.
The show typically has more applications to enter cars in the show than it has space, and this year about 60 had to be turned down.
“We also would like to have some younger members, and that’s another part of the show, exposing your club to lots of people,” said Don Kemp, president of the 40-year-old Arlington (Texas) Area Street Rods. “And I think they will keep coming to the show.”
As the national economy continues to improve, Championship remains optimistic, even as it adjusts to the sudden, unexpected loss of its CEO.
“(Larivee) and I had been partners for 20 years,” Toundas said. “But the shows are bigger than either of us. We miss him a lot, but the shows go on.”
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