Photos by Kevin A. Wilson
Twenty years ago, Bob Elton was serving on the parks commission in the city of Ann Arbor when he came up with an idea for a car show right in the center of town. His idea was to show off the attractive trees that line the streets of the business district (another project he had a hand in) and to boost activity downtown in the summer, when the adjacent University of Michigan campus has a lower population of students packed into the city.
“I thought it’d be a one-time thing,” Elton remembers. “I went to a meeting of the Main Street Association and said we should do this, and to my surprise at the time, they said ‘okay, let’s.’ They like to schedule events on the first Friday of the month, so that’s what when we did it.”
Elton, an automotive historian and collector, reached out to his friends, aiming to get 65 cars. But he didn’t want to make it an exclusive, by-invitation sort of thing. It’s more like a pumped up version of a small-town cruise night, where anyone willing to pay the fee (now $20 a car in advance, $35 on show day) is invited to find a parking space.
He named it Rolling Sculpture, both as a tie-in with his own perception of automotive design and to appeal to the broader Ann Arbor community, which is less auto-centric than much of southeast Michigan, but does like to celebrate the arts in a big way.
“That first year, we just closed off three blocks of Main Street, we didn’t even close the cross-streets,” he said. “I was worrying that whole day, thinking, well, if we get 50 cars it’ll be a nice little show.”
More than 100 turned up.
“The next day I got a call from the Main Street Association asking to do it again the next year. Now it’s 20 years old.”
There were around 300 cars entered this year (at peak, Rolling Sculpture has had nearly 400), displayed along eight city blocks from 2 in the afternoon to 10 p.m., helping to pack the bars, restaurants, ice cream shops and cafes with people enjoying a festive atmosphere.
It’s southeast Michigan, so Corvettes and Mustangs are strongly represented, but Rolling Sculpture draws an eclectic mix of old and new models, imports and domestics, trucks and toys. It’s all presented in something of a jumble — there’s no overall map, no “area” devoted to, say, ‘50s Fords… if you see a string of Vettes, Porsches, electrics or microcars, it’s because a club (or, sometimes, a dealer) has organized a few to arrive at the same time. A DeTomaso Pantera might be found tucked in beside a finned Cadillac adjacent to a Kaiser, or a Corvair might share a bit of curbing with a Lamborghini. It’s all good, all celebrated, all welcome.
“The first-Friday turned out to conflict with Fourth of July activities, so it’s been the second Friday in July ever since,” Elton said. “We had good luck with sponsors and support from the industry and car people hereabouts.”
The show doesn’t have its own judges or trophies, but sponsors are invited to give awards. Chevrolet dealer Bill Crispin has been title sponsor of late; support also came from Hyundai (which has a nearby technical center. Toyota also has nearby facilities and has supported the show over the years).
Both Car and Driver and Automobile magazines have had editorial offices in town and have participated in the show (Automobile just relocated its offices farther east, but Road & Track has moved into Ann Arbor).
“Some people like these little cars because they fit more of them in a small garage.”
— Bob Elton
“Some people,” Elton noted, “like these little cars because they fit more of them in a small garage.”
Down at the other end of the block, he was showing off his own car, one that is decidedly not small. He’s had a car in the show every year, but this one really is a personal expression. Hand-crafted by Elton to his own design, “The V8” uses some GM parts but was fabricated by Elton.
He made a full-size plaster model, using plywood sections, to create the surface and made a mold from the plaster for the fiberglass body. It took with years to build from drawing, through concept model to a true rolling sculpture.