A car show can be as simple as placing a few eye-catching vehicles on display and then selling tickets to local enthusiasts. In fact, when Bob Larivee Sr.’s car club, the Motor-city Modified Auto Club (MMAC) participated in the Michigan Hot Rod Association’s (MHRA) first Detroit Autorama in 1953, it featured only 45–50 vehicles parked at the University of Detroit Field House. While the event was modest in size, it was a hit with attendees and the first of many successful car shows for Larivee Sr.
Initiated as a fundraiser, that first Autorama was held to support construction of the New Baltimore Dragstrip. The annual show continued to grow in popularity and, thanks to the MHRA, Michigan’s first official dragstrip opened for business in the spring of 1957. Serving as the track’s inaugural manager, Larivee Sr. got a first-rate education on his two favorite subjects—show promotion and racing.
As a matter of fact, Larivee’s real racing interest was Circle Track. Taking the wheel in 1952, he continued to compete until 1977, tearing across tracks throughout Michigan, Ohio and Ontario.
Through his involvement with MHRA, Larivee Sr. met another local promoter, Don Ridler. Immediately impressed by Ridler’s ideas, the MHRA hired him to help expand the Autorama’s appeal to a larger audience. Before long, popular acts such as Little Anthony & the Imperials, the Big Bopper and the Kalin Twins were performing next to some of the best custom cars in Michigan. Ridler also encouraged Larivee to develop his own shows in other markets.
By 1959, Larivee Sr. had formed a partnership with his brother, Marvin Jr., calling the company Promotions Inc. He produced his first two shows in conjunction with Canadian car clubs, such as the Piston Pushers in Hamilton, Ontario, and the Tecumseh Hot Rod association in Windsor, Ontario. Though he didn’t quite break even, the events were well received, and his reputation was building.
In 1960, Promotions Inc. hosted its third show, this time in Toronto. Taking advantage of local radio and print media as well as a sponsorship with the Corsairs Car Club, the third time was the charm. With a profit of $10,000, there was no longer any doubt about Larivee’s future or the success of Promotions Inc.
As Larivee Sr. sought new areas of opportunity, he looked to Southern California—home to some of the world’s best hot-rod builders and the magazines that covered their projects. In the summer of 1962, he headed west and began networking with the likes of Vic Edelbrock of Edelbrock Equipment Co., Ed Cholakian from Weiand Speed Equipment, “Outlaw” builder Ed Roth and Wally Parks over at the National Hot Rod Association. Promotions Inc. quickly grew to 15 shows, capitalizing on bringing together famous hot-rod creations as well as products from the country’s hottest manufacturers.
In 1963, Larivee Sr. realized that the judging criteria for competing vehicles needed a tune-up. In an effort to level the playing field for car owners and promote legitimate competition he formed the International Show Car Association (ISCA). The ISCA adopted a truly innovative system for scoring vehicles, and, to this day, the ISCA continues to be North America’s preeminent judging body.
Fast-forward 20 years, and Promotions Inc. was producing 100 shows annually, publishing books and souvenir programs and maintaining sponsorships with many of the most dominant specialty-equipment manufacturers in the world. As a promoter, Larivee Sr. continued to innovate, incorporating the biggest names in hot-rod building, music, TV and film under one roof. Detroit’s Big Three were also involved, opting to use Larivee Sr.’s stage to debut vehicles, such as the Mustang, and high-performance buildups, such as Chrysler Corporation’s Rapid Transit System line.
After 35 years, Promotions Inc. was sold to Larivee Sr.’s son, but his contribution to the specialty-equipment industry was far from over. Deeply involved in automotive art, he started a fine art exhibit at the SEMA Show, which will celebrate its 25th year on the Show floor this November (2012). Eventually, he sold most of his huge collection of hot-rod art history to “Speedy” Bill Smith of Speedway Motors for his Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska.
As an entrepreneur and a publisher, Larivee Sr. has literally written the book on car shows, titled simply Show Car Dreams. As readers turn each page, it’s apparent that Larivee Sr. was passionate about creating an opportunity for enthusiasts to come face to face with the greatest hot rods ever built.
SEMA is eternally grateful for Bob Larivee Sr.’s willingness to redefine car shows and for making them something that families, generation after generation, continue to enjoy. It may be hard to define a car guy, but you can start by studying SEMA Hall of Fame member Bob Larivee Sr.