Win at Car Shows

Car shows can be a lot of fun, that’s why people find a way to go no matter how bad the economy is. If you only participate for the camaraderie and the opportunity to show off your car that is awesome, and you are a winner every time out! But if you have never experienced the thrill of winning an award at a major event then read on. Following are some tips I have assembled over the past 25 years which may help you win at car shows, even without having the best car there. Included are such topics as car selection, show detailing and presentation. This is information you may not find anywhere else and here it’s yours for free…

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Car Selection: If you already have a show car this section may not apply. However if you are looking for a car with the intent of seriously competing at shows then car selection is crucial. Although I have owned a variety of makes most of my car show experience is with AMC products. Owning an independent make can be a disadvantage, it all depends on how the classes and judging are set up. In an all-makes car show with people’s choice voting a Camaro or Mustang will almost always win, even over a nicer Javelin or other orphan because these shows are nothing more than popularity contests, and I try to avoid them.

However in a car show with classes divided by brand you will actually have an advantage with the same independent make since the competition is generally much less in the orphan or “best of the rest” class. I have won big at national shows with my AMCs (including a Pacer!) for this reason while the GM, Ford and Mopar owners had to duke it out in their respective classes with a lot more competition. So buy or restore the car you love, not necessarily the most popular model.


My CC Street Machine Nats class winning Pacer


Be aware however that a popular body style or color will do better than others, even in a judged show. The “dare to be different” movement of the past 20 years has done a lot to promote alternate body styles and colors but generally coupes and convertibles are your best bet for a car show win. Sedans and station wagons generally have a tough time competing unless they happen to be something really special. If you participate in a single make show against similar cars then detailing becomes even more important in setting your car apart from the others.

Detailing: One thing I have learned is that cleanliness and presentation are just as important as condition, even more so in some cases! Sweat the details and the rest will take care of itself, this applies to every aspect of your car. Let’s start at ground level with the tires and wheels. For safety as well as appearance all the tires should be in good condition without excessive wear or dryrot. All of the tires should be the same size unless purposely staggered. Tire brand and style should be consistent on all four corners. For stock classes, cars which did not come with radial tires generally lose points for having them.

For cleaning my tires I only use Westley’s Bleche-Wite with a soft brush, even for blackwalls and redlines. I personally don’t care for the “wet look” on tires so I rarely use tire dressing. Instead I simply towel dry the tires after washing, then follow up with a second lint-free towel to “buff” the sidewalls to a dry shine. If this regimen is followed from new most tires will develop a satin shine which wont turn brown or be greasy to the touch like many tire dressings can be.


If you do favor a shinier look for your tires apply a high quality vinyl and rubber dressing like LRV after cleaning the tires. Use a clean, lint-free cloth to apply the dressing, never spray it directly onto the tires (and the pavement in front of it!) as I have seen so many times. Be sure to remove any obvious pebbles from the tire tread once you arrive on the show field.

Wheels or wheel covers should be clean and free of rust or corrosion, dents or curb rash. Most quality tire shops can balance your wheels without putting any weights on the front side. If you ask nicely they may even index your white letters in relation to the valve stems, which should be the proper length and have matching caps. For stock classes don’t even consider funky valve caps which look like skulls, dice or 8-balls, leave that stuff at home. Align your center caps as well, it’s the smallest of details which really add up!

Damaged wheel trim rings or hubcaps should be repaired or replaced if available. Steel wheels should be nicely painted without any ghost images from old wheel weights. Aluminum wheels can be polished or refinished as required. All lug nuts should be present, matching and in good condition. Do yourself a big favor and replace any rusted or rounded off lug nuts. Finally, when displaying your car straighten the wheels if parked straight, as in a parking spot. If parked at an angle you may angle the wheels slightly to one side for effect, but be sure the steering wheel is positioned straight. This is something you can practice every time you park.


One area of a car which is commonly overlooked is the trunk or cargo area. It’s easy just to keep it closed or use it for storing your extra chairs or cleaning supplies. But the trunk does matter at a car show. Some were originally sprayed the body color and some were done in speckle paint, if you plan to compete in a stock class be sure to replace the original finish. Be sure the weatherstrip is in good condition and the trunk light works if so equipped, it can usually be unplugged until judging time so as not to drain the battery. Research and install the correct jack instructions for your particular car in its proper location. Most of these have been reproduced.

Reproduction trunk mats are also available for most popular models. If unavailable for your car locate a good original or make your own from a larger mat intended for a different model. If you’re lucky you still have your original spare tire, jack and tools as some of these are getting pricey, especially the early compact spares. These items should be mounted in their original location, usually shown on the jack instructions. Carefully strip and repaint any scratched or rusted tools in their original color such as semi-gloss black. Research, don’t assume.


Hatchbacks and station wagons benefit from a clean cargo area as well. If the carpet is faded it should be dyed or replaced. I recommend Lifter1 for tough carpet stains which resist ordinary cleaning products. When traveling to car shows be cautious about your chairs or other cargo coming in contact with the sides of the trunk or the underside of the trunk lid. Folding canvas chairs which store in matching cloth bags are pretty trunk-friendly if you take the time to return them to their bags for the drive home. For your chairs select a neutral color or one which compliments your car. Pack as lightly as possible, especially for local shows, the less you bring the less you have to pile up behind your car on the show field.

Once at the show your trunk is a great place for a tasteful display of memorabilia, your car’s latest magazine feature or an album of “before” pictures. Just don’t overdo it, we’ll discuss this along with other car show props later.

Moving up front let’s address the all-important engine compartment. Important as it has become the custom to show off your engine at any car show or even the local cruise-in. The engine compartment represents an opportunity for detailing which can make or break a show car. Some automakers painted the engine bay the body color, on other cars it was done in black. Regardless of the color it should be painted before installation of the engine and accessories. Should you need to respray it with the engine in place, remove as much as possible including the brake booster and lines, battery, wiring harness etc. Whatever remains can be masked with tape or even aluminum foil. The complete engine can even be protected with Saran Wrap. Just take your time and do it right, even a couple days of preparation is time well spent! The rule here is that there shouldn’t be a speck of color anywhere it shouldn’t be, even firewall screws installed from inside should be removed or have their threads taped off. this is the type of care which will set your car apart from the others.

When reassembling the engine compartment use only new or refinished fasteners, and for stock restorations replace all of the correct underhood decals, new rubber hood bumpers and authentic hose clamps rather than the parts store worm-gear type. Fine Lines reproduction fuel and brake lines are available for many vehicles. Be sure to replace the hood insulation if originally equipped. If a reproduction battery is unavailable (as with my car) make your own by installing a reproduction sticker or even painting a new battery. Old style battery caps can be used on a new battery if it isn’t a sealed type. Cast iron exhaust manifolds can be sandblasted and coated with POR15 Exhaust Manifold Coating for a permanently new appearance. Again research your particular car if you are doing a stock restoration in order to refinish the engine, air cleaner, booster and master cylinder, etc. correctly. Pay attention to the belts, hoses, wiring and battery cables, you know the judges will.


Once your engine compartment is finished spend as much time as needed to keep it clean. Dust the top side after every drive with a California Car Duster and keep those chrome accessories polished. Stay on top of those pesky fluid leaks and with reasonable care your engine bay will look just as nice in 20 years! The same rules apply for the underside of your show car. Invest as much time as necessary to keep it clean, especially for one which is driven regularly like mine.

Moving outside let’s discuss your car’s exterior. Bodywork and paint separate the truly great cars from all the rest so don’t cut corners here! If you are fortunate to have nice factory original paint cherish it, cars are only original once. But be careful because older paint can become thin at the edges and elsewhere and can easily be buffed through. Brand new paint can also be ruined this way if you are not skilled with a buffer. If you’ve never buffed paint before pay someone who has, it will be the best money you spend this year. Color sanding and buffing takes practice; it can’t be learned from a book.

When the occasional car washing is required, use only high quality liquid car wash soap, never dish detergent unless you’re planning to reapply the wax anyway. Speaking of wax, this should be done at least once a year if your car is outside at all. Use your car duster prior to waxing to eliminate any grit from the surface and be careful around trim or emblems which can trap wax or be snagged with the soft towel used to buff it off. Take your time and do it right as I always say (actually I don’t but I’m saying it now). There shouldn’t be a speck of wax visible anywhere when you are finished. For this reason do not use a spray wax which will end up inside your cowl vents and in other inaccessible places. Use only bottled liquid or paste type car wax which doesn’t have a “cleaner” which can dull your paint. There are excellent products available for vinyl tops as well.


Truthfully I rarely ever wash my collector cars, if I don’t get caught in the rain my cars wont even see a hose for years at a time. The reason for this is that every car traps water somewhere; inside the doors, underneath the rubber weather strips, in the window channels. And water breeds rust and rot. Plus it takes a lot of time to dry the engine compartment after a car wash. Instead I frequently use a California Car Duster, along with Maguires spray-on car detailer to handle the bugs and road grime. I have driven my collector cars hundreds of miles to out-of-state car shows on several occasions, they are rarely trailered.

No matter how nice your paint job is dull, dented or faded trim can ruin the whole effect. Upgrade these items as your budget allows. Ask for referrals for chrome plating, some shops do excellent work and some do not. Be sure that your bumpers are straight and centered on the car. Dinged or scratched aluminum or stainless trim can be straightened and polished to look brand new again. Many painted emblems or engine ID logos can be refinished by thinning the paint and letting it flow into the emblem. And just so you know many stock class judges don’t like aftermarket “mud flaps” or splash guards.

Be sure that all lights and the horn are operational. Broken or cracked lenses should be replaced with reproductions or good originals when available. Plastic lenses can be polished if dull. It’s amazing how many show cars I see with mismatched headlight bulbs. Halogens may cost you points on an older car entered in the stock classes. Don’t overlook your license plates either. Be sure they are not bent or crooked. I personally don’t care for license plate frames which say something on the front of the car, but an original dealer frame for the rear plate is ultra cool! Be sure the license plate screws are matched and not rusted. Again it comes down to the smallest details. Racing stickers are subject to individual taste on a street car. A couple of period correct stickers on a street machine are great, so is a tasteful car club decal or grille badge. But if you display drag strip class winner decals you better have earned them!

Window glass should be free of defects and proper cleaning is crucial for competition. For excellent results use your favorite glass cleaner along with balled up newspaper for absolutely no streaks. It sounds crazy but it works, just be careful with the newspaper ink if you have a light colored interior. If your windshield is cracked, chipped, delaminating or scuffed from the wipers install a new one at your earliest opportunity, your view will be greatly improved and for a show car it will likely stay that way forever. For your new windshield install new wiper refills, even if you don’t plan to use them. I always apply Rain-X so I rarely run the wipers at all.


Moving inside, the passenger compartment is another area where your car can outshine the others if you take the time to do it right. Interior plastic parts require special care, if these parts are in good condition wash them with soapy water, allow to air dry then apply a quality plastic protectant. Broken pieces can be upgraded with better ones, NOS parts or reproductions if available. Faded trim can often be recolored using SEM products, always following the product directions for best results. I would hesitate to recolor an entire seat, steering wheel or other severe use part however.

Clean the instrument panel regularly including those dusty AC vents. Use a lint-free cloth or damp Q-Tip here. After cleaning them align all of the vents. On newer cars rotate the lighter so the smoke symbol is going up. Again it’s the smallest details which people notice at a show. A California Dash Duster is worth its weight in gold for interior touch-ups.

Faded carpeting should be dyed or replaced. And don’t skimp on the vacuuming time, I wont stop until I can’t see a single crumb of anything in the carpet or floor mats. Door panel care is the same as for the dash. Keep the chrome parts polished, window cranks should be a mirror image of each other, generally facing downward when the glass is raised. Use LRV or a similar UV blocker on the interior soft trim. On the show field your seatbelts should be stowed properly or arranged uniformly on both sides. Finally, I prefer to keep the keys in my pocket at a car show even though I have a nifty AMX key ring.

Presentation: We have already touched on this a bit regarding how to position the front wheels depending on how the car is parked. I have also mentioned traveling as light as possible in order to avoid having a pile of stuff in the trunk or behind your car. I generally set up my two chairs behind the car then stow all of my gear underneath the chairs. I even refold any towels I use, it just looks better that way. If you happen to be parked near a crushed pop can or other piece of litter, take a second to pick up and dispose of it, if only to make your car look that much better. This is what I consider presentation.

Car show “props” is another area which is subject to individual taste. I don’t like a lot of them myself, definitely no stuffed animals, “crybaby” dolls or those gas-oil-water cans which only detract from the car. Keep photo albums off the radiator support and in the trunk where they can be viewed without spoiling the front view of your car. If you require a show board with historical information or “before” photos, limit the size so as not to block any more of the car than necessary. Your show board should look professional; never hand lettered, and not be any higher than the headlights.


Leave those NASCAR banners and life-size driver cutouts in your home shrine. Finally, be considerate of the other participants around you, keep your stuff in your own space and don’t offend others with your car’s sound system.

In conclusion, these guidelines obviously don’t apply to every car or every situation. If you’ve read this far I hope that you have gained at least some small bit of information which will allow you to better enjoy your next car show, and possibly even win an award you otherwise would have missed.

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