The Grand National Roadster Show is among the most prestigious car shows in the world. It’s also for a long time been a bastion of American car culture, a celebration of everything from hot rods to lead sleds to lowriders and more. As one can imagine, typically there isn’t a lot of J-tin at this event. But this year the show held a special exhibit honoring 50 years of custom pickup trucks, which let in far more Toyotas, Datsuns, and Mazdas than one would typically see.
The Grand National Roadster Show started in 1950 with a small hot rod club in Oakland, California. In the decades since it’s grown exponentially, with this year’s show in Pomona, California welcoming an estimated 1,600 cars and 45,000 attendees (about four times the size of JCCS).
Hundreds of class awards are given out each year, but the prestigious centerpiece is a 9-foot-tall perpetual trophy for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster. At the time it was the largest trophy in the world according to The Ultimate Hot Rod Dictionary, and the name “roadster” was chosen because it didn’t have the negative connotations that “hot rod” did at the time. Of all the cars at the show, only a fraction are eligible; for 2023 it was just nine cars. None of the cars competing for the AMBR can be shown online, in print, or at other shows prior to this event. In other words, people spend hundreds of thousands on building a car specifically to win this award.
There’s an interesting analogue to Japanese cars here. Tuners have been looked down upon by the old guard of car collectors, but aside from museum pieces and county fair parades bone stock Fords from the era are not really prized. The AMBR contestants aim to build the platonic ideal of the traditional hot rod. They’re about as far from factory original as one can get, and they’re works of absolute art. There isn’t really an equivalent of this kind of show in the Japanese car scene, but perhaps it’s time.
Anyway, onto the trucks. The Grand National Roadster Show breaks down the cars into hundreds of categories, like Tri-Five Chevys or Volkswagen Bugs. The special display “Keep on Truckin’: 50 Years of Classic Haulers from 1948-1998” featured some of the most well-known custom pickups from that era, including builds by Boyd Coddington, Chip Foose, and Stacy David.
Among the full-size Big Three trucks were a surprising number of Japanese compact pickups. In the early days of imports, these Toyota, Datsun, and Mazda haulers caught on just as fast — and in some cases faster — than their passenger car counterparts. It’s no wonder they bred a diverse culture of their own, and California was the epicenter of the trend.
One of the highlights of the exhibit was “Out of the Blue,” the name given to this 1977 Datsun 620 King Cab was originally built in SoCal by Vini “Big Daddy” Bergeman, one of the progenitors of the mini truck trend. Period modifications include in integrated air dam, steel fender flares, rear rolled pan, hood louvers, frenched antenna and Tru-Spoke wire wheels. The interior featured tufted upholstery, swivel seats, and a Craig 8-track player. The cab, complete with and bubble side windows, passes through to the bed covered by a custom hi-rise topper. Amazingly, it’s still finished in its original 6-tone “California fade” paint job. Oh, and there’s a Chevy Monza front end, just because.
The truck’s original owner is said to have founded the Southern California Mini-Truck Council, an organization that once comprised about 100 mini-truck clubs in southern Cali. Out of the Blue circulated in car shows for 15 years before retiring in 1992. It went into storage for over two decades and remerged in 2016 where it was sold at auction. Once among the most famous Datsun mini trucks in SoCal, it’s currently owned by Brian Dee of Shrub Oak, New York and traveled across the country to take part in this show.
Many of these trucks have moved onto their second or third owners by now. The most famous were remembered by their current owners from appearances in mini-truck magazines back in the day. “Just a Li’l Luv,” a 1976 Chevy LUV (a rebadged Isuzu Faster) with a shag carpet bed and octagonal steering wheel, was one of them. It was purchased new in Long Beach, California and stayed on the show circuit until 1979. Its pinstriping and tailgate mural were done by done by Tom Kelly of The Crazy Painters. It was then put away in storage until discovered by the current owner, a preservationist who is maintaining it in its time capsule state.
It’s astonishing how many of these trucks were preserved. Tastes changed as the groovy campers of the 1970s gave way to bed-dancing lowriders of the 1980s, but the passion and following that mini-trucks enjoyed remained. Like the hot rods, they’re rolling works of art and the owners respect them as such. Rather than modifying to put their own personal stamps on them, the caretakers are now preserving the trucks in their period forms. It’s a fascinating aspect of car culture that we feel privileged to have seen.
“Candy & Cookies” 1985 Toyota XtraCab Truck, owned by Eric Takushi of Garden Grove, California, part of the Nu Miniz car club.
1985 Datsun 720 King Cab, owned by Bertha Dominguez of Pico Rivera, California, part of the Nu Miniz car club.
1984 Toyota Truck, owned by Jesse Vidro of Buena Park, California.
“Chocolate Caliente” 1991 Mazda B2200, owned by Alfonso Hernandez of La Habra, California. Note the famed “Steel Flame” in the background.
“Mass Pinky” 1988 Mitsubishi Mighty Max, owned by Manuel Ornelas of Clovis, California.
“Li’l Hawaiin” 1973 Ford Courier (Mazda B-series), owned by Frank Perez.
“The Little Wizz” 1976 Datsun 620, owned by Donovan Scrimshirl of Carmel, California.