Winning a car show is one of the greatest “atta boy” pats on the back a car guy can receive. Nobody really cares about the $3 trophy. The real reward is having a group of knowledgeable people say that they respect your style, taste, and hard work. For some, it makes all those long nights spent in the garage worth it.
I want to start by saying that winning car shows shouldn’t be the ultimate goal for you. It can be easy to get caught up in the politics and competition that go hand in hand with the car show world and lose sight of what’s really important.
Car shows are great for socializing and networking with fellow gearheads. A win is flattering, but you aren’t entitled to it, even if you think you have the best car there. Drive your car. Enjoy your car. Work on your car. Share your car with others. That’s what it’s all about.
Some car owners either really enjoy competition or they just need that pat on the back for whatever reason. If you’re one of those people that take car shows more seriously than I do, I have a few tips that I’ve learned over the years that might just help you to win. In my opinion, the car show experience is made up of 2 parts. What you do before the show is just as, if not more important than what you do at the show.
Before The Show
The build: restoring or modifying your car
Unless you’re somebody like Chip Foose, I just don’t see the point in building a vehicle strictly to win shows. The phrase “spending money you don’t have, to buy things you don’t want, to impress people you don’t know” definitely applies to owners that take car shows far too seriously.
I’ve seen so many people over the years rack up their credit cards doing things to their cars for the sole purpose of “checking off that box” on the judges’ score sheet. The funny thing is, a lot of those guys end up losing shows anyways.
Cars are machines. They have an intended use and that is to transport people from A to B, and in some cases provide them with an enjoyable experience along the way. I get that some cars are considered investments or important pieces of history. But even some of the rarest, most expensive exotic cars are still functioning vehicles in the end. They were originally meant to be driven.
What I’m getting at, is that fellow gearheads respect cars that are built with passion and an intended purpose in mind. I’m not saying that everything done to a vehicle must be racing oriented or even functional. Do what makes you happy and other people will pick up on that.
The vintage Porsche that’s been optimized for driving excitement with rare parts and cool custom touches is going to be more accepted with true car guys than the car that limps off the trailer with a completely untuned, yet highly polished turbo setup. It’s ingrained in us that cars are meant to be enjoyed rather than kept locked away as status symbols.
Building a well-rounded car is the best way to check off all the judges’ boxes without even meaning to. Your focus should be on improving your car to the best of your ability – not following trends or purposely trying to impress people. Thinking outside the box and doing wild modifications is totally fine as long as that’s what you’re passionate about. Your passion should show through your car.
If you’re obsessed with having a perfect, custom engine bay, people will notice that. If you want to mimic a race car for the street, go for it. If focusing on getting every nut and bolt period-correct on your classic makes you happy then keep doing that.
Whatever vision you have for your car, execute it to the best of your ability. People respect that and it’ll never go out of style. In the event that you are given a trophy after it’s all said and done, it’ll truly signify a job well done.
Know your audience
You’ve made the decision to enter a car show. Make sure you enter the right one. There are a lot of different types of vehicles out there and showing up to an event that focuses on something different than your car will make you stick out like a sore thumb (and not in a good way).
Going to an event that isn’t geared toward you is fine, but you’ll have to manage your expectations. You aren’t going to win “Best Engine” at a Camaro show with your Hyundai Genesis. Bringing your lifted truck to a lowrider event will likely give you a similar result.
Part of knowing your audience comes from knowing your competition. For example, if I were to enter my MR2 in the Toyotafest show in Long Beach, CA, I would get smoked. Why is that? Because quite honestly, their cars are better than mine. That’s a huge Toyota-focused show that brings out the best of the best. My car would be noticeably out of its league when parked beside some of those cars.
You might be a hero at your small town events, but going to a big show with lots of competition can be very humbling.
It’s all in the details
Car shows and detailing go hand in hand. If you want to draw attention at a car show, you better be passionate about detailing or have seriously deep pockets in order to pay people to look after it for you.
Aside from the actual car itself, this is the next most important aspect of winning a car show. Proper detailing can absolutely make or break you. I don’t mean simply washing and vacuuming your car either. It goes so much farther than that.
People at car shows can tell whether you’ve obsessed over every detail of your car. The day I entered my very first car show, I had an experienced friend show me the ropes. One thing he told me has stuck with me many years later: “Your car needs to look like it’s never been driven“. To this day, I can’t come up with a better way of explaining it than this.
Don’t save this job for the day of the event. This is something that needs to be planned out ahead of time. For a serious car show, expect to spend the week leading up to the event getting your car ready. You can’t rush it. At least not if you want to win.
Every bit of dirt, dust, mud, bug guts and brake dust needs to be removed. You need to obsess over this. Allow it to keep you awake at night thinking about one more area you forgot to clean or polish. Let it take over your life. It might not be healthy, but this is what it takes to win a car show.
Obviously, any damage like dents, scratches or rust will kill your chances of winning. Less noticeable repairs can go a long way too, like fixing paint chips, replacing missing trim pieces and properly polishing your paint. These things will make your car more enjoyable long after the show too, so they’re certainly worth doing.
If you can see it, it needs to look good. Basic detailing tasks like a fresh coat of wax and tire dressing are a no-brainer. Cleaning and dressing the less common areas is what will really set your car apart from the pack.
- Clean and dress the plastic inside your wheel wells.
- Clean the inside barrels of your wheels.
- Detail your brake calipers.
- Clean the tiny pebbles out from your door seals.
- Either replace or paint rusty bolts in your engine bay.
- Clean ALL of your interior, not just the easy to reach parts.
- Restore your headlights.
- Your exhaust tip needs to be polished inside and out.
This is just a short list of things you can spend time on in order to make your car look amazing. For vehicles that aren’t ceramic coated, a fresh layer of high-quality carnauba wax applied the night before the show will give your paint a really nice, warm glow. I’m a huge fan of doing this.
At The Show
One of the worst things you can do is show up late. That’ll guarantee you’ll get the worst parking spot and no time to prep your car. Getting to the event early will give you a better chance of parking where you want to and allows you to relax. It also shows the event organizers that you’re taking their show seriously.
It’s all in the details Part 2
I know you’ve spent countless hours making sure your car is perfect. But it doesn’t end there. Unless you’re able to transport your car in an enclosed trailer to the show, it’s going to be driven. If you live nearby, you can probably get away with leaving it alone.
But if you have to drive it more than a few blocks down the street, it’s bound to have some dust and bugs on it. That’s okay though because the second round of detailing will happen once your car is parked in its spot.
Bring supplies with you, but don’t overdo it. It won’t take much work to touch your car up. You’ve already built a great foundation leading up to the event, so all it will need is to be freshened up a bit.
You can do a quick rinseless wash with a bucket, 1 gallon of water and a few microfiber towels. By the way, that’s what I recommend for any type of dirt or dust removal. Don’t use a quick detailer or California duster unless you love the way swirl marks look in your paint!
Your wheels, wheel wells, and exhaust will likely be dusty from driving. Your leftover rinseless wash used with an old towel will work great for touching these areas up. Don’t forget to shake out your floor mats and remove ALL of your personal belongings too. A half-empty bottle of Pepsi in your cupholder will really take away from your otherwise nice interior.
While writing this article, I was inspired to create my very own detailing travel kit that includes everything you would need to detail your car at the show. You can check that out here:
Display your car
The result of this should appear effortless. Lots of people overdo the presentation of their car with huge signs, cotton in the wheel wells, stuffed animals, and smoke machines. Try not to get carried away with this. Remember this is a car show, not a toy museum.
Position your car so that the light hits its good side if it has one. Turn your front wheels slightly (I like to do exactly one full rotation of the steering wheel. This way your steering wheel still appears straight, but your wheels are turned enough to catch people’s attention.
If your car has a noteworthy stance or wheel/tire fitment, you may want to keep your wheels straight to show off how the wheels fit inside the fenders. This is a judgment call you’ll have to make based on your vehicle.
A single sign or spec sheet that highlights your car’s details is fine, but keep it simple. Any props should be kept to a minimum and should suit the vehicle. A vintage Coca-Cola cooler in the trunk of your 1950’s car might add to the vibe, but a huge Star Wars pillow in your Honda Civic will look out of place. If you’re ever in doubt, just let the car do the talking. Most people don’t care about your doll collection.
It’s up to you whether you roll your windows down or not. If you have features you’d like to show off in the interior and you have dark tinted windows, you might want to roll them down. The downside to rolling them down is that your interior could get dusty if it’s an outdoor car show.
Whatever you decide, make sure to lock your doors. I’ve seen first hand times where people will actually climb into a car as if it’s in a manufacturer’s booth at an autoshow. Locking your doors gives these inconsiderate people a hint that they’re about to cross a line they shouldn’t cross.
Talk to the judges
Nobody knows your car as well as you do. Don’t be pushy or try to guide them though. Just make sure that you’re near the car when they come to judge it so you can answer any questions they might have and point out a few clever details they might miss on their own. Now, if they ask you for a tour of the car, feel free to give them as much info as you want – but keep it interesting and to the point.
If the show you’re at is a “people’s choice” event, that means the crowd will be judging which cars are their favorite. So mingle with them. Don’t be annoying, but it’s ok to share how awesome your car is. If people have legitimate questions, answer them! Make them want to come back and talk to you more. Your personality plays a big role in these types of car shows and being likable will go a long way.
Check your ego at the door
Once your car is set up, take a lap around the show. Check out the other cars and find other stuff that interests you. Talk to people. If they decide they like you, they’ll probably ask which car is yours. That’s a great time to steal a vote. You want people to like you as much as they like your car. You never know, one of them might actually be a judge that happened to spill ice cream on their “staff” shirt!
Exploring the show is also a great way to size up your competition. You get to see up close what you’re up against. Don’t try to act like an undercover spy though. That’s weird. This should be a positive thing. Get ideas from fellow car owners that you may not have thought of.
One thing is for sure though – never, ever bad mouth another car at the event. Especially if you don’t know who you’re talking to. It could be the owner, their friend, or a judge at the show. No matter how much that car stinks, this will only make YOU look bad. If your car is nicer than theirs, you come off as stuck up. If it’s not as nice, you come off as jealous. Either way, you can’t win this game. Remember, car shows are about sharing our passion with fellow gearheads. Don’t be a jerk.
What really matters
I’ve won a bunch of trophies over the years. I don’t say that to brag. The point I want to make is that I don’t remember which events I won, which ones I felt I should have won, or how many points I scored. I don’t remember what class I was in or how many people complimented me.
What I remember many years later is the drive to and from these events. Bombing down the highway with great friends watching their amazing cars from the seat of my pride and joy. I remember the smell of carnauba wax the night before, and being proud of my car the next morning. I remember going out to eat with everyone and discussing our favorite cars of the show. I remember being surrounded by awesome cars and feeling totally relaxed.
That, my friends, is what being a car guy is all about. You can keep the trophies. I want the memories.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: