Back in the 1960s, Ralph Muller of Monticello rebuilt a 1937 Chevy coupe for drag racing at strips near Port Byron and Cordova in Illinois, as well as Cedar Falls and other sites. He also took it to car shows in Des Moines and Rock Island in the late ’60s — as well as inside Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island in Cedar Rapids.
When his mother, Catherine Muller, suggested he start a car show in Monticello, he and two buddies did just that. Bob Oeschger of Cascade and Rick Heeren, now of Springville, joined in the effort, and the trio staged their first show in February 1970.
It’s still going strong, despite the pandemic. Now known as the O’Reilly Auto Parts Rod & Custom Car Show, it will be held from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at the Monticello Berndes Center.
Galen and Tom Muller of Monticello eventually joined their brother Ralph in the endeavor, and took over when Ralph retired after suffering a stroke in 1997. Ralph’s interest never waned, and he was able to attend all but one subsequent shows through last year.
This year’s 52nd annual show, however, will honor his memory. Ralph passed away Dec. 5 at age 80.
The event has grown from 34 entries to a current capacity of 45 cars and about 15 motorcycles, coming from Iowa and the surrounding states, Galen Muller said.
“The physical size of the show has stayed about the same, which is a good thing,” he added.
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Planning the event has grown into a year-round venture over, so Galen, 70, and Tom, 68, rely on the help of family and friends to stage the two-day show. Donations from corporate sponsors help defray the costs that can run up to $50,000.
“Tom and I are the organizers now, and we have a lot of help. It wouldn’t happen just with two people,” Galen Muller said. “They have a sense of ownership — they’re that kind of help. I hear them call it ‘our show’ and I’m OK with that.”
In a typical year, about 4,000 people from Eastern Iowa communities and surrounding states attend the show. Organizers aren’t sure how the pandemic will affect those numbers, but they do recommend all attendees wear a mask and follow social distancing and other COVID safety protocols.
Because of the pandemic, they aren’t bringing in a celebrity, like they’ve done in years past, with appearances by “Dukes of Hazzard” stars Tom Wopat and Catherine Bach, “Happy Days” stars Henry Winkler (The Fonz) and Don Most (Ralph Malph), Erik Estrada from “CHiPs” and “The Incredible Hulk” star Lou Ferrigno, among others.
But spectators who come to the family-friendly show will see street rods, custom cars, street machines, race cars, pickups, motorcycles and model cars, all vying for trophies from Muller Brothers and cash prizes from Citizens State Bank. The public is invited to cast ballots for vote for People’s Choice Awards in car/pickup, motorcycle and model car categories.
The awards will be presented Sunday, beginning at 5:45 p.m. for model cars and 6:30 p.m. for vehicles.
Other attractions include music by DJ Dave Palmer, who also will emcee the awards ceremonies; free caricatures by David Fliss and balloon art by Mark “Papa Balloon” Garvey; souvenir sales, including posters and T-shirts; and food from the Monticello Eagles Club Ladies Auxiliary 4466, with profits earmarked for community projects. A chapel service also will be held at 8:30 a.m. Sunday in the balcony, by Racers and Rodders for Christ, team RFC, with Chaplain Dave Lupella.
Show admission is $10 for adults and $5 ages 12 and under or free with paid adult. Those who bring a canned food donation for Four Oaks family programs will receive a $1 discount on their ticket.
Galen Muller sees the event as “a gift to the community.”
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“It’s like a sign of spring’s just around the corner. It draws interest to the town and brings people to Monticello,” he said.
And that’s satisfying.
“It’s just a good feeling when it all comes together and it all works out — and it usually does.” he said, “so I hope we can do it for more years.”
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If you go
• What: 52nd annual O’Reilly Auto Parts Rod & Custom Car Show
• Where: Monticello Berndes Center, 766 N. Maple St., Monticello
• When: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday; awards presentation 6:30 p.m. Sunday
• Featuring: Street rods, custom cars, street machines, race cars, pickups, motorcycles, model car contest, food, souvenirs, free caricatures and balloon art, music, awards; chapel service 8:30 a.m. Sunday in the balcony
• Admission: $10 adults; $5 ages 12 and under or free with paid adult; $1 off with canned food donation for Four Oaks family programs; free parking
• Pandemic protocols: Masks and social distancing recommended
• Information: rodandcustomcarshow.com or (319) 465-5119; show weekend, (319) 465-6640