ONE OF Washington's most exlusive clubs meets in a Gaithersburg garage. It is the Ram Rods, a dozen or so auto enthusiasts who sponsor the World of Wheels show, which makes its annual stand this weekend in the D.C. Armory.
Founded in 1949, the Ram Rods claim to be the oldest of America's "hot rod" clubs. That term is rarely heard in automotive circles today - it's been displaced by custom, funny cars, rail jobs and gassers. But it still stands to describe one of the many classes of competition at the Armory beauty contest.
The show is part of the International Show Car Championship circuit; at each stop on the tour local heroes come out to challenge the visiting stars.
And no entrant has been as successful this season as Bob Raines of Silver Spring. In 15 shows, his '62 Corvette has won first place 13 times and placed second twice.
"This is my first show car," said the 32-year-old Raines, "and I was determined it would be a winner.
"A year ago I took me time off from my job just to prepare the car for this season. Dad was rather understanding about it." Dad has operated Johnny's Shell Service on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington for 44 years and he is also his son's proud employer.
Raines started his project by completely dismantling the car. Everything that could be smoothed, molded or made more pleasing to the eye was reworked. "Since the car doesn't have to look like a Corvette when it's finished, you can do fancy things like reshaping the wheel weels," Raines explained.
"The car runs but it is not intended for street use, so the engine and drive train components are all chromed."
The paint job and interior are the most striking features and the result of his wife Jackie's adive. East Coast Kustoms of Springfield, Va., laid on coat after coat of Candy Apple Brick Red on the body and an equally glossy tangerine underneath, adding gold accents. The interior is crushed velvet in bright orange and red.
"A lot of the building of a show car is in finding the best people to help with work," Raines said. "Kevin Richter and Will Sang helped me prepare it. Paul Diffenbach hand-made many of the parts and George O'Neill did the welding. There were other craftsmen in the East who did special jobs, too.
"I always had my nose in the job every step of the way, just to make sure I got what I wanted. A bad paint job once cost me $2,000 just to get it redone properly, so you know I'm going to watch and do the work if I can."
Considering his investment of time and money and the car's record, Raines feels $20,000 is a fair price for the machine, which cost him $3,750. "A show car really doesn't pay for itself," he said. "Prize money just about covers expenses getting to the shows alone, allowing two full days to set up the car. He knows the judges will check some 80 items in picking winners.
"They look for design, quality, safety features, detail and workmanship," he said.
They also look for innovations. A few years ago a big winner was a car with specially designed the extinguishers. Raines has taken a different approach.
He and Herb Brann of Frederick, Md., designed a light show to set off the Corvette.
"The car is set on four boxes with rollers inside. When the engine is running, the moving wheels activate 164 flashing lights around the car," he said. "It's quite a sight."
With the international title all but clinched, the Raines Corvette will soon be retired from competition and may go on tour next year, joining such machines as the "Dick Tracy Kopter Rod," the $25,000 "Pizza Wagon," the "Mummy Machine" and others that visit local shows much as star golf pros play exhibitions. A dozen of these exotic vehicles will be here.
"Time is the most important factor in preparing a show car," Raines said. "It may takes several years, and many do. You begin by completely rebuilding the vehicle. Fiberglass bodies are easier to work with than metal because metal shaping is almost a lost art.
Then, it is a matter of detailing. "Detail every piece, and keep improving it. That's what I think it takes."
Raines' 13 wins in 15 starts make him hard to argue with.
Hours for the World of Wheels at D.C. Armory: 5-11 p.m. Friday and noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $4 Friday and $4.50 Saturday and Sunday for adults, $1.50 all times for children.
Two hundred cars are entered in the competition, which has drawn more than 50,000 spectators each year in recent years. The show will be on two floors, one for cars and one for vans.