Fresno auto show icon and hot rod legend Michael “Blackie” Gejeian, who celebrated his 90th birthday in June, died Friday, the Fresno County Coroner’s Office said.
Mr. Gejeian started the world-famous Fresno Autorama Show in 1958 and it came to be billed as one of the largest custom auto shows in North America. The annual event, held in winter or early spring, celebrated muscle cars, race cars, expensive cars and unique cars. Mr. Gejeian ran it for 51 years before health concerns forced him to retire the show.
Mr. Gejeian grew up on the farm in Easton, in the San Joaquin Valley, to which his family, survivors of the Armenian genocide, had immigrated decades before.
After high school, Mr. Gejeian enlisted in the Navy. He went to World War II as Mike Gejeian, came back and became “Blackie.”
He farmed the land his grandfather and father worked, while also learning to race on those dirt roads that helped him become a five-time NASCAR dirt track champion.
“When I came home from the war, I built a roadster, painted it black. We wore black leathers. Ever since, I was ‘Blackie.’ Nobody, nobody knew me by any other name,” he told The Bee in a 2008 interview.
“When I was a race car driver, I was really good in dirt, and it was because I remembered our fields and orchards,” he said.
Mr. Gejeian ran the Fresno Autorama Show for 51 years until health concerns forced him to stop.
It was that roadster that started it all for Mr. Gejeian. He built it in 1945 in his dad’s barn, but a crash cut the car in half; Mr. Gejeian was almost killed. He spent the next 10 years rebuilding the car, and in 1955 it was named World’s Most Beautiful Roadster by the Oakland Grand National Roadster Show.
His creativity flourished that year, also winning the coveted America’s Most Beautiful Roadster award with his ground-breaking 1927 Ford he called The Shish-Kebab Special, turning the vehicle on its side at car shows to display its fully-chromed undercarriage. It was the first show car of its kind.
In the years that followed, Mr. Gejeian created a full-custom roadster pickup named Ala Kart with friends George Barris and Richard Peters that went on to win hundreds of awards and was twice chosen America’s Most Beautiful Roadster by the Grand National Roadster Show.
He raced hardtops in the 1950s at Kearney Bowl, and produced races in Clovis, Madera and Raisin City from the early 1960s to mid-’80s. He was a promoter at Clovis Speedway, a half-mile clay track at what is now the Clovis Rodeo Grounds, for parts of two decades, until it closed in 1976.
At his 90th birthday party at the Fresno County Historical Museum at the fairgrounds, Fresno city leaders declared June 24 Michael “Blackie” Gejeian Day and Mr. Gejeian himself unveiled a bust in his likeness.
“This guy is iconic,” museum CEO John Alkire said.