Harold A. Bagdasarian, a Sacramento entrepreneur, impresario and car buff who founded one of the premier shows for custom-made vehicles in the country, died Oct. 16 at 91.
Mr. Bagdasarian, who started in the cab business, was a showman with an enduring passion for automobiles. As president of the the Capitol City Auto Club, he persuaded members to put on an exhibition to settle friendly arguments over who had the most beautiful roadster. The contest drew 22 vehicles and fewer than 300 spectators to the Capitol Chevrolet auto dealership at 13th and K streets in 1950.
Tapping into the popular California car culture that grew after World War II, he promoted the show on his own and moved to bigger venues. Held since 1970 at Cal Expo, the Autorama became the West Coast’s biggest indoor custom-car and hot-rod show. Each year, tens of thousands of fans gather to marvel at hundreds of exotic cars, trucks, vans and motorcycles.
Besides vehicles from leading custom builders, the multiday event features popular cars from movies and TV shows and guest appearances by athletes, Hollywood entertainers and other celebrities.
“He had model cars for the kids, soap-opera stars for women, something for everybody,” his daughter Linda Winther said. “He wanted the show to be for the whole family, not just the guys.”
Mr. Bagdasarian was known nationwide as a car show promoter. He managed and had ownership interests in several major Northern California auto events, including the Grand National Oakland Roadster Show, World of Wheels in San Mateo and the San Jose Autorama. He promoted motorcycle races at Hughes Stadium, produced indoor midget car races at Cal Expo and organized hydroplane races at Folsom Lake.
He sold his interest in the Sacramento Autorama to local auto legend Don Tognotti in 1991. The event changed hands again and has been owned since 2005 by Southern California promoter John Buck.
Mr. Bagdasarian “was so important to the custom-car world,” Buck said. “The most important award at the Autorama is named after him – the H.A. Bagdasarian World’s Most Beautiful Custom Award. He really was a pioneer.”
Born in 1923 to Armenian immigrants in Fresno, Mr. Bagdasarian settled in Sacramento with his family in 1940. He worked in his parents’ grocery store on Second Avenue in Oak Park and served as a gunner aboard bombers in the Army Air Corps in World War II.
He started Capitol Cab Co. in 1947 and opened a five-minute car wash on L Street with his brother Elmer, Winther said. He founded a theatrical searchlight company, developed a battery-operated air freshener and started a business renting cellphones for business trips.
“If somebody came to him with a good idea for a business, he was interested,” his daughter said. “He knew a good thing when he saw it and said, ‘I can help you.’”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Bagdasarian is survived by his wife of 70 years, Willi; a son, Bud; a sister, Lucy Wheeler; two grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A service was held Oct. 24. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to any charity.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.