13 Things Judges Look For At Car Shows

Whether you’re new to showing off your car in car shows or you’re a seasoned car show attendee, we can all agree that car shows are an enjoyable event to attend. Car shows have been a popular destination for many since the early 80’s and will probably continue to be for decades to come.

I’ve participated in many car shows myself, including organizing them, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me a common question: what do judges look for in cars at car shows? A lot of this depends on the type of car show you’re attending and how many cars are displayed at the event. But there are a few general rules that are common among judges throughout most car shows. So, what do judges look for at car shows? Car show judges look for the following:

  • Original Documents
  • Cleanliness
  • Photos
  • Poster With Unique Modifications/Additions Listed
  • What’s Under The Hood
  • Body Condition
  • Interior Condition
  • Originality
  • Unique Features
  • Continued Theme
  • Distracting Props and Decorations
  • Visibility
  • No Sweet Talking The Judge

Through my experience with car shows and interactions with associates who have also organized and judged car shows, I’ve been able to get a good idea of what judges look for when they’re choosing the winning car.

Original Documents

The majority of cars that are displayed at car shows are classic cars, or cars that are older than 25 or 30 years. People love seeing this because they feel like they’re being taken back in time a little bit while they gaze at a piece of history.

An important part of a car’s history is it’s documentation. Such original documentation may include original stickers, advertisements, and/or an owner’s manual. These types of documentation are rare because people initially didn’t find these papers important when they first bought the car and didn’t care to save them. Paper documentation is also difficult to keep clean since they degrade over time.

If you have any original advertisements for the car or the original owner’s manual, don’t hesitate to display those with your car. Judges love to see additional parts of a vehicle that most people don’t have. Judges especially love if you have original stickers with the car’s specific information that can be found on the dash or inside the door of the glove box. Those are especially rare to come by because people usually peeled those off over time.


Most people who display their cars at car shows take an effort to do a quick clean of their car. While this is a good habit, you’ll need to do a little more than that to really wow the judges. One of the first things judges look for while judging a car is it’s cleanliness.

The cleanliness of a car can really make a car stick out from all the others. So if you really want the judges to consider your car for the winning, you’ll need to really focus on the cleanliness of your car.

Take the time to detail everything in your car from the air vents to the door jams. If you’re uncomfortable with doing that, pay a professional to do it. Also take the time to wash and wax the body; a simple water and soap clean-over won’t do. Pay special attention to your tires and rims, the front grill, and the undercarriage. After you’ve parked your car at the show, do a quick look over and make sure you didn’t get any dirt or bugs anywhere on your way over to the show.


If you restored a classic car and plan to display it at a car show, bring any photos you have of the restoration. Spectators really enjoy seeing the process of restoration through pictures, especially when it’s done by the owner. Something about the transformation of a piece of history really sparks the interest of people.

The main reasons to bring photos, though, should be to impress the judges if you’re hoping to win a trophy. Photos are a great way to prove some aspects of your vehicle that are otherwise only proven through word of mouth. These aspects may include internal engine modifications, frame repair, floor panel cleanliness, etc.

Having such documentation will really spark the interest of judges. You can tell them anything you want about how cool your classic ride is, but they can only judge what they see. And if they can see pictures, that increases your chances of winning the prize.

Poster With Unique Modifications/Additions Listed

Alongside the photos, it’s always a good idea to have a poster made that states the unique modifications and additions you’ve done to your car. You can also state anything else that’s special about the car such as any movies it’s been in, anyone special who’s driven it, etc. This will add a little extra wow factor to your car that will draw people over to look at it.

Judges also look at these posters. These will be able to tell the judges more about your car than you probably would be able to yourself. This may entice judges to look at your car a little closer and maybe look at any photos you may have to prove what you’ve stated on the poster is true. Any positive uniqueness will increase your chances at winning the trophy.

Keep in mind that you should not lie on these posters or lie to judges in general. If they find out you’re lying, you will be disqualified from the competition and may be ineligible for judging in the future.

What’s Under The Hood

If you have something to show off under the hood, make sure the judges see it. Whatever is under the hood is kind of the heart and soul of the car, so it’s wise to make sure it’s displayed well for all to see.

Judges don’t necessarily look at how big of an engine you have or how souped up your engine is (though these are factors that could help). Judges mostly look for the cleanliness and organization of everything in the engine bay.

It will certainly pay off if you don’t have any cracked or brittle hoses; showing that you took the time to reroute the wires so they’re not easily seen is also a plus. Judges really like to see clean and shiny under the hood with minimal wires. Judges will also look to see if any chrome has been shined up and will notice the condition of the engine bay itself, whether it has dents, the paint job, paint lines, etc.

Body Condition

The condition of the body is probably the most obvious to spectators and judges alike. Taking good car of the body of your show-worthy car is an important component to winning any car show prizes.

The body condition of your car is what’s evaluated the harshest by judges. So if you did your own paint job in your garage or spray painted anything, chances are you probably won’t win this competition. DIYing in my book is always favorable unless you want to win car competitions. In that case, plan on a professional doing a lot of things for you.

Judges will look at everything including the quality of the paint job, the orange peel look, dents, runs, scratches, tape lines, etc. There’s a lot that can go wrong with the body of the car since it’s essentially the shell to the whole thing, so if you can keep in in pristine shape, that’s worth a trophy right there and judges recognize that.

Interior Condition

Keeping up with the body condition of your car is just as important as keeping up with the condition of the interior of your car. The interior of a car, especially a classic car, can really define the status of luxury.

Judges will look at the conditions of the seats and whether there are any tears and seam abnormalities, the condition of the fabric on the ceiling and whether it’s torn or stained, the condition of the carpet, as well as the condition of the steering wheel and the dashboard. It’s important the keep the interior clean while displaying your car at a car show. Don’t have any loose papers anywhere, straighten up the seat belts, and prevent any clutter.


If you have a classic car that is considered original, or has a lot of original components, then that is certainly something to show off and something judges will like to see.

Your classic car does not need to be original to win a car show, however if you’re at a tie with another car and you’re the one that has more original components, you’re more likely to win.

Originality is becoming more difficult to come by as times goes on for older cars. Parts will break because they’re old and people are sometimes left with no choice but to replace the part. But even a little bit of originality can go a long way for judges. Judges will be able to tell if something is original because they know cars pretty well, so don’t lie about your car being original when it’s not.

Unique Features

The definition of unique features can differ from person to person. However, when it comes to judging in a car show, uniqueness has pretty much one definition and it’s important you understand what a judge’s definition of unique means.

If you’ve put some crazy paint design or stickers on your car or put a huge lift on your pick up truck, in theory that is unique but not to the judge’s definition.

When judges look for unique features, they’re looking for things that not everyone can have or do to their cars. Such features may include rare features specific cars may have that you only see once in a life time. For example, there’s a certain grill that came on some early Broncos called an eyebrow grill. Only several hundred were produced and therefore considered rare. Their shape is unique and is easily detectable by the trained eye. If kept up well, a Bronco with this grill has a good chance at winning.

Another example may include owning a 1968 Shelby GT500 Fastback with the glove box door signed by Carroll Shelby himself (which I have seen). Judges highly rank unique features like this that can’t just be obtained by anyone.

Continued Theme

It’s okay to make your own changes and modifications to your car, but if it doesn’t match up with the rest of the car it can make it look a bit awkward. For example, if the new paint job you just got looks incredible, but doesn’t really match the interior, it’ll look like you have several different themes going on.

Car show judges look for a continued theme in a car. They rank cars high that have some modifications that add to the car’s look without sacrificing the theme of the car overall. As a rule of thumb, if any modification or additions you made to your car make it look awkward or out of proportion, don’t plan on winning any car show trophies.

Distracting Props and Decorations

Setting up props around your car during a car show is a great way to make it fun for spectators while they’re gazing at your beautiful vehicle. It can also be inviting and entice people to come look. However, it is possible to have too many decorations and props; some props are completely inappropriate that’ll make judges not even want to look at your car.

Any stickers, props, or pictures that are sexual, violent, or hateful in any way will automatically turn judges away. Those types of decorations and props are distracting and will draw attention away from your car. As a rule of thumb, only use props that are family friendly and that you know any parent would let their children see.


If you put yourself in the shoes of the judges, you can probably imagine that they would love easy accessibility and visibility to everything on your car with minimal effort. Judges love when you make things easier for them which can be a plus for you during the judging process.

The more visibility and accessibility you give the judges, the higher the chances you have of winning that trophy. There are a lot of ways you can do this that only takes a few minutes. First, try putting some mirrors underneath your car so the undercarriage is more visible and the judge doesn’t have to get down on their hands and knees. Open up the hood, windows, trunk, and even open up a door or two if they don’t get in the way too much.

Judges assume that if you don’t have anything open on your car, you don’t want them to see what’s behind it and they usually won’t bother to ask you to open them. Give yourself the best chances and let the judge easily see everything your car has to offer.

No Sweet Talking The Judge

One of the biggest pet peeves judges at car shows have is people lying about their cars and trying to persuade them to let their cars win. Most people who have entered a car in the car show has worked equally as hard on their car, so sweet talking a judge isn’t going to do much good for you.

I’ve heard past car show judges say people will often offer to pay for their lunch or offer to let them drive their car. They say it’s completely obvious that they’re trying to win them over. Though it is perfectly fine to discuss any questions the judge has about your car and be friendly with them, judges know when you try too hard and that will turn them off.

Related Questions

Do I need to bring anything to a car show? There are several things you can bring to a car show that’ll make your day run a lot smoother. Some things to bring are folding chairs, cleaning supplies, sun screen, cooler and drinks, and a canopy tent. For more information, click here.

What are some of the biggest car shows in the USA? There are thousands of car shows held every year in the United States. Some of the biggest ones include SEMA which is held in Las Vegas, Nevada, Cruisin’ the Coast which is held on the gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama, and the Iola Car Show in Wisconsin.

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