It takes a lot to grab our attention in this overstimulated world. You Auto Know: Ideas That Move Us, our drivetastic new editorial series sponsored by Autotrader, celebrates those fun and fascinating stories worth stopping for.
At suburban Detroit’s annual Woodward Dream Cruise, a million car buffs and spectators alike gather to celebrate the intoxicating nostalgia of the thump-thump-thump of a grumbling, American-made big block V8. Welcome to the Motor City.
Cars have been a part of Detroit’s history since Henry Ford revolutionized the industry in the early 20th Century. But the city’s reputation as the car capital of world was solidified in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Detroit automakers began adding race-quality engines to street-legal production models in order to satisfy customers’ rapacious lust for horsepower. Prosperous post-WWII suburban Detroit saw restless teenagers with access to that very influx of powerful automobiles, many with a desire to test their whip’s mettle in high-octane street races. Others simply enjoyed cruising around town as a stimulating antidote to the monotony of young suburban life.
And in those days, there was one place every Detroiter wanted to cruise: Woodward Avenue.
“In its heyday Woodward attracted racers from all parts of the city, Ohio, and even Canada,” Robert Genat recalls in his nostalgic tome, Woodward Avenue: Cruising the Legendary Strip. Although many of the various Detroit suburbs had their own cruising areas, Genat writes, “making a trip to Woodward to see what was on the street and possibly catch a race or two would become an annual pilgrimage for many Detroiters who lived in outlying suburbs.”
Drive-ins, such as the legendary Totem Pole, sprung up along Woodward, catering to youthful cruisers and their auto-centered socializing. Other restaurants along the Avenue, like landmarks Chick’n Chips by Susie-Q and Big Boy, also catered to the adolescent crowd and became established rendezvous points in the days long before group texts.
“We would all go down Woodward and hang out, maybe even road race,” Jim Larson, a member of the Michigan Wide Trackers car club who now owns a 1969 Chevelle SS 396, recalls. “You just went when you wanted to go, no particular day of the week, no particular time.”
Fueled by nostalgia—and also as a fundraiser for a local soccer field—the first Woodward Dream Cruise was held in 1995 and was an equally DIY endeavor. “They had no clue how big this was going to become,” Larson, who has attended every year since the Dream Cruise’s inception, laughs. “You could park your car anywhere in Royal Oak for free.” Now, many businesses along Woodward charge a premium for their parking spots. Within the first few years, the event exploded in popularity, growing exponentially, and eventually peaking at around a million annual attendees.
“This event means so much to so many people because it’s about memory,” Woodward Dream Cruise Executive Director Tony Michaels says. Fittingly, Michaels served as CEO of Elias Brothers Restaurants, which owned the local chain of cruising restaurant staples, Big Boy, until 2008 when he took on his role with the Dream Cruise. Officially, the Cruise runs along Woodward from the cities of Pontiac to Ferndale from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. the third Saturday of August. But many cruisers, some of whom come into town from as far away as California, make a week-long event of it, crisscrossing the city in their ’57 Chevy’s and ’69 GTOs.
“A lot of the car shows you go to you see the motors sticking up out of the hood and they don’t even run,” says Grand Rapids Street Racers Association President Daniel Jackson, who pilots a 1971 Boss 351 Mustang. But at the Woodward Dream Cruise, actually driving the cars down Woodward is the major focal point. “People can see them, they can hear them, they can smell them, they can feel them,” Jackson says.
For Greg Rassell, President of the Woodward Dream Cruise and Head of Public Works for the city of Royal Oak, the variety of cars on Woodward is the biggest draw. “The dream cruise on that Saturday is a living museum,” he says. “You will see anything and everything that could possibly be motorized on wheels.”
“There’s car shows and there’s car cruises, but this is the grand-daddy of them all,” Michaels beams.
The Dream Cruise is also an enormous financial boom for the 10 suburban Detroit cities the cruise passes through. By some estimates it brings in the economic equivalent of a Super Bowl to the area each summer. Until recently, the host cities covered the cost of increased traffic enforcement, and other services like trash removal and facilities management. But the addition of sponsors and, this year, the Cruise in Shoes 5K run/walk, has meant that the Dream Cruise has been able to reimburse a significant portion of the cities’ costs.
“Woodward has a rich history that got revitalized through the Woodward Dream Cruise,” Jeff Grice, President of the Great Lakes Cobras car club, says. “People like reliving their youth,” Grice, who drives a ’65 Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe, adds.
For many, the Dream Cruise’s success is due to its wholesome nature; a slice of old-school Americana made new again—less ironic than barber shops and lumberjacks—and with burnouts.
Photo Provided by Creative Commons