Think of it as a rolling time capsule, a way to turn the clock back to another era when the term "cruising" had nothing to do with the Internet. Indeed, there wasn't an Internet, and not that many superhighways. In Detroit, long before they cut the jagged scar that became Interstate 75, there was Woodward Avenue.
It started out as an Indian trail, and over time evolved into a broad, eight-lane boulevard stretching 26 miles out to the then-distant suburb of Pontiac. By day, the long, straight tarmac belonged to the commuters. But at night, especially during the lazy, innocent summers of the '50s and '60s, Woodward's personality changed into something quite different, something you'd expect in the city that had put America on wheels.
"A culture was built around the car and part of that culture was cruising. You'd get your wheels and your girlfriend and go out there, sometimes driving, sometimes racing, and always showing your car off," recalls Jim Wangers. He should know, he not only used to cruise Woodward, but as General Motors' resident marketing genius, he helped create the muscle car phenomenon.
Detroit, of course, wasn't the only place where kids cruised at night. The car culture of California was captured in the early George Lucas film, "American Graffiti," and just about every city in the country had a place where the kids would go cruising. But there was something unique about Detroit; not surprising, of course, when you consider that Chrysler anchored one end of the strip, and Pontiac the other.
It wasn't uncommon for the automakers to take their top-secret designs "and send them out to Woodward to see what they could do," notes Ed Lucas, an automotive historian and long-time cruiser.
The cruising phenomenon started to fade during the turbulent late '60s, as the suburbs started to develop, and youngsters took to the street to protest, rather than play. The cops started cracking down, then the oil crisis struck, and Baby Boomers traded their big muscle cars in for cramped Beetles and Pintos.
But in 1994, Detroiter Nelson House thought it was time to revive those long-lost days, and as part of an effort to raise money for a children's soccer field, he and some friends launched the Woodward Dream Cruise. It began as a somewhat anarchic event. There was no real schedule, just a day when everyone with an old hot rod, classic cruiser or muscle car was invited to drive the Woodward strip. The idea struck a responsive chord, and last year, more than a million people showed up to cruise, or simply sit on the sidelines watching the procession go by.
Each year, the event gets bigger, and the cruisers come from farther and farther away. This year, the prize has to go to the members of the Australian GTO club who shipped their cars up from down under to join the estimated 70,000 rods and cruisers plying the "official" 16-mile route from Detroit's north side to downtown Pontiac. Add in the everyday sedans, minivans and SUVs that come along for the ride, and it's a lot more like crawling than cruising. But it doesn't really matter, for the Woodward Dream Cruise provides a chance to relive a different era -- a time of innocence lost.