It’s Tuesday evening, and Bob Stephenson admits he should be sitting down to dinner with his wife and children. Instead, the entire family are sprawled out on lawn chairs staring at traffic from the side of Woodward Avenue. And they’ll likely be back every night the rest of the week.
They aren’t alone. From south of the Detroit city limits, all the way up to Pontiac, 20 miles to the north, Woodward Avenue has been lined with gawkers every night this week. As you might suspect, they’re not there to watch the normal procession of sedans and SUVs. Woodward Avenue is the heart of the Motor City. Dividing east and west, it’s one of Detroit’s busiest commuter and shopping corridors. But for one week each year, the eight-lane boulevard becomes Motown’s Memory Lane as the Woodward Dream Cruise shifts into gear.
Things were different back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, before “white flight” sent millions moving out to the suburbs. Woodward was dotted with drive-ins rather than strip malls, and late at night, long after their parents had gone to bed, the youth of Detroit would begin a ritual rite of passage. Forget Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, or LA’s Sunset Strip, “Woodward was without any doubt the premiere cruising street for anyone who had an interesting car to show off,” recalls Jim Wangers, the marketing genius behind the legendary Pontiac GTO, perhaps the most popular car ever to cruise Woodward Avenue.
By the late 1960s, cruising had started losing its appeal. The Vietnam War turned old against young. Woodward began getting busier as the suburbs sprawled, and the cops started cracking down—hard. The unsolved murder of a young runaway didn’t help the increasingly dark reputation cruisers were earning. And when the legendary Ted’s Diner ended its drive-up service in 1969, the phenomenon was effectively over.
But memories die hard. And a decade ago, a couple aging cruisers set up a car show in the blue-collar town of Ferndale, at the southern end of the strip, to recall the glory days of “Woodward-ing.” The turnout overwhelmed anyone’s expectations. And year after year, the Woodward Dream Cruise has steadily grown to become the largest event of its kind anywhere in the world.
It’s not difficult to understand why, says Gary Bedard, as he leans on his immaculately restored ’33 Ford Sedan Delivery Truck. “Anyone who’s real car-oriented is going to be here. You see cars you’ve never seen before. Some of them only come out once a year for the Dream Cruise.”
Local authorities estimate that the event will draw at least one million people to Woodward Avenue, the vast majority of them parking their cars, spreading out blankets or lawn chairs to watch upwards of 60,000 classic cruisers crawl down Woodward at a snail’s pace.
As the Cruise’s reputation grows, fans start coming from farther and farther away. Last year, a fan club from Australia came up from down under, bringing some of their cars with them.
Ned Holden didn’t travel quite so far, but he and some friends from the Do-Nothing Car Club in Georgetown, Tenn., wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Standing alongside Woodward mid-week, Holder’s eyes were wide. He’s driven the yearly cruise in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., “but it’s nothing like this. This has got to be ten times as big.” And it’s only Tuesday.
Officially, the event is scheduled for Saturday, August 18th, but the Woodward Dream Cruise has all the hallmarks of a popular uprising. It is anarchic, with no real formal structure and only a small organizing body. So over the past few years, the event has shifted and grown, amoeba-like. And it now begins, informally, a week early. As soon as rush hour winds down, the shape of traffic shifts. Take your late-model sedan out to go shopping, and you’re likely to find yourself surrounded by ‘60s muscle cars, ancient Model-Ts and lovingly crafted hot rods.
“If it’s got wheels, you’ll probably see it out here,” laughs Bill Chrouch, who’s sitting at the corner of 12 Mile Road and Woodward, sipping a beer and cheering on every car he likes. Drivers respond by doing burn-outs at the light for him. That’s one advantage of pre-Cruise cruising. Come Saturday, the traffic is far too dense, and so is the police presence. A phalanx of officers will descend, ticket books in hand, the moment a tire makes the slightest chirp.
“I’ve been here every night since last weekend, and I’ll be here the rest of the week,” Chrouch informs, “but I’m not so sure about Saturday. It gets a little too chaotic. It gets so crowded you can’t move. And it’s gotten too commercial.”
Indeed, a growing list of carmakers and other commercial interests have started seeking ways to tie into the Dream Cruise. A few days before the official event, DaimlerChrysler staged a news conference in the lot of Duggan’s Irish Café to announce the introduction of two new versions of the PT Cruiser.
The commercial side is something you have to put up with, another cruiser sighs. But that’s just the sideshow. The Dream Cruise is not about car companies, not car parts suppliers, gas companies, radio stations and others who see an easy marketing opportunity. It’s about the classic cars that filled the dreams of the young and the young-at-heart. It is the ultimate celebration of America’s love affair with the automobile.