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Wangers: Daddy O' Dream Cruise


2001 Woodward Dream Cruise (8/16/2001)
Glory Days: When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit by Jim Wangers (8/20/1999)

Jim WangersGuess who's back in Motor City town for a visit this Dream Cruise week? A man who literally is a legend in his own time, former Pontiac promoter Jim Wangers.

While he certainly didn't invent "cruisin'" — a legacy of postwar teenagers freed from the Depression Era binds of their older brothers — nor did he invent today's Woodward Dream Cruise reenactment, Wangers is properly credited with putting Woodward cruising on the map.

In his book (see below) and at a swamped-with-Pontiac-fans session Tuesday night during Cruise Week at the Berkley (Mich.) Public Library, Wangers explained how it all came about.

"In effect, Pontiac created Woodward Avenue as the icon it's become," he said. "Every town, every city has a Woodward, the symbolic street-racing strip — but only Detroit has THE Woodward Avenue." He attributed this to three factors, first, Detroit is not just any city but rather Motor City, second, the enthusiast press and third, Pontiac Motor Division – thirsting for a comeback after near extinction — and its partnership with the local Royal Oak (Mich.) dealer, Ace Wilson's Royal Pontiac, which became the national source for Pontiac performance parts for a decade beginning in 1959.

Back in time

Actually, Yoostabees would observe, it goes back further than that. The opening line in Wangers' book reads: "From the time I was a kid, I was nuts about cars." After a stint in the Navy toward the end of WWII and armed with an English degree from Illinois Tech, Jim got a job with the Chicago Daily News as a copy boy, but soon moved into promotional writing with Esquire magazine. What he really wanted to do, however, was get into cars.

So he wangled a job with the Kaiser-Frazer ad agency and then moved on to Chevrolet's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, just in time for the fabulous — but unappreciated at the time — '55 Chevy V-8.

Hot rods and musclecars like the Pontiac GTO ruled Woodward in the 1960s.Over the next four years, he bootlegged performance events like NASCAR Speed Weeks, Pikes Peak Runs and drag strips through various makes before landing with MacManus John & Adams, the Pontiac ad agency, just in time for introduction of the first "Wide Track" for 1959. From there, Jim was Off to the Races, whether track, strip or Woodward. Not so coincidentally, the MJ&A office stood at the corner of Woodward and Long Lake, part way between the Pontiac Division offices on the north side of the city of Pontiac and the Royal dealership in Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb to the south.

Meanwhile, Bunkie Knudsen, son of a former General Motors president, had been assigned the task in 1956 of saving Pontiac in five years or killing it off. Even with its own first V-8 in '55, Pontiac was still a stodgy car with no particular personality. First Bunkie pulled the 20-year-old silver streaks and Indian chief symbols off the car, then began implementing its performance. This was perfect timing for enthusiast Jim Wangers.

The problem was, corporate GM — along with the rest of the industry — soon backed away from overt, sponsored racing and performance activities in the face of Congressional and elitist criticism. So Pontiac and some others had to go underground. The Royal Pontiac dealership was how Wangers wangled it for the Division. He even personally drove a Royal '60 Pontiac to a national drag-racing championship.

But with corporate "advertising cops" reviewing everything Pontiac Division promoted, a combination of hot products and stealth promotion was called for. This led to Pontiac's "invention" of the Muscle Car, embodied in the '64 Pontiac Tempest GTO ("Goat" he called it), a compact/midsize coupe powered with a big-block V-8.

Promotion involved working with enthusiast magazines — "buff books" Detroit called them — and then capitalizing on the magazine stories with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle support advertising. For example, Pontiac GTO advertising carried such themes as "There's a Tiger Loose in the Streets." The dealers and customers got the message — Pontiac was the hot car to have.

As far as Woodward is concerned, Wangers and Royal Pontiac encouraged the buff magazines to come watch the mid-60s cruisers out parading — and street-racing whenever the real cops weren't looking.

Ann Arbor parallel

A significant parallel development, according to Wangers, was the transformation of one key buff book by another automotive legend, David E. Davis Jr. Davis (alas, no relation) was a Chevrolet ad agency creative genius hired in the early 60s as editor of Sports Cars Illustrated. He quickly altered its focus from European sports cars to Detroit Iron, changed its name to Car and Driver, moved the editorial staff to Ann Arbor, the college town just west of Detroit, and reinvigorated its writing to near-literary quality along with his special insight on the Motor City.

The signal moment of national recognition for Woodward Cruising thus came in a 1967 Car and Driver article by Brock Yates, who averred in a major feature: "Woodward Avenue is the street racing capital of America."

The key Pontiac advertisement, snuck past watchful but naive corporate eyes, was a spread in the buffs showing a '68 GTO in a Woodward turn-around, the caption merely suggesting that the readers knew what was going on. Sort of silent King of the Hill.

So between enthusiast magazine articles and subtle advertising, all under Wangers' clever guidance, the world reputation of Woodward was established more than 30 years ago.

Wangers' efforts, along with those of Knudsen and his successors as division heads, Pete Estes and John DeLorean, also helped raise Pontiac sales levels from 217,000 in 1958 to 900,000 in 1969.

Yoostabees can highly recommend Wangers' memoir, Glory Days: When Horsepower and Passion Ruled Detroit, published in 1998 by Robert Bentley, Inc. A great read, it costs about $25 and can be accessed through the publisher's website, www.rb.com.

 
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