August 20, 2004
'04 Woodward Dream Cruise Gallery I
'04 Woodward Dream Cruise Gallery II
They called it cruising. And in the '50s and '60s, it was one of the favorite pastimes of American youth. It was an era of innocence and high octane gasoline, fast cars and poodle skirts, burgers and “hole shots.” In Pasadena , the “in crowd” cruised Colorado Boulevard . In Los Angeles , it was the Sunset Strip. Yet no place had the action found in the northernsuburbs of Detroit, where the hot strip was Woodward Avenue. There were muscle cars everywhere, plenty of girls, and more than 40 diners and burger joints along the 16-mile stretch from Detroit to Pontiac.
“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 original Pontiac GTO, perhaps the most popular car to cruise Woodward Avenue during that golden era.
In that years before drugs and the Vietnam War divided America, Woodward Avenue was a magnet, much like San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury would become later in the decade. It made the pages of Esquire magazine and the cover of Life magazine. It was a subject of a special report on CBS News. And it inspired a generation of street racers from New York to Los Angeles.
\“If you had five bucks you were rich. That was enough to buy a tank of gas and some hamburgers,” recalls Bill Stedman, who used to cruise the strip in its heydays. Stedman will be one of an estimated 1.5 million people, young and old, who will be cruising “the boulevard” on Saturday, celebrating the 10th Woodward Dream Cruise.
Appropriately anarchic in nature, the Cruise has grown out of a small, classic car show in the suburb of Ferndale , and every year, it just keeps getting bigger. Anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 classic muscle cars, hot rods and specialty cars will turn out for the event, and if past years are any indication, fans will be lining up ten-deep for a view of the action.
Caron Hall will be one of them. Thirty years ago, she’d go “woodwarding” in her father’s '66 Mustang, the radio blaring the Beach Boys, Fats Domino, and Detroit ’s own Motown bands. Thinking back to those days, her eyes grow wistful until she remembers that little accident that “even now my parents don’t know about.” Too scared to tell, she took he mangled machine to a friend’s body shop, “and I made payments for the next three years.”
Hall and the folks she cruised with are a good bit older now, and more than a few plan to be out there for the 10th anniversary cruise with their children and grandchildren. But they put as much passion into their cars today as they did the Mustangs, GTOs, and Challengers they would race down Woodward 30 and 40 years ago.
Rich Bellamo has put at least $21,000 into the '36 Dodge Coupe he christened “Whammer Jammer,” in flared script along its bustle-back trunk. And he admits he’s not done working on it. For Bellamo, it’s still like the old days, there’s always a faster car to beat. Back in 1956, he would clock as much as 363 miles a night running up and down the Woodward Ave. circuit. “One morning, my mother asked me where I’d gone, and I told her I went out for pizza. But she had looked at the odometer. ‘Where’s you get it,’ she asked, ‘Chicago?’”
Like Bellamo, most of the Dream Cruisers come from Detroit, but others have flown in from as far away as Germany, Guam, even Australia . Doris Brookings and her husband routinely drive the 13 hours from their home in Chatfield, Minnesota , to revisit the place where they first met. On the other hand, Brad Levelle, a self-styled “’50s kind of guy,” wasn’t even a gleam in his Daddy’s eye when the ’56 Chevy Bel Air he cruises first rolled off the assembly line.
This year’s Dream Cruise comes at a time when U.S. gasoline prices are soaring to record levels. It was the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, which quadrupled fuel prices and created long lines at the pump, that put the brakes on the original cruising phenomenon. It just wasn’t the same racing Woodward in a Volkswagen Beetle. But cruising was already an endangered activity. With the Vietnam War raging and the protest movement in full swing, suburban America came to fear its children, and a special state police task force was formed to crack down on drag racing and hot rodding.
Just being young and having long hair was enough to get you a ticket, recalls Wangers. “It’s ironic that the very thing they were so critical of then, they’re eulogizing now.”
Like rock n' roll, cruising has gone mainstream. Not that Detroit ’s Big Three automakers mind. Long before the Internet gave us the concept of “viral marketing, manufacturers like General Motors were taking their new products to Woodward, hoping to build a buzz. This year, the carmakers will be back in full force. Ford will have a huge display of products, centering around its classic muscle car, the Mustang.
On Friday afternoon, GM CEO Rick Wagoner led a parade of cars from the company’s downtown Detroit headquarters to the Athens Coney Island, a Woodward diner that will serve as its Cruise-route HQ. The procession included the 2005 version of the Chevrolet SSR, with a new 6.0-liter engine, as well as a one-off "Dream Cruise Edition" of the Pontiac GTO.
Despite the run-up in gasoline prices, the auto industry is in the grips of another horsepower war. As many as two dozen vehicles now produce more than 500 horsepower. Even the Honda Odyssey minivan makes more muscle than the Mustang GT of the post-oil crisis days.
So why has the new “Goat” scored so poorly? Critics content its soft, jellybean styling has little in common with the edgy GTO sheet metal of the '70s. The Dream Cruise Edition boasts a new 575-hp V-8, as well as styling more in line with the car that cruised Woodward past. There’ll be little opportunity to burn rubber over the weekend, but GM officials are hoping to recreate some of the magic that helped turn the original GTO into the car to beat on Woodward Ave.