'03 Dream Cruise Short Circuited

August 18, 2003

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise Index by TCC Team (8/18/2003)
Since its modest beginning just nine years ago, the now famous Woodward Dream Cruise (WDC) had never been dampened by serious rain. Nor had it suffered a complete electrical blackout along its storied sixteen-mile route through the suburbs of Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, Ferndale, Huntington Woods, Pleasant Ridge, and Royal Oak, Mich., that link Detroit to Pontiac.

WDC ’03 would be the exception. And for home-grown enthusiasts like us, the impact of the blackout created a Dream Cruise memory we’ll not soon forget. No matter how hard we might try.

Secret agenda

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise

Our agenda the last four years has been to park our ’67 Corvette in one of 50 spots in downtown Birmingham reserved by the Michigan Chapter of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS). For this fine group, it’s their annual picnic. For us, it’s one good reason to belong, though we’re too busy and live too far away to participate in other club activities.

We deliver our share of the food, meet and greet a few NCRS folks, then set off walking to see what we can see. As car-nut kids in the ’60s, we cruised this famous strip, munched burgers and fries, flirted and socialized, and cruised up the road to the next drive-in. Some (including Detroit “factory” engineers) used the eight-lane avenue for impromptu contests of horsepower and nerve between the lights. Others set up lawn chairs and watched.

These days, most of those with cruise-worthy cars divide their time between showing them off and watching the massive rolling car show to take in as much of it as possible. We tried cruising once but now prefer walking — at least on WDC Saturdays — because those lights remain functional, traffic typically creeps a few feet at a time, clutch legs begin to cramp, and coolant temperatures elevate in the mid-August heat, sometimes beyond containment.

Woodward has grown to an eagerly anticipated auto enthusiast orgy attracting some 40,000 collectible cars and trucks and 1.7 million people, according to organizers. Its financial impact is said to be north of $127 million, based on each of those 1.7 million averaging $75 over WDC week, which begins on the previous Sunday and accelerates to the Saturday finale.

If that holds true, a couple of others must have spent $150 apiece to counter our day of fabulous freeloading.

Blackout 2003

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise

This year’s event was severely challenged by the record blackout that pitched much of the northeast U.S. into darkness and TV/air conditioning withdrawal on the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 14. Cruise activities were canceled that night and cut back on Friday, since Detroit and its northwestern ’burbs remained dark throughout that day.

Turning in that evening, most didn’t know what Saturday would bring. Thankfully, power was restored to most of the area between Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. While the crowd seemed somewhat thinner (not necessarily a bad thing), Saturday’s cruise came off pretty much as usual.

Following a mile of walking, sweating and spectating in the humid heat, and armed with guest credentials, we stopped at the Athens Coney Island GM WDC headquarters. Inside the air-conditioned diner, we scarfed down a burger, fries, and Coke...just like the old days, except the average age was older, the Coke was Diet and the food and drink were complimentary.

Displayed there for public gawking was an eclectic collection of GM show cars and concepts, past and present, including all three jet-propelled Firebird “Dream Cars” from the Harley Earl era, a slammed and customized Pontiac Aztek (which actually looked pretty good) and the Chevy SSR Signature Series #1, which bears the autographs of GM chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner, GM North America chairman Bob Lutz and president Gary Cowger and soon-to-retire Design vice president Wayne Cherry.

The identical SSR #2, donated to the SAE Foundation, raised $137,850 in a May 5 auction on eBay, and the other 23 hand-built and highly collectible Signature Series SSRs are touring races, art fairs, and rock concerts and will go to a variety of auctions later this year.

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise

2003 Woodward Dream Cruise

Just then, GM chief exec Rick Wagoner, grinning broadly, drove up in another spit-shined Ultra Violet SSR. Turned out it was his very own, the first regular production unit, which had been spiffed and delivered just the day before. It bore a Signature-Series-style plaque, signed by his three sons, saying “Happy 50th Birthday.”

Wagoner had fallen for the SSR the first time he saw it as a foam model in 1999, had announced that GM would build it long before the designers and engineers knew how to viably do that and had driven the purple/blue concept in WDC ’00. He cruised a yellow production-intent SSR in ’01 and a red pre-production unit in ’02. Now, with production ramping up at the Lansing, MI, Craft Centre, he was proudly cruising his own SSR.

While driving the yellow one at WDC ’01, he says, a spectator had yelled: “Nice car, but you’ll never build it!” This year, he laughs, the only taunt he heard was, “When can I get mine?”

A nice couple from Connecticut, taking in WDC for their first time, asked if that tall man with the SSR was Jon Moss. No, we said, that’s Rick Wagoner, GM’s top exec. “Oh,” they said. “We talked to Jon on the phone the other day. He said he was tall.”

Back to chaos, please

We walked past the park where WDC sponsor Eaton Corp. was entertaining hundreds of employees and customers and knew a group of musically talented fellow journos was playing inside. They had invited us to stop by and see them. But, alas, no Eaton credentials.

We crossed Woodward’s four southbound lanes and walked along the grassy median. A Royal Oak cop car approached from behind, honked and hollered at us: “No walking on the median!” Really, why? Crossing the other four lanes to the other side would seem more risky. “We need to keep the median open for us in case there’s an emergency...which there always seems to be,” another cop later explained. “We don’t need spectators in the way.” Okay.

Heading back north, we saw the sky over Birmingham turning dark. The predicted rain was about to arrive. We rushed back to our car, fired it up and, against my wife’s excellent advice, joined cruise traffic heading south. It was 3:00 p.m., the crowd had seemed to be down all day from the usual impenetrable throng, and traffic had actually appeared to be moving.

But it didn’t move much once we joined it. Then the rains came, encouraging those with convertible tops to put them up. Ours is not entirely watertight. We decided to call it a cruise and diverted to a side street...which was closed. We following a narrow alley and eventually rejoined Woodward just in time to turn west on 14 Mile Rd. and head for the freeway.

Once on the Interstate, we encountered one massive lightning strike and a curtain of rain so heavy it had folks pulling over for lack of visibility. Meanwhile, back on Woodward, the official radio station reported that the rain had stopped, the weather was lovely and the cruise was continuing. Also that they’d never seen rain in the eight years they’d covered the WDC.

Trying a different station, we heard reports that a severe storm, with 70-mph winds and the potential of one-inch hailstones, was fifteen minutes away from Royal Oak. We were hoping it didn’t blow away peoples’ tents and umbrellas and damage a lot of lovingly finished cars.

Apparently, luckily, it didn’t. Here’s hoping everything returns to carefully controlled chaos for 2004.

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