Old friends are a lot like old cars. Even if you don’t get to see them every day, spending time together can still be a blast. Take my pal Norm, for example. The two of us spent our teenage years drooling over hot rod magazines and tearing around the Cleveland suburbs in his Mom’s butter-yellow 1968 Impala coupe. And though we haven’t shared the same zip code for decades, our mutual enthusiasm for cool cars still keeps us connected. So when the folks at GM invited me to attend Detroit’s 12th annual Woodward Dream Cruise, Norm was the one guy I had to call.
By Alan Rider
Photo credit: Photographer
Too Much Fun
While the Woodward Dream Cruise officially takes place on a single Saturday in August, the build-up to this eagerly awaited event goes on for weeks. Norm and I showed up Friday afternoon, picked up the keys to a Corvette LS2-powered ’55 Chevy coupe from the GM Heritage Collection, and headed out to cruise the 16 miles of Woodward Avenue that play host to the event. Smoking the tires as we pulled away from a stoplight, we were having way more fun than any two car guys should be allowed to have. Only later did we find out that burnouts are a big no-no with the local gendarmes. Oops.
After we returned the keys to our ’55 Chevy, Norm and I took our place at the curb to watch the Friday night warm-up for Saturday’s Dream Cruise get underway. As we sat there transfixed by the endless stream of pristine muscle cars, customs and classics, we couldn’t escape the feeling that somebody had flung open the doors to the world’s coolest auto museum. Add the occasional old-school hot rod and the event takes on a time-warp quality that transports cruisers and spectators alike back to the time when cruising Woodward Avenue was as much a part of the Motor City as America’s Big Three automakers themselves.
Keepin’ it Local
The Woodward Dream Cruise bills itself as the largest one-day automotive spectacle in the world and, based on our experience, we wouldn’t doubt it for a second. Organizers of the event, which officially runs from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, say it annually draws more than 40,000 custom and classic cars. Norm and I lost count somewhere around 10,000. What impressed us most however – other than the sheer variety of interesting vehicles rolling by – is that the majority of these cars wore Michigan plates. Now we know where all the cool old cars have gone to live.
While not every car was a concours d’elegance-quality show-stopper, the 18 hours we spent on our little Royal Oak, Mich., street corner were seldom dull. In fact, at the peak of the event we found it hard to take our eyes off the street for fear we’d miss something really interesting. Like this beat-up old Caddy, for instance. What it lacked in polish it made up for in creativity, having been covered from nose to tailfins in badges lifted from other cars, plus pennies, crowns, and whatever trinkets its owner seemed to take a shine to.
As Norm and I returned to our street corner Saturday morning, we were surprised by the number of kids we found digging the cruising scene from lawn chairs on the sidewalk or from the comfort of their own back seat, like the Armeni boys shown here in their dad’s 1941 Mercury ragtop. Dream Cruise organizers and local police go to great lengths to help ensure the event stays family-friendly by banning alcohol consumption outside of licensed establishments and cracking down on wild behavior both on the street and off. The result is an annual event that we’re quite certain helps create life-long car nuts.
If you wonder what possesses custom and classic car owners to cruise Woodward Avenue all day sucking down exhaust fumes while inching along in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the answer is simple – there are few places in the world where they’ll find a more appreciative audience. In fact, all along the route you’ll hear spectators calling out, “Hey, nice car!” or “I used to have one of those!” And when you stop to consider the countless hours and thousands of dollars these folks have tied up in their gorgeous four-wheeled obsessions, we suspect this enthusiastic feedback somehow makes it all seem worth it.
A full roll cage, blown engine, huge cheater slicks, wheelie bars and a drag chute make it clear this is no ordinary hot rod. This beautiful 1940 Willys coupe, powered by a supercharged 509 cubic inch Chevy V-8, was just one example of the many barely street legal race cars we saw at the Dream Cruise. Though we spotted it parked on the curb, it’s owner told us he’d been out cruising Woodward all day in a car capable of running an 8.4-second quarter-mile. When he fired it up for us, it was like we’d died and gone to horsepower heaven!
Of course, the quest to wring every last bit of performance out of a vehicle isn’t just limited to cars and trucks. This guy just couldn’t resist giving the assembled crowd a little taste of what he had under the hood of his golf cart. Of course, we feel obliged to note that wheelies, burnouts, and similar demonstrations can land you a costly ticket and add several points to your license. Truly over-the-top displays can get you hauled off in the back of a squad car while your vehicle finishes the cruise route on the back of a tow truck.
Hate to say we told you so but, well, we did. A simple burnout earned this gentleman a rather expensive souvenir from one of Royal Oak, Michigan’s finest who have a zero-tolerance policy for such shenanigans. And just because you’re walking doesn’t mean you’re safe from the long arm of the law. We saw Royal Oak cops bust several people for jaywalking (not crossing Woodward at a designated crosswalk) and open container alcohol violations. Forewarned is forearmed, eh? Locals tell us officers from other municipalities may cut cruisers and pedestrians a little more slack, but we suggest you don’t push your luck.
Seeing as how this is the Motor City, it should come as no surprise that most of the cars making their way down Woodward were born in the good ol’ U.S. of A. Most, but not all. This funky BMW Isetta is just one example of an unexpectedly large assortment of foreign brands that ran the gamut from Messerschmitt to Fiat to Rolls Royce. And it’s precisely this seemingly endless variety that gives the Dream Cruise its real appeal. We heard someone compare it to Midwest weather – if you don’t like what you’re looking at, give it a minute and it’ll change.
Speaking of Midwest weather, Norm and I caught a break with Saturday’s relatively cool temperatures and low humidity. Such ideal climatic conditions are the exception rather than the rule for the Dream Cruise, however, as August in Detroit can give new meaning to the word “muggy.” While this young lady is able to take advantage of natural air conditioning in her wrought-iron VW, the rest of us need to rely on more conventional ways to keep cool including packing a hat, sunscreen, and a cooler full of water or soft drinks (remember what we said about this being an alcohol-free event).
Anything Is Possible
What will you see at the Woodward Dream Cruise? It’d probably be easier to answer the question, “What won’t you see?” Come to think of it, that’s not all that easy to answer either because we walked away from our first Dream Cruise experience convinced that, if you hang out long enough and keep your eyes open, you’ll see one of everything rolling down Woodward. Like this minibike chopper with the custom flamed paint job, for example. The best part was that it was hard to tell which one of these easy riders was having more fun here, father or son.
Because They Could
Sprinkled in with the muscle cars and hot rods you’re also sure to see any number of vehicles that make you go “Huh?” This hot-rodded Chevette was just one of several souped-up ugly ducklings we spotted, including an AMC Gremlin, Dodge Colt, and the best-forgotten Ford Mustang II. While the money and attention lavished on these cars shows their owners are obviously passionate about them, sometimes you just have to wonder, “What the heck were they thinking?” Or as one veteran Dream Cruise observer we talked to put it “The 1970s called and they want their piece of s%!t back.”
While we’ve already pointed out that Dream Cruise spectators can be a truly appreciative bunch, they can also be – in the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield – “Ooh, a tough crowd.” And just throwing big wads of money around isn’t necessarily going to get their attention, as the guy who brought this exceedingly rare Ferrari Enzo discovered. “No matter what kind of car you drive, you come out here and it’s kind of humbling,” says one Royal Oak resident and long-time Dream Cruise watcher. “A rich guy pays $1.2 million for a car like that and here nobody even gives it a second look.”
If It Has Wheels…
Now, normally, we prefer to leave our bar stools at home. But not these guys, who’ve mounted theirs on a couple of modified go-kart chassis. But these were by no means the only one-off vehicles we spotted cruising down Woodward. From the moped with a plastic rocking horse for a seat to the motorized ice chest, our day at the Dream Cruise made it clear that anything with wheels is fair game for customizing. Which brings us to our number one tip for spectators: Bring a camera and plenty of film or memory cards, because without pictures the folks back home are never gonna believe you.
So far we’ve focused on the show passing by on Woodward. But if you can tear yourself away from the curb long enough to walk down the street a few blocks, you’re likely to discover all kinds of other amusements ranging from Elvis impersonators to race car simulators. We found out about this little contest, dubbed The Pit Crew Challenge, when we spotted a man walking down the sidewalk carrying a genuine NASCAR-issue racing slick. To take home this ultimate bit of swag, competitors had to change the tire on this stock car mock-up in less than 20 seconds.
For most of Saturday, we left our car parked because we found we could walk faster than the traffic was moving. Which leads us to our second-most important Dream Cruise tip: Wear good walking shoes. When your tired feet finally do complain, the free shuttle buses that run up and down Woodward all day are the way to go. But, for some folks, they’re more than just a good alternative to hoofing it. As we chatted up this small family, Mom explained, “The kids wanted to ride the bus because it’s our chance to actually be in the Woodward Dream Cruise!”
The Going Gets
Maybe breathing all those exhaust fumes made us a little goofy. Or maybe our burning, watering eyes were playing tricks on us. But both Norm and I were certain we’d seen this little green guy somewhere before. Only his boney fingers were holding some kind of…probe. Those flashbacks aside, things do begin to get a little weirder and wilder as the afternoon wears on. While everyone starts the day on their best behavior, by late afternoon crowds of hooting and hollering spectators begin egging drivers on to do burnouts in a scene we imagine isn’t very far removed from cruising Woodward in its heyday.
As darkness falls, large numbers of police officers and sheriff’s deputies prepare to shut Woodward Avenue down for the night with an impressive show of force. While The Man is preoccupied, however, we’re told that spectators have been known to throw buckets of water or bleach onto the roadway. The result is pretty much what you’d expect: Humongous tire-smoking burnouts and much whooping from fans of all ages. While these antics are so thoroughly illegal participants risk getting hauled off to the pokey, locals tell us they’re a long-standing tradition that puts an exclamation point on the whole Woodward Dream Cruise experience.